The journal of Mungo Park’s eighteen months’ struggle in West Africa to find the source of the Niger and visit Timbuktu has become a classic of English exploration literature for three reasons: this is an adventure story of life and death; it deals with the narrow escape of a remarkable individual; and the author describes his terrible experiences in classical prose which is still a pleasure to read. Mungo Park’s character can be seen in the story he tells; he was twenty-five years old, qualified at Edinburgh University as a surgeon, experienced in tropical conditions in the East Indies. Eight years after his return from West Africa to Scotland he made another attempt to explore the Niger from its delta to its source. He was ambushed and killed at Busa in 1806, some four hundred miles from his starting point.
As for the simple yet graphic style, here is this account of his situation when, having reached the Niger, he was unable after eight months of traveling to make the remaining fourteen days’ journey to Timbuktu: “Worn down by sickness, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, half-naked, and without any article of value by which I might procure provisions, clothes, or lodging, I began to reflect seriously on my position.” Park then turned westward and began the long walk back to the coast, arriving there nearly a year later. The record he published encouraged the abolition of the slave trade, and his second book, THE JOURNAL OF A MISSION TO THE INTERIOR OF AFRICA IN 1805, led eventually to the occupation of Nigeria.
The assignment for which Park volunteered was in some ways ill-considered. In the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars the African Society (a missionary-trade-scientific association) decided to use the disruption of French trade in coastal West Africa to attempt to lay hands on the key to that trade, the interior routes by which slaves, ivory, and gold came down to the coast. The society had already lost one explorer a year or two before Park set out, and one of his instructions was to find what happened to his predecessor. The disruption of trade rippled back into the interior and exacerbated tribal warfare in which Park was caught up; furthermore, he was a devout “Nazarini” or Christian in territory which, though organized into African kingdoms, was at the mercy of Moorish bandits, traders, and officials, all fanatic Muslims; he ran a constant risk of their enslaving him. Also, Park traveled alone, his supplies simply the trade goods which immediately excited the greed of the Moors and brought him to destitution; only the kindliness of slaves and women, the enlightened self-interest of slave-traders, and the merciful intervention of an African king brought Park back alive.
Park’s motives in exploring West Africa show that curious blend of commercial and Christian drives which was to open up Africa and much of the rest of the world as the British Empire in the century inaugurated by Park’s journeys; his instructions were to clear up the rumors that the Niger went north, then west, rising somewhere not far from the Gambia mouth, a well-established trading center, and especially to visit Timbuktu and “Houssa” (name for the Hausa of Northern Nigeria) which were the great entrepots or bottlenecks for all the trade between the northern coast of Africa and the thickly settled West African hinterland and coast. His plan was to strike east from the Gambia mouth until he hit the Niger and could confirm its eastward flow at that point.
Park arrived at the Gambia trading post of Pisania on July 5, 1795, and stayed four months with his agent there, the trader Dr. John Laidley; in that time he caught the coastal or acclimatizing fever which he never lost, learned the Mandingo language, and wrote the first of the chapters of...
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