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Issue 12 - A great explorer

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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A great explorer

In 1799 a young Scottish borderer published his story of an epic African journeyand became the toast of London society. Neil Gunn recounts his story.

The first volume of Mungo Park’s Travels into the Interior of Africa was published in 1799 to huge acclaim. Lewis Grassic Gbbon commented that: “London and the provinces devoured the book.”

Mungo Park was born in 1771 during the ‘Golden Age’ of Scottish Enlightenment, that period in our history that saw Scots lead the world in the fields of philosophy, economics, geology and science.

With his parents encouragement he worked hard at the local grammar school. His father saw a career in the ministry for his son but the young Mungo had other thoughts.

In 1785 Mungo Park was apprenticed to Dr Thomas Anderson in Selkirk and spent the next few years learning the rudiments of medicine as he accompanied the respected doctor on his rounds.

1789 was an important year for the young Borderer. He left Selkirk and went up to Edinburgh University to continue his medical studies. He didn’t graduate from the course but the university records show his attendance at lectures of chemistry, anatomy and surgery, medical theory and botany.

In a meeting that would change his life, Park was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks who as President of the Royal Society wielded great influence and patronage throughout the scientific community.

With the help of Sir Joseph he found a berth as assistant surgeon on the Worcester, an East India man bound for Sumatra. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “I have now got upon the first stair of ambition.”

The Worcester sailed for the East Indies in 1792. It was a relatively uneventful year for Mungo. With his first trip completed Mungo was ready for more. He wasn’t to be idle for long for Sir Joseph Banks had plans for the young Scotsman.

Following the discovery in 1770 of the source of the Blue Nile by Scotsman James Bruce, the African Association of which Banks was now a leading light was determined to track the course of another of the continent’s great rivers.

Earlier attempts to chart the Niger were unsuccessful but Banks was sure that despite his youth Mungo Park was the right man to extend the boundaries of African exploration. Park explained his instructions from the African Association.

“I was directed on my arrival in Africa to pass on to the river Niger… That I should ascertain the course and if possible, the rise and termination of that river. That I should use my utmost exertions to visit the principal towns… particularly Timbuctoo.”

Aboard the brig Endeavour, Park sailed from Portsmouth on the south coast of England on 22 May 1795. He landed at Jillifree on the banks of the Gambia River 30 days later.

He moved inland to a small British trading post at Pisania where he stayed with the manager Dr Laidley.

The doctor had been a long time resident in the Gambia, an expert in local customs and fluent in Mandingo the language most widely used in the area.

Mungo knew it was essential to draw on Laidley’s experience and learn some of the language before venturing further.

The greatest danger for Europeans not used to the hot wet climate was fever and after a night “observing an eclipse of the moon” Mungo “ exposed himself to the night dew…” and was “attacked with a smart fever”.

It wasn’t until December 1795 that the young Scotsman felt able to continue. The next six months were a nightmare of fever, starvation, robbery and captivity by fanatical Moors who had nothing but contempt for their Nazarani (Christian) prisoner.

When Mungo finally managed to escape he was close to death but still determined to go on. He found hospitality and kindness particularly from the women of the villages he passed and his strength slowly returned.

He reached the Niger at Segou in Mali on 20 July 1796 where he “saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission, the long sought after and majestic Niger, glistening in the sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster and floating slowly to the eastwards.

“I hastened to the brink and having drunk of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus crowned my endeavours with success.”

It was time to return home. Park joined a slave caravan heading for the coast, finally returning to Pisania in June 1797.

Mungo Park returned to London early on Christmas day 1797 and with the help of Bryan Edwards Secretary of the African Association prepared the manuscript for his book.

His eagerly awaited book was packed with details of strange peoples and customs, of unexpected kindness and great hardships stoically borne. There was however one glaring omission.

He saw at first hand the great misery that slave-traders brought to Africa, he saw men, women and children taken from their families, travelled with them and watched them chained below decks on the ship that took him from the Gambia.

But despite the ever-growing clamour of the Abolitionist movement he never wrote or spoke out to condemn the odious trade.

After its publication he returned to Scotland to marry “his lovely Allie”. He had made some money from the publication of Travels but as a married man and soon to be father he needed regular employment.

With no other suitable offers by the Government or the Association he moved to Peebles in 1801 and set up his medical practice.

Mungo had been introduced to Sir Walter Scott on his return to Scotland and confided to him that: “ He would rather brave Africa and all its horrors than wear out his life in the hills of Peeblesshire with an income barely enough to keep body and soul together.”

By 1803 the Government had agreed to a second journey to the Niger although it was a further two years before he sailed.

In a final meeting with his friend, Sir Walter Scott recalled as they had ridden together from his summer house and during the journey Park’s horse had stumbled.

He said: “I’m afraid Mungo that’s a bad omen.” Not realising how prophetic Scott’s words would be Park replied “omens follow those who look to them.”

Without formal goodbyes he turned his horse and rode away.

The second expedition to the Niger ended with the death of Park and his European companions. Sir Walter Scott had been right to worry about his friend.