Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery


Mastering the Niger (published by the University of Chicago Press) examines the relationships between slavery, geographical knowledge and Britain’s emerging empire in Africa in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Since its publication in November 2013, the reception for the book has been universally positive across a variety of fields. These have included history (in The American Historical Review, Toby Green has described it as a ‘masterful intellectual history that brings together the complex web linking abolition, imperialism, and emerging scientific discourses in the aftermath of the 1807 Slave Trade Act’); the history and philosophy of science (in the Institute of Historical Research’s ‘Reviews in History’, James Poskett wrote that it is ‘an accomplished and creative account of the troubling connections between Atlantic slavery and geographical knowledge…interdisciplinary in the best way…Lambert has set a course which others must surely follow’); the history of cartography (the book is ‘a “must read” for scholars and map collectors alike’ according to Thomas J. Bassett in Imago Mundi); and historical geography (according to Charles Withers in the Journal of Historical Geography, ‘Mastering the Niger is a skilful, scholarly, and authoritative work’).

Summary of the book:

Mastering the Niger examines geographical claims made about West Africa that were implicated in different and often competing agendas: antislavery, colonial, commercial, humanitarian, missionary and scientific. Although centred on West Africa, the sources and consequences of these claims, as well as the broader agendas to which they were related, extended to the wider Atlantic world, including the slave colonies of the Caribbean.

Mastering the Niger front cover

The book focuses, in particular, on the West African facts and theories promulgated by the Scot, James MacQueen (1778–1870), especially about the course and termination of the River Niger. MacQueen was a famous nineteenth century geographer of Africa – despite never once visiting the continent – who correctly argued that the river flowed to the Atlantic Ocean at least a decade before this was proven to European satisfaction by explorers on the spot. MacQueen was also the former manager of a Caribbean slave plantation, a Glasgow merchant with trans-Atlantic commercial interests, a high-profile critic of the British antislavery campaign and an out-spoken advocate for the colonisation of Africa. MacQueen’s claims about Africa and the responses they engendered from the government, merchants, antislavery campaigners, explorers and other geographers, demonstrates how geographical facts and theories were central to contemporary debates about empire, slavery and scientific knowledge. In analysing MacQueen’s claims, the book argues for an understanding of geographical knowledge that is based on investigating the relations between the textual, numerical and cartographic sites where it is expressed and made credible, and the worldly sites which are its sources and where its effects are felt.
 Armchair Explorer
The book stands at the intersection of two main areas of interest: histories of slavery, abolition and empire; and histories (and historical geographies) of science and knowledge. It is innovative in bringing these areas together, and in arguing that the entanglements of Atlantic slavery, geographical knowledge and imperialism can examined through a historical-geographical investigation of the relationships between worldly and representational sites.

I spoke about the book at the Oxford Transnational and Global History Seminar in January 2011. You can hear the podcast here.

Contents of the book:

1 – Maps of Mastery
Part 1: Sources
2 – ‘Mr. Park’s book’ and the Niger Problem
3 – Keeping Account of Atlantic Commerce
4 – Captive Knowledge
Part 2: Courses
5 – Credibility and Truth-making in the Atlantic world
6 – Surveying Sierra Leone
7 – Thomas Fowell Buxton and Niger Expedition
Part 3: Termination
8 – Beyond the Niger

You can find the book's University of Chicago Press page here.