Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Commander Hugh Clapperton (1788-1827), c.1817 

Sir Henry Raeburn PRSA (1756-1823)

Portrait of Commander Hugh Clapperton (1788-1827), c.1817, Sir Henry Raeburn PRSA
Oil on canvas
19th Century
30 x 25 in (76 x 63.5 cm)
Traditionally commissioned by ladies of the Mackenzie family c.1817; By descent to Gordon Mackenzie-Saville Esq.; His sale Christie''s London 1936; Howard Young Galleries, New York 1937; Newhouse Gallery New York; Private Collection Ohio.
The Times London 1936
Hugh Clapperton may be taken as the paradigm of a particular sort of Scotsman. He is the younger son, or the heir who must make his own way, and the type that Scotland would contribute to the service of Britain and the Empire for long after Clapperton's death. Clapperton indeed is perhaps the first of a discernible kind of men whose devotion and ingenuity in the Empire's cause would be Scotland's greatest gift to the Union. This strain of Scottish soldiers, sailors and engineers would prove to be among the most indefatigable builders of the British Empire in the century after Clapperton's death. The picaresque aspects of Clapperton's early career also recall the young heroes of the genre paintings of David Wilkie, or later, of the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson.

His early career did not point towards greatness, but had qualities that were to underlie the greater things to come. Clapperton came from Annan, a small rural town in south-west Scotland. It was a place largely untouched by industrialisation, with a strong tradition of oral folklore and popular religion that was - in this respect at least - Lockhart suggests (Clapperton in Borno London 1996 p.39), not unlike the world that he was to encounter in the Sudan. Clapperton was born the youngest of seven surviving children, and when his father remarried and fathered a further five children, he began to learn the self-reliance that would stand him in such good stead in later life. At the age of fourteen he ran away to sea.

He was apprenticed in the Merchant Marine and sailed the Baltic coasts and the North Atlantic as part of the crew of a small schooner. His career was not unblemished, and after a charge of attempting to smuggle salt ashore he was impressed into the Royal Navy at the age of seventeen. More disreputably he then escaped the Navy to join the crew of a privateer, which after six months he left to volunteer again for the Royal Navy. This criminal episode is absent from Clapperton''s official service record, which begins with his appointment as Able Seaman aboard HMS Renommee in 1806.

It was in the Royal Navy that Clapperton finally found his true calling. Promotion was relatively swift for him, and as Master''s Mate, the senior warrant officer on board, he saw much action in the East Indies and off the coast of Spain. He was, indeed, part of the first party that captured Mauritius from the French. By 1814 he was serving in Canada, where the British were fighting the Americans on the Great Lakes. He arrived too late to see active service, but he gained his lieutenant''s commission. In Canada he worked closely with the native Indians and with the European traders who made their living in the harsh conditions of the frontier. This again was to be the most excellent training for the conditions of the African desert and for dealing with its people, as Clapperton not only honed his physical strength and his famous tolerance of privation, but acquired the very important skills needed to treat successfully with proud and autonomous natives. This life suited Clapperton particularly well, and he was especially tempted to remain in Canada as a fur trapper and make his living through subsistence and trade.

Nonetheless, in 1817 he returned to Scotland on half-pay, where boredom soon took hold. He went to live at his maternal family home at Lochmaben, where in the absence of any proper career he fell into indolence, and fathered an illegitimate child. Perhaps recognising that he was in danger of wasting himself in this manner he returned to Edinburgh and the company of his naval friends. It is during this period that the present portrait was commissioned from Sir Henry Raeburn. Family tradition held that the painting was executed for sisters of the Mackenzie family, who had taken up the young Clapperton on his return to Scotland; certainly it remained with the descendants of that family until 1936, when it was sold at Christie's and the relevant tradition published in the Times.

Clapperton was saved from obscurity by the doctor and botanist Walter Oudney, a fellow Scotsman and friend, who accepted Clapperton as a member of his three-man expedition to Borno, one of the rich inland countries in the little-known region bordering Lake Chad. This region had becomes of interest to Great Britain following her occupation of Malta in the Napoleonic Wars. Malta in turn was an important trading partner of Tripoli, on the north coast of Africa, which was the capital of one of the six Barbary States. All of these, save Morocco, were in theory part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Bashaw of Tripoli had achieved practical independence, and considered himself an ally of the British following Nelson''s naval victories in the region. From the consuls who represented Britain in Tripoli, the government began to hear reports of the trade with Sudan and of the wealth of Bornu, Hausa, Sokoto, the Niger River and Lake Chad.

The third member of the exhibition was a regular Army officer, Dixon Denham, who clashed with Clapperton over fundamental differences in character and practice, and whose arrogant disposition was the worst possible foil for Clapperton''s more maverick and obstinate qualities. The party left Tripoli in early 1822 and arrived in Borno in February 1823 with a great caravan of camels and equipment. At Kukawa, the capital of Borno, they were the first Europeans to see Lake Chad, although they were able to conclude that it was not -as had previously been thought- the source of the River Niger.

At this point the party then divided. Denham set off to the southeast to follow the River Chari, whilst Clapperton and Oudney travelled to the west, seeking out the River Niger. It was on this journey that they joined the caravan of the merchant Fezzan, who took Clapperton under his protection and from whom the Scotsman learned a great deal about the politics and the geography of the region. Under Fezzan's tutelage Clapperton visited the famous trading city of Kano. Walter Oudney died during this journey, enforcing Clapperton's isolation, and his reliance upon the Africans.

After leaving Kano, Clapperton journeyed on to Sokoto, capital of the kingdom of the Fulani. This city was richer than Kano, and was ruled by Mohammed Bello, a man well-disposed towards Clapperton, and who gave him considerable material assistance in all things save in the completion of his mission. Mohammed Bello guarded the security of his kingdom, and forbad Clapperton to continue his journey to the River Niger, even drawing a map which suggested that the river flowed northeast towards Egypt - which would have confirmed a European misapprehension of the time, which held that the Niger flowed into the Nile.

Mohammed Bello had an instinctive distrust of strangers, and an excusable desire to keep his realm a secret from inquisitive Europeans, but he would seem to have recognised that contact with them was unavoidable, and that friendly relations with the British were the lesser of many potential evils. Thus, although he would not aid Clapperton in his quest for the River Niger, he sent the explorer away from Sokoto with an escort, and with a letter to King George IV promising friendly relations and undertaking to end the slave trade in his realm.

On this return journey, Clapperton and Denham were reunited at Kukawa. Despite their separate hardships the men were no closer to being friends. Clapperton merely notes drily in his journal of a failed military enterprise of the Major's (Monday 5th March 1824) ''at 10AM Major Denham returned from his unsuccessful campaign unfortunate both to the Arabs and himself.''

In these spirits the return journey was an arduous business, which took the explorers from mid-September 1824 to the end of January 1825. At length they retunred to Tripoli, but without having visited either the River Niger or Timbuctoo.
On his return to London Clapperton achieved immediate fame for his travels, and especially for his visit to Kano. The letter that he had borne out of Sokoto from Mohammed Bello impressed the government, and Clapperton gained enormous authority for one previously quite unknown in exploration or, indeed, diplomacy. A mere two months after his return, he set off again for Africa with a party of two doctors, Dickson and Morrison, a Captain Pearce, Richard Lander, Clapperton's valet and two Negro servants.
The party travelled well, and by November 1825, they had reached the coast of what is now Nigeria, landing at the Bight of Benin. Conditions were gruelling, however; by the time Clapperton had journeyed 200 miles inland, three of his party had died of malaria, and he was alone with Lander. He pursued a northward route towards Kano, and at Bussa he first saw the River Niger. He crossed the river and struggled on north-eastward to Kano. From Kano, he pressed on to Sokoto, where Mohammed Bello was waging war against Bornu. Clapperton''s erstwhile friend no longer entertained ideas of diplomacy with Britain, and was personally offended by the letters and gifts for the Sultan of Borno which he discovered in Clapperton''s and Lander''s baggage. At an audience with the Sultan in February 1827, Bello agreed to send Clapperton to the sea by way of the Niger, thus ensuring the success of the expedition. However, before setting out, Clapperton became very ill with malaria and dysentery. By March, he was completely incapacitated and, in spite of Lander''s constant nursing, died on 13 April 1827.
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