The origin of the river’s name remains unclear. What is clear is that “Niger” was an appellation applied in the Mediterranean world from at least the Classical era, when knowledge of the area by Europeans was slightly better than fable. A careful study of Classical writings on the interior of the Sahara begins with Ptolemy, who mentions two rivers in the desert: the “Gir” and farther south, the “Ni-Gir”.
The first has been since identified as the Wadi Ghir on the north western edge of the Tuat, along the borders of modern Morocco and Algeria.
This would likely have been as far as Ptolemy would have had consistent records. The Ni-Ger was likely speculation, although the name stuck as that of a river south of the Mediterranean’s “known world”. Suetonius reports Romans traveling to the “Ger”, although in reporting any river’s name derived from a Berber language, in which “gher” means “watercourse”, confusion could easily arise.
Pliny connected these two rivers as one long watercourse which flowed (via lakes and underground sections) into the Nile, a notion which persisted in the Arab and European worlds – and further added the Senegal River as the “Ger” – until the 19th century. The connection to the Nile River was made not simply because this was then known as the great river of “Aethiopia” (by which all lands south of the desert were called by Classical writers), but because the Nile flooded every summer. In Europe and Western Asia, floods are expected in the Spring, following snow melt. Classical authors explained the summer flood by calculating the time it took for flood waters to move down a river, and calculating how long the Nile must have been for the waters to travel from a mountain range in the spring. However the cycle of the Nile is influenced by tropical rain patterns instead of by melting snow, a characteristic unknown to the Classical Mediterranean world.
Through the descriptions of Leo Africanus and even Ibn Battuta – despite his visit to the river – the myth connecting the Niger to the Nile persisted.
While the true course of the Niger was presumably known to locals, it was a mystery to the outside world until the late 18th century. Ancient Romans such as Pliny (N.H. 5.10) thought that the river near Timbuktu was part of the Nile River, a belief also held by Ibn Battuta, while early European explorers thought that it flowed west and joined the Senegal River.
Many European expeditions to plot the river were unsuccessful. In 1788 the African Association was formed in England to promote the exploration of Africa in the hopes of locating the Niger, and in June 1796 the Scottish explorer Mungo Park was the first European to lay eyes on the middle portion of the river since antiquity (and perhaps ever). The true course was established in his book Travels in the Interior of Africa, which appeared in 1799.
The African Association failed in assaults from the north (Tripoli), the east (Cairo), and the west (Gambia). The membership now proposed that an effort be made from the south. The site chosen in 1804 from which to strike inland was a British trading post in the Gulf of Guinea. In the cruelest of ironies, the river mouth that emptied into the Gulf, whence Henry Nicholls was to set out in search of the Niger, was precisely the end of the Niger itself—only the Europeans did not know it yet. The starting point of the expedition was in fact its destination.
On October 24, 1946 three Frenchmen, Jean Sauvy, Pierre Ponty and movie maker Jean Rouch, former civil servants in the African French colonies, set out to travel the entire length of the river, as no one else seemed to have done previously. They travelled from the very beginning of the river near Kissidougou in Guinea, walking at first till a raft could be used, then changing to various local crafts as the river broadened and changed. Two of them reached the ocean on March 25, 1947, with Pierre Ponty having had to leave the expedition at Niamey, somewhat past the halfway mark. They carried a 16mm movie camera, the resulting footage giving Jean Rouch his first two ethnographic documentaries: “Au pays des mages noirs”, and “La chasse à l’hippopotame”. A camera was used to illustrate Jean Rouch’s subsequent book “Le Niger En Pirogue” (Fernand Nathan, 1954), as well as Jean Sauvy’s “Descente du Niger” (L’Harmattan 2001). A typewriter was brought as well, on which Pierre Ponty produced newspaper articles he mailed out whenever possible.
More recently, Norwegian adventurer Helge Hjelland made another journey through the entire length of the Niger River starting in Guinea-Bissau in 2005. The trip was filmed by the adventurer himself and made into a documentary titled “The Cruellest Journey