Article abstract: Combining great ambition with tremendous courage and stamina, Park discovered and died in his efforts to traverse the Niger River in Western Africa.
Mungo Park was born on September 10, 1771, at Foulshiels Farm on the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch near Selkirk, Scotland. He was the seventh child of a well-to-do farmer, also called Mungo. Park received his early education at home and in the Selkirk grammar school. In 1786, he was placed as an apprentice to the Selkirk surgeon Dr. Thomas Anderson. This was a disappointment to his father, who wanted him to enter the ministry. With the help of Dr. Anderson, Park entered the medical school at Edinburgh University. He passed three sessions of medical studies and earned distinction in botanical studies. In 1791, after completing his medical studies, Park moved to London to seek employment.
Park’s brother-in-law, James Dickson, a London botanist, introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, who secured for him an appointment as assistant medical officer on the East India Company ship, the Worcester. He sailed to the island of Sumatra in February, 1792, where he collected rare plants. Park’s relationship with Banks continued to develop when he returned in 1793 with his specimens and data. After presenting several papers, Park, acting on the advice of Banks, offered his services to the African Association, an organization formed in 1788 to further geographical studies of Africa.
Banks was the most influential member of the Association, and he favored Park as the successor to Major Daniel Houghton, who had disappeared on the Association expedition in 1790 to locate the course of the Niger River. The Association was impressed by Park’s medical, botanical, and geographic skills as well as his physical condition for such a demanding journey. Tall and handsome in a well-chiseled way, Park possessed remarkable stamina that permitted him to perform feats of physical endurance and survive illnesses that would prove fatal to lesser men. Women found him very attractive, which proved to be important because their kindness helped him several times on his expeditions. Park’s reserved personality, religious fatalism, and driving desire for eminence made him the perfect explorer, capable of pursuing success with a single-minded ambition and a certain cold-bloodedness. Park’s instructions from the Association were to explore the Niger River and to gather information about the nations that inhabited its banks. He received fifteen shillings for each day he spent in Africa and two hundred pounds for expenses.
Park sailed from Portsmouth on May 22, 1795, aboard the Endeavor, a brig bound for the Gambia River for ivory. He arrived at the British factory of Pisania on the Gambia on July 5 and resided at the home of Dr. John Laidley for five months while he studied the Mandingo language and recovered from his first bout with fever. Unable to travel with a caravan, Park set out on December 2 with an English-speaking Mandingo former slave, a young servant, and his equipment. He followed Houghton’s earlier route and was forced to trade off most of his trafficable goods to gain the friendship of the petty chiefs.
Danger arose when Park entered the Islamic African kingdoms. He reached Jarra in the Moorish kingdom of Ludamar before Christmas and discovered that it was the village where Major Houghton had been murdered. As he crossed Ludamar, Park was constantly abused by the people he encountered, until he was seized by Moors and taken to the residence of King Ali of Ludamar. He was held prisoner for three months while suffering humiliating treatment from his captors. In July, 1796, Park escaped through the assistance of some native women who befriended him. With only his pocket compass and a horse, he endured incredible hardships before reaching Ségou on the Niger River on July 20. He described the Niger as being as broad as the Thames River at Westminster. From Ségou, he journeyed downriver to Silla, thus proving that the Niger flowed eastward; he was forced to turn back, though, because he could no longer obtain food.
Park started back from Silla on August 3 by another route farther south, where he was again ostracized or mistreated by the natives before, nearly dead, he reached Kamalia on foot on September 16. He spent seven months during the rainy season with a native slave-trader who took him on to Pisania in June, 1797. Park sailed from the Gambia on June 15 as ship surgeon on the Charleston, an American slave ship bound for the Carolinas. Switching ships at Antigua, Park arrived at Falmouth, England, on December 22.
Unannounced, Park arrived in London on Christmas morning and was warmly welcomed by Banks and the Africa Association. He had been gone for more than three years and was believed dead. His return was sensational in itself, but the news of his discovery of the Niger created a national excitement. Supported by a salary extension from the Association, Park wrote...
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