Richard Lander: Cornwall’s own superhero

On this day in 1834 Richard Lander died on the island then known to Europeans as Fernando Po and now called Bioko, off the coast of Cameroon. Lander had gained fame as an explorer in the 1830s, his accounts of his west African adventures appealing to the public appetite for stories of gripping derring-do. In fact, he was an early nineteenth century Cornish superhero. At least in the eyes of popular culture.

He was born the son of an innkeeper, in a pub which was located in the row of buildings opposite the present bus station in Truro. But placid Truro was never going to be enough for the young Richard, who had a wanderlust.

In 1815, at the age of 11, he became a merchant’s servant, accompanying his master to the Caribbean. There he stayed for three years, contracting and surviving malaria in the process before returning to Truro. Not for long though. Five years were then spent in service to various well-to-do but itinerant families. Trips to Europe were followed by a year in Cape Colony, where Richard’s fascination with Africa was sparked. At that time Africa was largely unmapped and its interior terra incognito to westerners.

Richard was involved in three expeditions to west Africa, exploring the River Niger and its environs. The first, in 1825-28 ended in unmitigated disaster. All the party became ill with fever in the north-west of present-day Nigeria and they all died. All except Richard that is. He bravely trekked south east alone to the coast, surviving capture, a trial for witchcraft and drinking poison to prove his innocence on the way. This was all great boys’ own material and Richard’s account of these events, published in several books, made him famous.

The second expedition in 1830-31 was more successful. Accompanied by his younger brother John, the party explored 160 kilometres of the River Niger. Again captured, ransomed, their possessions plundered, the riveting events captured the public imagination.

Richard’s final trip to west Africa was in 1833-34. This was funded by Liverpool merchants looking to set up a trading settlement. Elements of the native population were clearly not overjoyed to see European explorers as Lander’s party was again ambushed on the Niger in January 1834. This time Richard was wounded, a musketball having penetrated his thigh. Returning to Bioko, his wound turned gangrenous and he died within hours, aged only 30.

In his hometown, a subscription was quickly raised for a memorial to this son of Cornwall. In 1835 construction began at the top of Lemon Street. Unfortunately it collapsed during the building in 1836 but was eventually completed. Several years later in 1852, Cornish sculptor Neville Northey Burnard added the statue of Richard Lander, which now stands imperiously on the top of monument.