Mungo Park, 1771-1806

Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1799. Given in memory of Thomas Townsend Gaunt. [Rare Books Division]

I had a passionate desire to examine into the productions of a country so little known; and to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life, and the character of the natives. I knew that I was able to bear fatigue; and I relied on my youth, and the strength of my constitution, to preserve me from the effects of the climate. The salary which the committee allowed was sufficiently large, and I made no stipulation for future reward. If I should perish in my journey, I was willing that my hopes and expectations should perish with me; and if I should succeed in rendering the geography of Africa more familiar to my countrymen, and in opening to their ambition and industry new sources of wealth, and new channels of commerce, I knew that I was in the hands of men of honour, who would not fail to bestow that remuneration which my successful services should appear to them to merit.

—Park, from his introduction

Park studied medicine and botany at Edinburgh University. Upon his graduation, through family connections, he was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the famed scientist of James Cooks’s first circumnavigation voyage (1768-1771) and the chief promoter of the African Association [see AFRICAN ASSOCIATION]. This acquaintance gained Park an assignment in 1792 as assistant medical officer on a voyage to Sumatra. His successful completion of that mission led directly to a commission by the Association: he was to lead an expedition to discover the true course of the Niger River and possibly to reach the legendary city of Timbuktu. When he departed from England on 22 May 1795, Park was twenty-three years old and knew no African languages.

With an interpreter named Johnson, a boy servant, one horse, and two asses, Park set off on 2 December from Pisania (today’s Karantaba), a British trading post two hundred miles up the Gambia River. (On the map, Park’s route is marked in red and his return in broken red.) He reached the Niger at Sego (Ségou, Mali) on 21 July 1796 after incredible hardships. Deserted by Johnson and destitute, Park had been held captive in Benowm by the Arab chief Ali for four months. When he escaped, he continued east on his mission rather than returning to the safety of British-controlled territory. With native help, he traveled along the Niger as far as Silla but had no resources to push on. He opted for a safer, more southerly route on his return. At Kamalia, stricken with fever, he was aided by a black slave trader named Karfa Taura for seven months and then joined his caravan on the way back to the Gambia River. Long given up for dead, Park arrived in Pisania on 10 June 1797. In England he was proclaimed the “Great African Traveler.” His book was a best-seller, and he developed a warm friendship with Sir Walter Scott.

In 1805 Park returned to the Niger, commanding a British government expedition to extend commerce and geographical knowledge. Though better equipped and supplied (he started with thirty-five soldiers), Park’s group quickly succumbed to tropical fever and dysentery. His last communication, sent back to the coast by messenger, acknowledged that few members were left, but that they had assembled a boat from native canoes and were setting off down the river to determine its termination or perish in the attempt. Nothing more was heard until 1808, when British colonial authorities learned that the men had been attacked at Bussa Rapids (in today's Nigeria) and all had drowned.

Park was the first European to reach the Niger and to determine that it flowed in an easterly and then southerly direction, and he correctly deduced, as proven later by the Lander brothers [see LANDER], that it “could flow nowhere but into the sea.” He aroused a keen public interest in African exploration, and many adventurers followed in his footsteps.