Mungo Park, the African Traveler

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Kenneth Lupton’s Mungo Park the African Traveler is a penetrating and exciting biography of one of the most remarkable explorers in the golden age of African exploration. Lupton, a teacher at a Nigerian university, has been researching the life of Park and his two African explorations for twenty years. Just as Mungo Park was determined to solve the riddle of the Niger River, Lupton decided to probe the character of Park. He first became interested in the explorer in 1913 when he discovered a file in Nigeria of Park’s death as recorded by an old man. This whetted the author’s appetite to read the early works on African exploration and to try to reconstruct when, where, how, and why Park died.

Lupton believed that the explorer’s death was not an isolated event and might be better comprehended if Park’s life and his first journey to Africa were explored. Several important questions were raised—What did Park hope to accomplish? How much information did he have before he left England? What were his reasons for going? What did his explorations accomplish? What type of man was he? And, finally, why was Park’s second expedition so fraught with difficulties and why did Park behave as he did toward the Africans?

Park was born in Scotland in 1771 to a modestly successful farm family. He was educated at home and at a local grammar school. At the age of seventeen he entered Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine and distinguished himself by his interest in botany. After receiving his medical diploma, he traveled to London looking for employment. In London he secured the position of assistant surgeon on an East Indiaman through the influence of his brother-in-law, who introduced him to Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society and treasurer of the African Association. After a voyage to Sumatra, Park offered his services to the Association, which engaged him to go to West Africa. His instructions included investigating the course of the Niger and visiting Timbuktu.

Perhaps no other river in the world baffled Europeans to such a great extent or for so long a time as did the Niger. From the days of Herodotus until the solution to the Niger’s riddle in the early nineteenth century, there was confusion about all of its aspects: direction, source, the site of termination, and its very existence.

Searches for its mouth opened West Africa to European exploration. Arab geographers speculated that the Niger flowed from east to west; Pliny believed that the river flowed eastward into the Nile; and Ptolemy theorized that the river had no outlet to the sea. Other views were that the river ended in a great inland sea and that the Niger and the Congo were the same river.

Park arrived on the West Coast of Africa in the summer of 1795. The area was still terra incognita to Europeans and had the reputation of being the white man’s grave. The malarious West Coast gained that title in the eighteenth century, and one of the ditties that sailors sang went “Beware and take care of the Bight of Benin. There’s one comes out for forty go in.” Setting out for the interior in late 1795, Park saw the Niger in July, 1796. He traveled along its banks, determining conclusively the easterly direction of its flow. At this point Park, who had traveled alone for over six hundred miles, decided to turn back because of lack of funds and because the land was controlled by fanatical Muslims.

Park’s second expedition took place from 1805 to 1806 and was sponsored by the British Colonial Office. Fearing the possibility of French encroachment in the area, the British government asked Park to follow the Niger “to its utmost possible distance to which it can be traced.” Park had with him as he sailed up the Gambia River thirty-nine other Europeans, including his brother-in-law, James Dickson. The beginning of the rainy season had a terrible effect on the health of the men, many of whom soon died of dysentery and malaria. By the time the Niger was sighted, Park’s party was down to a few men. Along the way, Park antagonized the natives near the river by firing at them and refusing to pay the customary tolls. In April, 1806, Park and four survivors were attacked at Bussa Rapids; they drowned while trying to escape.

One of the paradoxes of Park’s travels is that, while he was alone on his first trek and had thirty-nine Europeans with him on his second, his first journey was very successful and his second was a total disaster. Perhaps it was due to the fact that, being alone on his first journey, he was forced to have contact and friendly relations with the natives, whereas on his second expedition he kept to his own party and shunned the Africans,...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)