Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cooley, William Desborough

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COOLEY, WILLIAM DESBOROUGH (d. 1883), geographer, was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1830, and was made an honorary free member in 1864 (Proceedings of Royal Geogr. Soc. for 1883, p. 233). He wrote for Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia,’ ‘The History of Maritime and Inland Discovery,’ 3 vols. 1830–1, a work of considerable merit which was translated into French. On the publication of M. Douville's ‘Voyage au Congo’ in 1832 Cooley wrote a criticism in the ‘Foreign Quarterly Review,’ in which the fraud practised by that pretended explorer was exposed. After that time his name was chiefly associated with African subjects. In 1852 he published ‘Inner Africa laid open, in an attempt to trace the chief lines of communication across that continent south of the Equator.’ In this work, almost exclusively based upon Portuguese and native authorities, he maintained that there existed but one great lake in Central Africa, and that the snowy mountains alleged to have been seen by Krapf and Rehmann were myths. His protest against the existence of snowy mountains was repeated even after Von der Decken and Thornton's return from the Kilimanjaro in 1863, and as late as 1864 he insisted upon the Nyassa and Tanganyika forming one continuous lake. Although the progress of geographical discoveries in Africa upset many of his pet theories, he has the credit of being the first to deal in a scientific spirit with questions which have since been solved by actual observations (Athenæum, 10 March 1883, p. 315). In these discussions he distinguished himself by the vigour of his style of writing and his mastery of the literature of African geography. He was also a good linguist, and had perfected his acquaintance with Ki-Swahili, the lingua franca of Eastern Africa, by taking lessons from an intelligent native of Zanzibar, whom accident had brought to the port of London.

For many years he lived quite alone in humble lodgings in London, supported almost solely by the civil list pension of 100l., granted to him in 1859. He died on 1 March 1883.

Beside, the works already noticed and some treatises on geometry he published: 1. ‘The Negroland of the Arabs examined and explained; or, an Inquiry into the early History and Geography of Central Africa,’ Lond. 1841, 8vo. 2. An edition of ‘Larcher's Notes on Herodotus,’ 2 vols. 1844. 3. ‘The World surveyed in the XIX Century; or Recent Narratives of Scientific and Exploratory Expeditions translated, and, where necessary, abridged,’ 2 vols. Lond. 1845–8, 8vo. 4. ‘Sir Francis Drake, his Voyage, 1595, by Thomas Maynarde,’ edited from the original manuscripts for the Hakluyt Society, 1849. 5. ‘Claudius Ptolemy and the Nile; or an inquiry into that geographer's real merits and speculative errors, his knowledge of Eastern Africa, and the authenticity of the Mountains of the Moon,’ Lond. 1854, 8vo. 6. ‘Dr. Livingstone's Reise vom Fluss Liambey nach Loanda in 1853–4 kritisch und kommentarisch beleuchtet,’ 1855. 7. ‘The Memoir on the Lake Regions of East Africa reviewed,’ Lond. 1864, 8vo. In reply to Capt. R. Burton's letter in the ‘Athenæum,’ No. 1899. 8. ‘Dr. Livingstone and the Royal Geographical Society,’ Lond. 1874, 8vo. 9. ‘Physical Geography, or the Terraqueous Globe and its Phenomena,’ Lond. 1876, 8vo. A thoroughly original work.

He also contributed several memoirs to the ‘Journal of the Royal Geographical Society,’ and a series of controversial articles on African subjects to the ‘Athenæum’ (Markham, Fifty Years' Work of the Royal Geogr. Soc. pp. 233).

[Authorities cited above; Cat. of Printed Books in Brit. Mus.]

T. C.