Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, 1799
Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in 1805, 1815
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 Houghton, had been entirely unsuccessful. In fact, Park’s journey almost ended prematurely: He contracted malaria within a few weeks of landing in Africa and was bedridden for months. The west coast of Africa was known as “the white man’s grave” for a good reason. Europeans arriving in Africa were prone to the disease, and they, like native infants, either quickly died of it or recovered slowly, developing a partial immunity. Park survived, but every rainy season he was in Africa he suffered relapses.
During his journey, Park sometimes examined the political relationships between various states, but most often he described either the varied cultures he traveled through or the exasperating impediments he encountered. Despite the occasional natural hazards such as lions and floods, Park’s physical progress was relatively quick. At times he traveled with merchant caravans, at other times with only his interpreter. What provides the major interest for the reader are Park’s frequent periods of semicaptivity in the custody of various African officials.
While waiting for permission to continue his journey, Park described the people with whom he lived. The incidents he detailed could hardly have been better chosen to appeal to his readers’ sentiments. For example, while he was imprisoned and starving he met an elderly slave woman who relieved his hunger with several handfuls of peanuts, all she had to give. In Koojar, Park reported that the natives brewed the best beer he had ever tasted. In Bondu he reported that the women teased him for his pale skin and prominent nose by guessing that his mother bathed him in milk and pinched his nose frequently while he was an infant. If Park was often naïve, he was also largely free from hostility and prejudice.
Park condemned only the people he called “Moors,” various related tribes of mixed Berber and Arab descent living on the fringe of the Sahara Desert. Park was captured in March, 1796, near the present-day border of Mali and Mauritania, and carried off to their king Ali, who held court in a semi-permanent camp. Like most desert tribes, this group led a difficult pastoral existence, supplemented by frequent plundering and enslaving of more settled peoples. Park was treated with hostility by these fierce tribesmen and was kept alive exclusively because Fatima, their queen, was curious about him. He escaped months after his capture with only his horse and the clothes he was wearing.
Even though he escaped almost certain death, his journey could not long continue, despite the generosity of Mansong, the king of Segu, who gave Park a comparatively huge amount of money for provisions. In early 1797, after traveling only about a hundred miles along the north bank of the Niger, Park decided to return home. For much of the return trip, he traveled on foot, leading his lamed horse. In 1797 he returned to England, recounting his experiences two years later in the enormously popular Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.
Park’s return to Africa in 1805 was an ill-planned venture. By the middle of 1805, twenty-four members of his expedition had died from various diseases. Sometime in early 1806, the party was confronted by hostile natives; the last five members of the expedition, including Park himself, drowned in the Niger River trying to escape: The river that was the source of his fame was also the cause of his death.