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Laird, Macgregor

LAIRD, MACGREGOR (1808-1861), Scottish merchant, pioneer of British trade on the Niger, was born at Greenock in 1808, the younger son of William Laird, founder of the Birkenhead firm of shipbuilders of that name. In 1831 Laird and certain Liverpool merchants formed a company for the commercial development of the Niger regions, the lower course of the Niger having been made known that year by Richard and John Lander. In 1832 the company despatched two small ships to the Niger, one, the " Alburkah," a paddle-wheel steamer of 55 tons designed by Laird, being the first iron vessel to make an ocean voyage. Macgregor Laird went with the expedition, which was led by Richard Lander and numbered forty-eight Europeans, of whom all but nine died from fever or, in the case of Lander, from wounds. Laird went up the Niger to the confluence of the Benue (then called the Shary or Tchadda), which he was the first white man to ascend. He did not go far up the river but formed an accurate idea as to its source and course. The expedition returned to Liverpool in 1834, Laird and Surgeon R. A. K. Oldfield being the only surviving officers besides Captain (then Lieut.) William Allen, R.N., who accompanied the expedition by order of the Admiralty to survey the river. Laird and Oldfield published in 1837 in two volumes the Narrative of an Expedition into the Interior of Africa by the River Niger . . .in 1832, 1833, 1834. Commercially the expedition had been unsuccessful, but Laird had gained experience invaluable to his successors. He never returned to Africa but henceforth devoted himself largely to the development of trade with West Africa and especially to the opening up of the countries now forming the British protectorates of Nigeria. One of-his principal reasons for so doing was his belief that this method was the best means of stopping the slave trade and raising the social condition of the Africans. In 1854 he sent out at his own charges, but with the support of the British government, a small steamer, the " Pleiad," which under W. B. Baikie made so successful a voyage that Laird induced the government to sign contracts for annual trading trips by steamers specially built for navigation of the Niger and Benue. Various stations were founded on the Niger, and though government support was withdrawn after the death of Laird and Baikie, British traders continued to frequent the river, which Laird had opened up with little or no personal advantage. Laird's interests were not, however, wholly African. In 1837 he was one of the promoters of a company formed to run steamships between England and New York, and in 1838 the " Sirius," sent out by this company, was the first ship to cross the Atlantic from Europe entirely under steam. Laird died in London on the gth of January 1861.

His elder brother, JOHN LAIRD (1805-1874), was one of the first to use iron in the construction of ships; in 1829 he made an iron lighter of 60 tons which was used on canals and lakes in Ireland; in 1834 he built the paddle steamer " John Randolph" for Savannah, U.S.A., stated to be the first iron ship seen in America. For the East India Company he built in 1839 the first iron vessel carrying guns and he was also the designer of the famous " Birkenhead." A Conservative in politics, he represented Birkenhead in the House of Commons from 1861 to his death.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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