Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Davidson, John (1797-1836)

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DAVIDSON, JOHN (1797–1836), African traveller, son of an opulent tailor and army clothier in Cork Street, London, originally from Kelso, Roxburghshire, was born on 23 Dec. 1797. He went to school at a private academy near London, and when sixteen years old at his own request was apprenticed to Savory &c. Moore, the chemists and druggists, a firm in which he ultimately purchased a partnership. Later on he became a pupil at St. George's Hospital, and afterwards entered the university of Edinburgh with the intention of becoming a doctor. His health failing, however, he sought a milder climate in Naples in the autumn of 1827, and gave up all idea of practising medicine. From Naples he went through Styria and Carniola to Vienna, made a long excursion through Poland and Russia, and returned home by way of Hamburg. He went to Egypt at the end of 1829, visited the Pyramids, and passed overland to Cosseir, where he embarked for India on his way to China and Persia. An attack of cholera, however, drove him back to Cosseir. He made an excursion through Arabia, and visited Palestine, Syria, the Greek Isles, Athens, and Constantinople, collecting much useful geographical information, which he afterwards communicated to the public in papers read at the meetings of the Royal Society and the Royal Institution of London. In 1831 he went to America, visiting Niagara and the Canadas, New York, New Orleans, Tampico, and Mexico. He visited the Pyramids of Choluteca and took their measurement. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1832 he settled down for a time to the study of Egyptology. On 13 July 1833 he delivered an address on embalming at the Royal Institution, when he unrolled a mummy in the presence of a deeply interested audience (Athenæum, 1833, pp. 481–3). His craving for travel was, however, irresistible. He undertook to head an African expedition, of which he defrayed the whole expense himself, and proposed to proceed by way of Fez to Tâfilêlt, and thence, after examining the southern slope of Mount Atlas, to Nigritia, across the Sahara. He quitted England in August 1835, bound for Timbuctoo. Going to Gibraltar he crossed the straits into Morocco, and there his medical knowledge was so highly appreciated by the sultan and his officials that he obtained with great difficulty permission to depart. In a letter to his brother he states that no less than twelve hundred patients passed through his hands while in Morocco. When leaving he was obliged to plead that his stock of medicine was exhausted, and at his request a medicine-chest was forwarded to the sultan from England. He started for the great desert at the end of November 1836, but while stopping at a watering-place called Swekeza he was robbed and murdered on 18 Dec. 1836 by the tribe El Harib, who, it is supposed, were bribed by the merchants of Tâfilêlt, and had left their usual haunts with the set purpose of seizing the traveller and his goods. He had inured himself to great bodily privation, and acquired the power of resisting the action of the sun, his ‘face, hands, arms, feet, and legs having been three times excoriated.’ After Davidson's death his brother printed privately a book of pathetic interest entitled ‘Notes taken during Travels in Africa,’ 1839, 4to, printed by J. L. Cox. The account of unrolling the mummy at the Royal Institution in 1833 was also published in pamphlet form. Many of his letters from Africa were addressed to the Duke of Sussex (Geog. Soc. Journ. vii. 151).

[Martin's Catalogue of Privately Printed Books (2nd ed.), 483; Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vi. 430, vii. 144; Athenæum, 1833 and 1837.]

R. H.