Mungo Park (September 11, 1771 – 1806) was a Scottish physician and explorer of the African continent who explorations in the Niger area on behalf of the British African Association helped to open up vast territories for trade and colonization. His exploits became iconic among explorers of Africa but while few doubt his courage and his determination to tread where no European had trod, his reputation among Africans was as a “ruthless murderer.” His career was set in the context of the early days of the European Scramble for Africa when the African continent was largely unknown. As well as providing a potential market and opportunity for imperial expansion, Africa represented the major remaining challenge for extending knowledge of the globe, and was a “focus for the fanciful imaginations of Europe.” Park died on his last expedition in 1806. On the one hand, his legacy contributed to exploitation and colonial domination, on the other it also helped to integrate Africa within the wider economic and cultural context, “for better or for worse, into a general system of knowledge and a world system of economics.” Exploration of the Niger River area was especially important because the river would aid transportation and thus the European settlement of West Africa, renowned for its gold deposits and for commerce in gold and precious gems.
Mungo Park was born in Selkirkshire at Foulshiels on the Yarrow, near Selkirk on a tenant farm which his father rented from the Duke of Buccleuch. He was the seventh in a family of thirteen. Although tenant farmers, the Parks were relatively well-off – they were able to pay for Park to have a good education, and Park’s father died leaving property valued at £3,000.
Park was educated at home before attending Selkirk grammar school, then, at the age of 14, taking up an apprenticeship with a surgeon named Thomas Anderson in Selkirk. During his apprenticeship he made friends with Anderson’s son Alexander, and became acquainted with his daughter Allison, who would later become his wife. In October 1788, Park started at the University of Edinburgh, attending for four sessions studying medicine and botany. During his time at university, he spent a year in the natural history course of Prof John Walker. After completing his studies, he spent a summer in the Scottish highlands engaged in botanical fieldwork with his brother-in-law, James Dickson. Dickson was a botanist who had begun his career as a gardener and seed merchant in Covent Garden. In 1788 he and Sir Joseph Banks – famous for role as James Cook’s scientific adviser on his round the world voyage of 1768-71 had founded the London Linnean Society. In January 1793, Park completed his medical education by passing an oral examination at the College of Surgeons in London. Through a recommendation by Banks, whose journeys in the cause of science he admired, he obtained the post of assistant surgeon on board the East Indiaman Worcester ship. The Worcester sailed to Benkulen in Sumatra in February 1793.
In addition to a genuine interest in exploration, McLynn suggests that such an enterprise provided someone of Park’s modest social status with an opportunity to ‘rise rapidly in the world’; ‘To an extent he also bore out a … tenet relating to … exploration that filling in the great white space on the map enabled men of humble origin to rise rapidly in the world’. On the one hand, Park ‘was no proletarian’ but on the other ‘as the seventh child of twelve children in a middle-class family of reduced circumstances, he was aware that he had to work hard for worldly success.’ On his return in 1793, Park gave a lecture describing eight new Sumatran fishes to the Linnaean Society. He also presented various rare Sumatran plants to Banks.
The African Association
In 1794 Park offered his services to the African Association, then looking out for a successor to Major Daniel Houghton, who had been sent out in 1790 to discover the course of the Niger and had died in the Sahara. Banks was a founder member of the Association, which had been formed in 1788 to ‘increase knowledge’ of Africa and to ‘grow rich, or rather richer’. McLynn thinks is significant that the society was formed in the same year as the Botany Bay landings which seemed to leave Africa as ‘nature’s last great redoubt’ in an age when ‘more was know ther Arctic North than about places just 100 miles inland from the slave forts of the Gold Coast’ Again supported by Sir Joseph Banks, Park was selected. With an annual salary of 271 pounds a year, he was commissioned to travel as far up the Niger River as he could, then to exit via the Gambia. Writing of his motive, he said, ‘I had a passionate desire to examine into the productions of a country so little known, and to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life and character of the natives.’
On June 21, 1795 he reached the Gambia River and ascended the river 200 miles to a British trading station named Pisania. On December 2, accompanied by two local guides, he started for the unknown interior. He chose the route crossing the upper Senegal basin and through the semi-desert region of Kaarta. The journey was full of difficulties, and at Ludamar he was imprisoned by the local chief for four months. He escaped, alone and with nothing save his horse and a pocket compass, on July 1, 1796, and on the 21st of the same month reached the long-sought Niger at Segu, being the first European to do so. Famously, when he ‘first clapped eyes on the Niger’ he remarked to the King of the Bambara that he had ‘come a long distance through many dangers just to behold it’ which provoked the response whether his own country had no rivers’ that he had to endure such hardship when most rivers looked much the same. He followed the river downstream 80 miles to Silla, where he was obliged to turn back, lacking the resources to go further. On his return journey, begun on July 30, he took a route more to the south than that originally followed, keeping close to the Niger as far as Bamako, thus tracing its course for some 300 miles. At Kamalia he fell ill, and owed his life to the kindness of a man in whose house he lived for seven months. Eventually he reached Pisania again on June 10, 1797, returning to Scotland by way of America on December 22. He had been thought dead, and his return home with the news of the discovery of the Niger evoked great public enthusiasm. An account of his journey was drawn up for the African Association by Bryan Edwards, and his own detailed narrative appeared in 1799 as Travels in the Interior of Africa. It was extremely popular, has remained in print ever since and is also available online in Project Gutenberg. He thanked ‘the Great ruler of all things’ for his success in reaching the Niger.
Park and His Attitude towards Africans
Park appeared to get on ‘well with the Africans he met’ in the initial phase of his journey. However, he disliked the Arab Tuareg, considering them barbarian lacking any ‘spark of humanity’. He appears to have exhibited considerable hostility towards them, firing at anyone he thought looked menacing. Heinrich Barth, who later reached Timbuktu, ‘was regale with tales of “that Christian traveler, Mungo Park, who had arrived on the Niger some 50 years ago appearing apparently out of nowhere, to the consternation of the natives”’ whose ‘policy it was to fire at any one who approached him with a threatening attitude’, killing some.
Between the journeys
Settling at Foulshiels, in August 1799 Park married Allison, daughter of his old master, Thomas Anderson. Banks wanted to include him in an expedition exploring Australia, but his wife was not keen on this and Park turned the offer down, which alienated him from his former patron. Park moved to Peebles, where he practiced as a doctor, having also fully qualified as a surgeon in 1799. In 1893, however, he was asked by the African Association to ‘chart the full course of the Niger’ . Although Allison remained opposed, this time the salary was more attractive (five thousand for expenses and a thousand a year) and he began to prepare himself by studying Arabic. His teacher was Sidi Ambak Bubi, a native of Mogador, whose behaviour both amused and alarmed the people of Peebles. In May 1804 Park returned to Foulshiels, where he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, then living near by at Ashesteil, with whom he soon became friendly. In September he was summoned to London to leave on the new expedition; he left Scott with the hopeful proverb on his lips, “Freits (omens) follow those that look to them.” Park had at that time adopted the theory that the Niger and the Congo were one, and in a memorandum drawn up before he left Britain he wrote: “My hopes of returning by the Congo are not altogether fanciful.”
He sailed from Portsmouth for The Gambia on January 31, 1805, having been given a captain’s commission as head of the government expedition. Alexander Anderson, his brother-in-law, was second in command, and on him was bestowed a lieutenancy. George Scott, a fellow Borderer, was draughtsman, and the party included four or five artificers. At Goree (then in British occupation) Park was joined by Lieutenant Martyn, R.A., 35 privates and two seamen. The expedition did not reach the Niger until the middle of August, when only eleven Europeans were left alive; the rest had succumbed to fever or dysentery. From Bamako the journey to Segu was made by canoe. Having received permission from the local ruler to continue, at Sansandig, a little below Segu, Park made ready for his journey down the still unknown part of the river. Park, helped by one soldier, the only one left capable of work, converted two canoes into one tolerably good boat, 40 ft. long and 6 ft. broad. This he christened H.M. schooner “Joliba” (the native name for the Niger), and in it, with the surviving members of his party, he set sail down stream on November 19. At Sansandig on October 28, Anderson died, and in him Park lost the only member of the party – except Scott, already dead – “who had been of real use.” Those who embarked in the “Joliba” were Park, Martyn, three European soldiers (one mad), a guide and three slaves. Before his departure Park gave to Isaaco, a Mandingo guide who had been with him thus far, letters to take back to The Gambia for transmission to Britain. The spirit with which Park began the final stage of his enterprise is well illustrated by his letter to the head of the Colonial Office in which he said that he was prepared to die in pursuit of his mission to trace the source of the Niger; “I shall,” he wrote, “set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt. Though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger.”
To his wife he wrote stating his intention not to stop nor land anywhere until he reached the coast, where he expected to arrive about the end of January 1806. These were the last communications received from Park, and nothing more was heard of the party until reports of disaster reached the settlements on The Gambia. At length the British government engaged Isaaco to go to the Niger to ascertain the fate of the explorer. At Sansandig Isaaco found the guide who had gone down stream with Park, and the substantial accuracy of the story he told was later confirmed by the investigations of Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander. This guide (Amadi) stated that Park’s canoe descended the river to Yauri, where he (the guide) landed. In this long journey of about 1,000 miles Park, who had plenty of provisions, stuck to his resolution of keeping aloof from the natives. Below Jenné, came Timbuktu, and at various other places the natives came out in canoes and attacked his boat. These attacks were all repulsed, Park and his party having plenty of firearms and ammunition and the natives having none. The boat also escaped the many perils attendant on the navigation of an unknown stream strewn with many rapids – Park had built the “Joliba” so that it drew only a foot of water. But at the Bussa rapids, not far below Yauri, the boat struck on a rock and remained fast. On the bank were gathered hostile natives, who attacked the party with bow and arrow and throwing spears. Their position being untenable, Park, Martyn, and the two soldiers who still survived, sprang into the river and were drowned. The sole survivor was one of the slaves, from whom was obtained the story of the final scene. Isaaco, and later Lander, obtained some of Park’s effects, but his journal was never recovered. In 1827 his second son, Thomas, landed on the Guinea coast, intending to make his way to Bussa, where he thought his father might be detained a prisoner, but after penetrating some little distance inland he died of fever.
One of Park’s direct descendants is the Canadian author (of Scottish lineage), Professor Andrew Price-Smith, who has published extensively on health and development issues in Southern Africa.
Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. This book, first published in London in 1700, made the “debonair and handsome” Park “an overnight celebrity” … in London’s scientific and literary circles.
Park’s widow Allison died in 1840. Mungo Park’s exploits fueled the European appetite for the exploration of Africa, becoming almost mythical. He inspired others of a similar modest social status to try their luck in Africa. He epitomized a new type of here, Kryza writes of a new type of European hero, the lone, brave African explorer who penetrates the heart of the continent with the sole purpose of finding out what is there to be found, whose tales of their own exploits soon “captured the imagination, fed the fantasies and filled the literature of Europe” Similarity can be seen in the later career of fellow Scot Alexander Gordon Laing. His reputation among African, though, which may well have contributed to Laing’s murder, was very different. Laing ruefully commented that Park’s policy of killing defenseless men had been somewhat unthinking in terms its consequences for those who followed him, “how unjustifiable was such conduct.” Ironically, Laing considered himself a successor to Park. Park had come among them uninvited and acted with such arrogance that his own name came to represent any European, and was used as a curse, ‘”Mungo Park” became a generic insult hurled at European travelers; the lost explorer was passing into myth’ and it is said that the “Emir of Yauri uses Park’s silver-topped cane as his staff of office.” However, commenting on the odd concept of the European ‘discovery’ of Africa, since as Hastings Banda declared, “there was nothing to discover, we were here all the time,” McLynn suggests that while the notion is patronizing, what the process did was to build a bridge between Europe and Africa. “For better or worse,” he writes, this incorporated Africa into a general system of knowledge and a world system of economics.” Mungo was a precursor of ‘imperialism, which in turn generated the modern African nation-states’. At the ‘beginning of the nineteenth century, the interior of Africa was almost entirely unknown to European’ and Park did make a significant contribution to making part of the unknown known.
Mungo Park Medal
The Royal Scottish Geographical Society award the Mungo Park Medal annually in Park’s honour.