Laird, Macgregor (DNB00)


LAIRD, MACGREGOR (1808–1861), African explorer, younger son of William Laird, founder of the famous Birkenhead firm of shipbuilders, and brother of John Laird [q. v.], was born at Greenock in 1808, and after finishing his education at Edinburgh, entered into partnership with his father, a position he soon afterwards relinquished to take part in the formation of the company started at Liverpool for the commercial development of the recent discoveries of the brothers Lander on the river Niger [see Lander, Richard Lemon]. In 1832 the company despatched an expedition in charge of Richard Lemon Lander in two small vessels, one of which, the Alburka, a little paddle-wheel steamer of 55 tons burden, built by Laird, was the first iron vessel that made an ocean voyage. The expedition, which Laird accompanied, left Milford Haven on 24 July 1832, but did not reach Cape Coast Castle until the beginning of October. Melancholy loss of life attended it, only nine Europeans surviving out of forty-eight who started with it. The steamers entered the Nun mouth, and ascended the Niger as far as the confluence with the Tchadda, whence Laird, although suffering much from the effects of the climate, and being carried on a litter the greater part of the way, penetrated as far as Fundah (see Athenæum, 15 Feb. 1834; Journ. Roy. Geogr. Soc. 1834). Laird returned to Liverpool in 1834, with his health much impaired by the hardships he had endured, and he never fully recovered from the effects. He published a spirited narrative of the expedition; was elected a F.R.G.S. London; and gave important evidence before the parliamentary commission on the navigation of the Indus in the year of his return. In 1837 Laird was one of the promoters of the British and North American Steam Navigation Company, formed to run steamers from England to New York. The company built and owned the British Queen, and her ill-fated consort, the President. The British Queen was despatched to New York in April 1838, and, like the Sirius, despatched by the same company some days previously, performed the voyage out and back under steam. The few steamers that had before crossed the Atlantic had depended chiefly on their sails, and the success of the new company's two steamers practically refuted the predictions of the impossibility of relying wholly on steam-propulsion at sea—predictions of which Dr. Dionysius Lardner [q. v.], then the great authority on steam, was the chief exponent. ‘As well talk of steaming to the moon,’ Lardner had loudly declared. In 1844 Laird removed to Birkenhead, and took an active part in the development of that place, his name appearing with that of his father among the founders of St. James's Church. Some years later he came to London, and in 1850 he patented improvements in the construction of metallic ships, materials for coating ships' bottoms, and steering gear (patent 12934, 19 Jan. 1850).

The last twelve years of Laird's life were devoted exclusively to the development of the resources of Africa, and more especially towards establishing trade with the interior. He had persistently advocated that policy as the best means of counteracting and extinguishing slavery. He established himself as a merchant at 3 Mincing Lane, London, and having obtained a contract from government, started the African Steamship Company, to keep up monthly communication with all parts of the west coast as far as Fernando Po. Not content with developing the coast trade, he formed the idea of cutting off the trade in slaves by introducing habits of peaceful industry into the interior, and rendering the Niger the highway of legitimate commerce with Central Africa. With these views, he fitted out in 1854 a trading and exploring expedition at his own cost and risk, but with government support. The explorers ascended the river Tchadda in the steamer Pleiad 150 miles beyond the furthest point previously reached. Not a single death occurred during the expedition, a result due to the general excellence of the equipment and arrangements, and the liberal use of quinine. Encouraged by this result, Laird prevailed on the government to enter into contracts for annual voyages up the river, for which purpose he built the steamers Dayspring, Sunshine, and Rainbow, and made repeated ascents with them. The Dayspring, having reached Rabba on the Niger in safety, was lost on a rapid a few miles above that plain. Trading depôts were established at the confluence of the Niger and Tchadda, and at various places lower down. Laird pursued these undertakings with little or no prospect of personal advantage. He was married and left issue, and died on 9 Jan. 1861, aged 53. Laird was author of ‘A Journal of the Niger Expedition … by Macgregor Laird and D. N. R. Oldfield,’ London, 1834, 2 vols.; also of a pamphlet on the sugar duties. He was a constant writer in newspapers on subjects in which he was interested, but usually wrote under a pseudonym, and burned all his papers, so that very few literary remains are in possession of his family. One of his lectures, signed ‘Cerebus,’ in the ‘Spectator,’ 9 Sept. 1854, pointed out the advantages of gun-vessels of the class of the Nemesis, Phlegethon, Pluto, &c., which had been built some time before by Messrs. Laird for the secret committee of the East India Company, and had done excellent service in Indian and Chinese waters.

[Presidential address of Sir Roderick Murchison in Journal Roy. Geogr. Soc., London, 1861, vol. xxxi. p. cxxvii; Address of Lord Ravensworth, President of the Institution of Naval Architects, in Marine Engineer, 1 May 1887; Lists of Patents; Brit. Mus. Cat. Printed Books, under ‘Laird, Macgregor;’ private information. A lecture on the river Niger, with a short account of Laird's explorations and expeditions, by Archibald Hamilton, was (1892) in the possession of Laird's widow, but is not in the British Museum or Guildhall Library.]

H. M. C.