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Laird was born at Greenock, 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 Lemon Lander and John Lander. In 1832, the company sent two small ships to the Niger, the Alburkah, a paddle-wheel steamer of fifty-five tons designed by Laird, the first iron vessel to make an ocean voyage. Laird went with the expedition, which was led by Richard Lander and forty-eight Europeans, all but nine of whom died from fever or, in the case of Lander, from wounds. Laird went up the Niger to the confluence of the Benue River (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 were the only surviving officers besides Captain (then Lieutenant) William Allen, who accompanied the expedition on the orders of the Admiralty to survey the river. In 1837, Laird and Oldfield published the Narrative of an Expedition into the Interior of Africa by the River Niger in 1832, 1833, 1834.
The expedition had been unsuccessful commercially, but Laird had gained experience invaluable to his successors. He never returned to Africa but instead devoted himself largely to the development of trade with West Africa and especially to the opening up of the countries then 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 set up, 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 Various stations were founded on the Niger, and though government support was withdrawn after the death of Laird and Baikie, British traders continued to frequent the river, which Laird had opened up with little or no personal advantage.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 in 1861.