During the late 18th and early 19th century, the African continent was considered to be a real challenge for all European explorers.
Many have died there due to illness, accidents, or because they fell foul of the indigenous people. Perhaps one of the most famous explorers of West Africa is Mungo Park, a Scot who was the first Westerner known to have traveled the central portion of the Niger River. The account of his travels is still in print.
Mungo Park was born to a family of prosperous farmers who were able to pay for his good education. When Park was only fourteen, he was apprenticed to a surgeon in Selkirk, Thomas Anderson, whose daughter later became Park’s wife. At the age of sixteen, Park enrolled in the medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1792. His first work experience as a doctor was on the East India Company’s ship “Worcester” as an assistant ship’s surgeon.
In 1794, Mungo offered his services to the African Association who needed a successor to Major Daniel Houghton at the time. In 1790, Houghton had been sent to discover the course of the Niger River but died in Sahara. Park got selected, and on 22 May 1795, he left England on a vessel to Gambia. After a month he reached the Gambia River and traveled the 200 miles (300 km) to a British trading station named Pisania.
At the beginning of December, accompanied by two local guides, Park started his exploration of the unknown interior. The route he chose was crossing the upper Senegal basin and through Kaarta, a semi-desert region. His journey wasn’t exactly a smooth one. As soon as he reached Ludamar, Park was imprisoned by a Moorish chief for four months.
He managed to escape on the 1st July 1796. He had nothing except for his pocket compass and his horse. After three weeks Park became the first European who had reached the long-sought Niger River at Ségou.
But he didn’t manage to get very far. After traveling 80 miles (130 km) downstream, Park arrived at Silla where due to a lack of resources, he had to turn back. On his way back, as soon as he arrived at Kamaila, Mungo fell very ill. He survived only because of the kindness of a man who kept him in his house and took care of him for seven months. On the 10th June 1797, Park reached Pisania and in December that year returned to Scotland.
Back home he was believed to be dead, so his return took everyone by surprise. His discoveries of the Niger River sparked the public interest and enthusiasm. Park’s detailed narrative “Travels in the Interior of Africa” appeared in 1799, instantly becoming a best-seller. In it, he claimed that:
“whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature.” – Park, Mungo (1799). Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. London: W. Bulmer and Company
While traveling through the land of the Mandinka in Mali, he encountered a group of slaves:
They were all very inquisitive, but they viewed me at first with looks of horror, and repeatedly asked if my countrymen were cannibals. They were very desirous to know what became of the slaves after they had crossed the salt water. I told them that they were employed in cultivating the land; but they would not believe me; and one of them putting his hand upon the ground, said with great simplicity, “have you really got such ground as this, to set your feet upon?” – Park, Mungo (1799)
His stories, personal experiences, and detailed observations moved the nation and evoked the interest in other explorers to push deeper into the lands of West Africa.
After his adventures, Mungo found his settled life in Peebles a bit annoying, so when he got an offer from the government to lead another expedition to the Niger in 1803, he gladly accepted it. As the expedition was delayed, Park got into an intensive study of Arabic. During this time, he came up with a theory that the Niger and the Congo were one. Park sailed off for Gambia on the 31st January 1805. He was given a captain’s commission as head of the government expedition. Besides Park were his brother-in-law, Alexander Anderson, Lieutenant Martyn, R.A., thirty-five privates and two seamen.
By the time the expedition reached the Niger in the middle of August, only eleven Europeans were left alive due to dysentery or fever. The journey from Bamako to Ségou was made by canoe. At Sansanding, Park was given permission by the local ruler, Mansong Diarra to proceed further. He reached unknown parts of the river where with the help of the only soldier capable of work, Park constructed a tolerably good boat out of two canoes. The boat was 40 feet (12 m) long and 6 feet (2 m) broad and was named with the native name for the Niger River – H.M. schooner “Joliba.”
Anderson died on October 28th and left Park with no able members of the original party, only sick survivors, or as Park had put it, the already dead. Before his departure, he gave a box of letters to Isaaco, a Mandingo guide to take them to Gambia from where they could be shipped to Britain. Before beginning the final stage of his exploration, Park wrote to the head of the Colonial Office:
“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.” – Park 1816, p. cxxi-cxxii Vol. 2.
This and a letter to his wife were the last communications received from Mungo Park. When the British government sent Isaaco to ascertain Park’s fate, they found out that the adventures and troubles of Mungo’s exploration weren’t missing in the last months of his life. Apparently, he was chased in the river and had to repulse the hostile party with firearms.
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Similar incidents occurred at both Cabbara and Toomboucouton. The whole trip was followed by “battles” with different domestic groups. In the end, Park, Martyn, and two surviving soldiers sprang into the river and were drowned.
Despite his fate, Park died in the river that he was so passionately exploring. In a very real sense, he gave his life to the river.