Gambaga’s Bird (Muscicapa Gambagae)

My recent research into Dr. Rudolf Fisch’s 1910 trek through Mamprugu led me to another European visitor’s journals about a visit to Gambaga, Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1901. Lieutenant Boyd Alexander was a British Army Officer who was famous for his expeditions from West to East Africa in the early 1900s. He was a passionate ornithologist and through his travels he amassed a collection of African bird specimens that he later gifted to the British Museum – many of them from Ghana.

Lt. Alexander was lucky enough to discover some new species in Ghana* and he named one after Gambaga since he first spotted it there. This bird is Muscicapa Gambagae or the Gambaga Flycatcher.

In 1902, Boyd published a report in Ibis, a renowned ornithology journal, about his travels in Ghana and the birds he collected. That report first mentions this bird.**

I found his report of the journey from Kumasi to Gambaga to be quite interesting. Here are some excerpts from On the Birds of the Gold Coast Colony and its Hinterland.

In November 1900, I left Kumassi with a column of Haussas for Gambaga, the headquarters of the Northern Territories a three weeks’ trek. The transport from the coast is by carriers, who are always a worry and a nuisance. Fantees, Ashantis, and Wongaras are the natives generally employed, the last being by far the best and most useful. It is a very expensive method of conveyance, since by the time a load of 56 lbs. has reached Gambaga a distance of about 500 miles the cost comes to over fifty shillings [note: over $1250 today!].

After the fourth day of our journey the forest became less thick, and the Kola-nut tree (Cola acuminata) was plentiful. The trade in Kola-nuts in the countries north of the Gold Coast is most important. In the dry season, large caravans of cattle, bred in Moshi, and in the districts about the River Niger, pass through Gambaga and Salaga on their way to Ashanti, where the cattle are exchanged for Kola-nuts, which the merchant takes back with him into the Soudan, where they are much prized and are in great demand.

Beyond Gambaga (1310 feet), to the northward, the land-level falls 700 feet, and the country becomes less undulating, while it is uplifted here and there into cone­ shaped hills of from 100 to 600 feet in height, the tree­ growth giving way in many localities to open stretches, covered, with guinea-corn and maize.

The climate of the Hinterland is far better than that of the coast and the forest-region, and the fever is there of a mild form. The rainy season is from July to November, commencing in Ashanti a month earlier. By the end of October signs of the dry season appear, and then only occasional showers are experienced. Towards the end of  November the Harmattan sets in, increasing in strength in December, and lasting till the middle of February; under its dry and searching influence everything becomes dried up, and the birds leave the open country and seek shelter in the belts of woodland along the streams and watercourses. Near Gambaga many important forms of bird-life, including several rare Desert-Larks, such as Heliocorys modesta and Mirafra erythropygia, were obtained, both in the district itself and to the northward near the Anglo-­French boundary, as also in the little-known country around Salaga.

At the beginning of May, 1901, I left Gambaga and trekked to Salaga, and thence on to the River Volta at Yeji, where I took a canoe down to Pong. From this place a two days’ trek brought me to Accra.

Boyd Alexander was killed in 1910 in Nyeri, Kenya during a dispute with locals. After hearing the news, his dear friend and colleague in ornithology W.R. Ogilvie-Grant published a retrospective entitled Boyd Alexander in his Ornithological Work in Ibis. Grant shares the details of the events surrounding his death and seems to place blame on the French for the whole tragic misunderstanding.

* The whole idea of Whites “discovering” species in Africa is a bit of misnomer and reflects racist colonial attitudes. The truth is that native Africans stretching from Senegal to Kenya were quite aware of this species of bird centuries before any Brit set foot on the continent. So what we should really credit these colonial explorers with is being the first to scientifically classify an animal. I’m just glad Boyd Alexander named this bird after Gambaga and not himself!

** Alseonax was the protonym for Muscicapa