The old parish registers for Kirkcudbright record the birth, on 3rd February 1804, of John Duncan, son of John and Janet (Thomson) Duncan. John Duncan junior went on to become one of the earliest explorers of the African interior. Although his adventures occurred well before those of Livingstone, Burton and Stanley, his courage and achievements went largely forgotten. Thankfully he recorded some of his experiences in a two volume book now available to be read on the Internet. By way of introduction we have given the preface to the work, taken from volume 1, below. At the foot of the page are links to the books themselves, and notice of a recent biography.

John Duncan: Travels in Western Africa, 1845 and 1846.

In presenting the following work to the public, it may be deemed proper that I should preface it by giving some account of my previous career, and of the reasons and circumstances which led to my Travels in Western Africa.

I was born in the year 1805, of humble parentage, on the farm of Culdoch, near Kirkcudbright, in North Britain. I had, at a very early period, a strong predilection for a military life, being of robust health and an athletic frame. In 1822 I therefore enlisted in the First Regiment of Life Guards, the discipline and appearance of which are, I may say, universally admired. During the hours not devoted to military duties, I applied myself to the cultivation of the art of drawing and painting, in which I attained some proficiency, and acquired also considerable knowledge of mechanics, all of which I found of great service to me when I afterwards became a traveller.

After serving sixteen years in this distinguished regiment, I felt anxious for a field of greater enterprise, and therefore obtained my discharge, on the conditions of the late good conduct warrant, early in 1839. In onsequence of meritorious service, I obtained the appointment of master-at-arms in the late expedition to the Niger. In this unfortunate enterprise, I narrowly escaped the melancholy fate of so many of my brave and talented countrymen. Of upwards of three hundred, not more than five escaped! When at Egga, on the Niger, I volunteered to proceed up that river, with a few natives only; but, on account of the increasing sickness of the Europeans, the project was abandoned. Before the Albert, indeed, had descended the Niger nearly all of them were either attacked by the fever or were dead! The season was declared by the natives themselves to be particularly fatal, even to them.

On my arrival at Fernando Po, I was myself attacked with fever, which so seriously affected a wound that I had previously received in my leg, that gangrene commenced, and was only checked by the application of a powerful acid, which destroyed the part affected. (I was wounded at the Cape de Verd Islands by the natives, while aiding my men, upon whom they were about to make a murderous attack. On retreating, one of them threw a poisoned arrow at me, which I parried from my face and body, but which struck my leg.) At this time my sufferings were extreme; part of both bones of my leg was entirely denuded of flesh a little above the ankle-bone. I strongly desired to have the diseased limb amputated, but having already lost much blood, and the climate of Fernando Po being unfavourable to such operations, (in fact, it was considered that it might prove fatal,) my medical friends, Drs. McWilliam and Thompson, promised to perform it when I should arrive at Ascension. The climate of that island is much superior to any other on the coast of Africa. Fortunately, by the unremitting attention of the medical officers, and the kindness of Commander Fishbourue, my wound and my general health much improved during my stay there. From its serious nature, however, I returned to England in an emaciated condition. Having naturally a very robust constitution, I rapidly recovered; but my limb never entirely regained its former strength.

This, however, did not prevent me from offering my services to the Royal Geographical Society, to proceed to Africa and penetrate to the Kong Mountains from the West Coast, the narrative of which journey I now have the pleasure of submitting to the reader. I ought to add that the Society provided me with the necessary instruments and instructions; and that the Lords of the Admiralty directed that I should have a free passage to Cape Coast. The country I traversed had been hitherto untrodden by any European traveller, and reached as tar as 13° 6' North latitude, and 1° 3' East longitude.

In conclusion, I beg to state, that the Royal Geographical Society and several other gentlemen liberally contributed funds in aid of my enterprise, for which I cherish the warmest feelings of gratitude.

Feltham Hill,
August, 1847.

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