In a letter written by Zachary Macaulay, dated 6th April 1815, addressed to Lord Hobart, then one of British Government’s Principal Secretary’s of State, on the subject regarding the means of establishing commercial intercourse between the Western coast of Africa and the river Niger, Macaulay identifies the source of the river Niger at a place called Sankari, in the Guinea Highlands, a place that the British had not yet been able to access because of the un-navigable waters of the Niger. Sankaran still exists on the map of Guinea today.

Zachary Macaulay was a statistician, one of the founders of London University and of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, an antislavery activist, and Governor of Sierra Leone (from 1794 to 1799), the British colony for freed slaves.

Macaulay states in this letter, “… the direct distance from Cape Mesurado to Sankari, the supposed source of the Niger, is about 300 miles. If the River Mesurado be really navigable by boats to the extent which is commonly reported, it would considerably diminish that distance, but it is to be observed that there is perhaps no part of Africa less known that which lies between Cape Mesurado and Sankari..” The coordinates of Sankari were given roughly at 10° N, 6° W in the records of the time. Today, a place by the name Sankarama exists near the source of the Niger at 9.10N  10W.

He then speaks of the River Sierra Leone and states, “… The only channel of communication which remains to be particularly considered, is the river Sierra Leone. This river is navigable about 50 miles above the company’s settlement to a place called Port Logo. The distance from Port Logo to Teembo is about 120 miles and from Teembo to Sankari, the supposed source of the Niger, about 250: in all about 370 miles.”

The town of Sankari, sometimes referred to as Sankara, was also referred to by another British explorer, Major Dixon Denham (1786-1828) who wrote in his ‘Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa’, “Before sunrise the tents were struck and we were in motion… Barca Gana who commanded the sheikh’s people …. was a native of a town called Sankara.” He further adds, ” … As I have before said the morning of the 18th saw me riding by the side of Barca Gana, in full march for Mandara….”.

So we have Shiva’s other name, Sankara, as the name of the source of one of the largest rivers of Africa, close to a place called Mandara which happens to be a 200 km mountain range extending from the coordinate 9.3°N 12.8° to (11.0°N 13.9°E. (The source of Niger is today placed at 9.5° N, 10° W, not too far from Sankari.)

The Sanskrit link to the names Niger and Nigeria were already discussed in a previous post the gist of which is posted here. In his writings, Ptolemy (90-168 AD), a Greco-Egyptian writer, mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet mentioned two rivers in the desert of NIger, one by the name ‘Gir’ and farther south, the ‘Ni-Gir’. Roman historian, Suetonius (69-122 AD) wrote that the name ‘gir’ originates from ‘gher’, which in the Bereber language, spoken in Morocco and Algeria, means ‘watercourse’.

But it is obvious that the word ‘gir’ or ‘gher’ are both distortions of the same Sanskrit word that appears in the names of many rivers and water-bodies around the word. The word is ‘jhara’ (झर), and appears in the names of the river ‘Jordon’ in the country by the same name, the ‘Jari’ which is the northern tributary of the River Amazon, River Jara in Melbourne, the Jara River (a tributary of the Susita River) in Romania, and Lake Jara in New Mexico – not to mention many more in India and Nepal. In Sanskrit the word ‘jhara’ (झर) is a ‘waterfall’ or any ‘water body’, and ‘jhari’ (झरी) means ‘river’.

One of the ancient names of Niger is ‘Joliba’ which it is said translates as the great river, ba meaning great in the local tradition, and ‘joli’ means ‘river; but then ‘joli’ is the same as the Sanskrit ‘jala’ (जल) meaning ‘water’. It may be stated here that one of the ancient names of Volga was ‘Jilaga’. Here too the ‘jila’ may be a distortion of ‘jala’. For more about the Volga click here.

In his book Oriental Fragments, Edward Moor (1771-1848) lists the names of rivers and towns that many European explorers had mentioned in their travelogues about Africa. The names include Jonakakonda, Tendikonda, Kootakunda, Barraconda, Seesekund, Tandacunda, Fatteconda and Mauraconda and many many more. He then identifies and equates them with towns bearing the same names in southern parts of India. To read more about these names click here.

Of these names Edward Moor says, “With a little of this license, and it may be and is allowed to others, as well as to distressed etymologists, let us try to turn Park’s names into Hindi. Jonakakonda is Janeka-kunda or the hill of Janeka..”. There are many such examples including Kootakunda. The Sanskrit ‘kUta’ (कूट) means ‘dwelling’ or a fort, ‘kuta’ (कुट) means ‘mountain’. ‘Kunda’ is Sanskrit for ‘pool’ and Telegu for ‘mountain’. ‘Khanda’ (खण्ड) means ‘part’ or ‘section’ or ‘piece’.

He adds, “Now let me ask any oriental reader if he can peruse these names of places without fancying them taken from some map of India, instead of Africa? Many …. are actually names of Indian places ; and most of them could be easily traced to their several sources in the languages of India, by any one moderately skilled therein. It may be doubted if all France, Germany, Russia, England, and Italy, could furnish so many places with Indian names, as may be gathered from Park’s short journeyings in Africa; and from his necessarily meagre map. Very many of these names, be it remembered, and of those which follow, occur in the depths of central Africa ; where, until lately, neither Hindu nor English man was ever seen, or perhaps heard of. Can any one, with a knowledge of East Indian dialects, read them, and deny, or doubt, that a race once inhabited those regions, with whom some of those dialects were current?”

He concludes, “…That the interior, and remote Africans, have to a great geographical extent, been Hindus, I am, from these premises, disposed to suggest : and I expect,
when we shall become better acquainted with those little known regions, to find my view confirmed by the discovery of Hindu remains, in architecture, excavations, sculptures, inscriptions, or some equally unequivocal evidence, in addition to that of names; Something similar, though not at once so striking and convincing, to what has recently been developed in the interior of Java; and what farther researches may bring to light on Celebes, Borneo, Luconia ; and others of the vast, remote, and little known of the eastern isles — regions as vast and as little known as Africa….”.

“I must indulge in a quotation of a passage by my lamented friend Major Rennell, in the conclusion of his account of the map prefixed to Mungo Park’s (Mungo Park was the first western explorer to have charted the course of the Niger) last work: — “The hospitality shown by these good people (interior Africans, especially the Mandingo tribe,) to Mr. Park, a destitute and forlorn stranger, raises them very high in the scale of humanity; and I know of no better title to confer on them than that of the Hindus of Africa.”

The River Niger is intriguing for an eastern mind. It has towns with names such Yamina, Ganga and Gaya strewn across it. But since their meanings are lost to the local inhabitants, these, names are slowly vanishing from the map as well, just as the history behind the occurrence of these Sanskritic names on the Niger has long vanished.

Suggested readings:
1. The story of the Niger
2. Celebrated Travels and Travellers, by Jules Verne
3. Mt. Kesha
4. Journal of an Expedition to Explore the course and the termination of the Niger by Richard. Lander and John Lander
5. The Northern Star or Yorkshire Magazine: Conjectures Concerning the River Niger
6. The Jouranl of a Mission to the Niger by Mungo Park
7. The London Encyclopedia: Niger


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