Besides being the most famous explorer of his day, Mungo Park created a literary model for generations of European explorers in Africa. His travel writings, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa and the postumously published Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in 1805, played a major role in bringing African geography to the attention of European mapmakers; equally important, they created an image of Africa as a “dark continent” crying out for aid, exploration, and commercial exploitation.
Park grew up in a lower-middle-class rural village in the lowlands of Scotland, and as a young man he developed interests in medicine and botany. He was apprenticed to a surgeon, and in 1789 he entered Edinburgh University, graduating in 1791. While looking for employment in London, Park came to the attention of various scientific organizations; he was befriended by Sir Joseph Banks, an English naturalist and president of the Royal Society. In early 1793, with the enthusiastic backing of Banks and others, Park was employed as assistant medical officer on an East India Company ship. From then until early 1794 Park studied botany in Sumatra, occasionally corresponding with Banks.
Park was employed later that year by the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior parts of Africa, a newly formed group of English scientists and abolitionists who planned and funded expeditions in the west of Africa. Although the organization’s members wanted to enrich themselves by developing trade with native states, their goal was to convince others that greater fortunes could be made by trading products and raw materials than by buying slaves, a practice which was becoming increasingly repugnant to late-Enlightenment England. Park’s mission was to discover the elevation and sources of the Niger River and, if possible, to follow its course to the sea. Both geographically and morally, Park was to go far beyond the line of the “slave factories” that had existed on the coast of West Africa for centuries.
This journey would be neither easily nor quickly accomplished. A previous expedition organized by the African Association and led by an English soldier, Major Daniel...
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