The story of the 19th century opening up of Africa is generally told around the exploits of David Livingston and Richard Burton, but there were scores of expeditions, both privately organized and government-sponsored, in this last heroic age of explorations which pressed deep into the African hinterland. For the British, the miasmic Niger was a magnet. The most meandering and treacherous of Africa's great waterways, it baffled geographers who couldn't fathom its course or locate its terminus. De Gramont's big, fecund book is filled with forgotten names: Lucas, Houghton, Mungo Park, Laing, Clapperton, Barth and Baikie--explorers and adventurers who sought the brown god which would become the road to British domination of West Africa. Until the middle of the 19th century, malaria killed them when they weren't fleeced and murdered by Arab and African traders or the jealous potentates of the interior. Mungo Park's condition after some months of traveling--""worn out by sickness, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, half-naked, penniless and on foot""--was typical. Still they persisted, these intrepid British conquistadors caught up in some relentless, private dream. Always there was something evangelical about the African incursions whether born of Palmerston's determination to stop the slave trade or the more general mission ""to help raise the degraded African to civilized Europe."" De Gramont approaches his vast story with an old-fashioned persistence and eclectic curiosity which serve him well as he charts the history of the African kingdoms, the trade in black bodies and palm oil, the river's geological mysteries and the diversity of cultures on its banks. His narrative is spliced with historical curios--whether Queen Victoria's letters to African monarchs or de Gramont's own reflections on why so many of the English explorers were Scots. Like the river which provides the connecting thread, this is a ramshackle epic, richly illustrated, and it just flows along, smooth and sinister.