Mungo Park

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

In 1797, the fledg­ling Bri­tish Mu­seum oc­cu­pied Mon­tagu House, a lordly home sur­rounded by wooded gar­dens in what is now cen­tral Lon­don. Early on Christ­mas Day that year, James Dickson was alone in the gar­dens. Dickson, a Scot­tish seeds­man, was so ab­sorbed by his task that he did not hear any­one en­ter the side gate. So when he looked up and saw a man com­ing to­wards him through the gloom, he be­lieved he was see­ing the ghost of a man who was sup­posed to be deep in the heart of Africa. It was his brother-in-law, Mungo Park.

It was through Dickson that Park had met Sir Joseph Banks, a man with a unique po­si­tion in Bri­tish so­ci­ety. One of the wealth­i­est peo­ple in the coun­try, and one of the best con­nected too, Banks had de­cided early in his life not to be­come in­volved di­rectly in pol­i­tics. In­stead he de­voted his ta­lent and his con­sid­er­able means to the pur­suit of sci­en­tific in­ter­ests. He had, for in­stance, paid a small for­tune for the priv­i­lege of be­ing the botanist to ac­com­pany Cap­tain James Cook on his sec­ond voy­age around the world. In 1771, Banks re­turned from the South Seas to a hero’s wel­come in Lon­don – at the time he was as fa­mous as Cook. Seven years later, he was elected pres­i­dent of the coun­try’s lead­ing sci­en­tific or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Royal So­ci­ety. Set­tled in Lon­don, Banks now en­joyed the friend­ship of King Ge­orge III, who gave him care of the royal gar­dens at Kew. Banks also be­came ad­viser on sci­en­tific mat­ters to His Majesty’s govern­ment, a one-man De­part­ment of Sci­ence. He was also an ac­tive mem­ber of Lon­don’s in­tel­lec­tual and so­cial life, a fre­quenter of the din­ners of a string of clubs and so­ci­eties in­clud­ing the Royal So­ci­ety Club, the So­ci­ety of Dilet­tanti, the So­ci­ety of Arts and a lit­tle-known group called the Satur­day’s Club.

Noth­ing is known of the Satur­day’s Club un­til nine of its dozen mem­bers met for din­ner at the St. Al­ban’s Tav­ern on 9 June 1788 – not a Satur­day, note, but a Monday – and cre­ated the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Pro­mo­tion of the Dis­cov­ery of the In­te­rior Parts of Africa, the African As­so­ci­a­tion for short. Banks and his friends Lord Raw­don (later Mar­quis of Hast­ings and Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral of In­dia), the anti-slav­ery MP Henry Beau­foy and the Scot­tish im­prover Sir John Sin­clair, founder of the Board of Agriculture, were among the mem­bers. The res­o­lu­tion they voted on that day stressed the ge­o­graph­i­cal na­ture of their project:

‘ That as no species of in­for­ma­tion is more ar­dently de­sired, or more gen­er­ally use­ful, than that which im­proves the sci­ence of Ge­og­ra­phy; and as the vast con­ti­nent of Africa, notwith­stand­ing the ef­forts of the an­cients, and the wishes of the moderns, is still in a great mea­sure un­ex­plored, the mem­bers of this Club do form them­selves into an As­so­ci­a­tion for pro­mot­ing the dis­cov­ery of the in­land parts of that quar­ter of the world.’

Which part of ‘that quar­ter of the world’ would they in­ves­ti­gate first The choice soon be­came ob­vi­ous - since an­tiq­uity, Africa was known to have two ex­tra­or­di­nary rivers, the Nile and the Niger. On some maps these two rivers were shown to be con­nected, the Niger run­ning across the con­ti­nent and join­ing the Nile, which then ran due north to

the Mediter­ranean. Some­where along the Niger, they knew, there was a great trad­ing city called Tim­buktu where gold was in such abun­dance that even the slaves were adorned with it.

Within two weeks of the Satur­day’s Club din­ner, Banks and his friends had agreed upon a plan to bi­sect the north­ern half of the con­ti­nent in search of the Niger. They would send one ex­plorer south from Tripoli in Libya and another west from the Red Sea coast of Su­dan. In so do­ing, they were to usher in the great age of over­land ex­plo­ration.

Within two weeks, they had also en­gaged two trav­ellers. John Led­yard was an Amer­i­can who had sailed on Cook’s last voy­age and was in­tent on be­com­ing the first per­son to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the world by land. He was sent to make the east-west cross­ing ‘ as nearly as pos­si­ble in the di­rec­tion of the Niger’, as it was put in his in­struc­tions, ‘ with which River, and with the Towns and Coun­tries on its bor­ders, he shall en­deav­our to make him­self ac­quainted’. Un­for­tu­nately he died in Cairo be­fore he could even be­gin his jour­ney. The other trav­eller was Si­mon Lu­cas, King Ge­orge III’s Ori­en­tal In­ter­preter, who vol­un­teered to sail to Tripoli. In one way, Lu­cas seemed an ideal can­di­date for the job. As a youth, he had been cap­tured by pi­rates and sold as a slave to the em­peror of Morocco, so he knew the lan­guage and men­tal­ity of the re­gion. But he was no ad­ven­turer and lacked the tem­per­a­ment to travel into Africa; be­fore he had even left the Mediter­ranean coast for the in­te­rior, he de­cided to re­turn to Lon­don.

While their first trav­ellers were out in the field, Banks and his col­leagues on the com­mit­tee of the African As­so­ci­a­tion were busy col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on the in­te­rior from other sources, in­clud­ing dis­patches from Bri­tish con­suls along the North African coast. They also tried to make con­tact with Moor­ish traders pass­ing through Lon­don. From two of these men – Ben Ali and Shabeni – they learned a great deal about trav­el­ling con­di­tions in the in­te­rior. Ben Ali, who had al­ready been to Tim­buktu, went fur­ther than mere words and of­fered to

take one of the As­so­ci­a­tion’s trav­ellers into the heart of Africa. But his terms were too steep and his be­hav­iour too bizarre; be­fore an agree­ment could be reached, Ben Ali had dis­ap­peared.

The As­so­ci­a­tion’s plans were now changed to re­flect this newly-ac­quired knowl­edge: the Com­mit­tee de­cided to ap­proach the in­te­rior from the Gam­bia River. This time, they chose an Ir­ish­man, Ma­jor Daniel Houghton. Houghton had trav­elled in Morocco and spent sev­eral years serv­ing at the fort on Ile de Gorée, just off the Sene­galese coast (near present-day Dakar), so was well-sea­soned. In Oc­to­ber 1790, he sailed for the Gam­bia River, made con­tact with Dr. Lai­d­ley, a Bri­tish slave trader op­er­at­ing along the river, en­joyed the hos­pi­tal­ity of the King of Wuli – who as­sured him he could walk to Tim­buktu ‘ with only a stick in my

hand’ – and then set off for the in­te­rior. On 1 Septem­ber 1791, he sent Lai­d­ley the fol­low­ing note: ‘ Ma­jor Houghton’s com­pli­ments to Dr. Lai­d­ley, is in good health on his way to Tom­buc­too, robbed of all his goods by Fenda Bu­car’s son.’ Af­ter that, si­lence. It was not un­til the African As­so­ci­a­tion’s an­nual meet­ing of 1794, held at the Thatched House Tav­ern in Pall Mall, that the Sec­re­tary, Henry Beau­foy, an­nounced the Com­mit­tee’s be­lief that Houghton had been mur­dered. Beau­foy also an­nounced that an ap­pli­ca­tion had been ‘ re­ceived from Mr Mungo Park to en­gage in the ser­vice of the As­so­ci­a­tion as a Ge­o­graph­i­cal Mis­sion­ary’.

Park had en­joyed Sir Joseph Banks’ pa­tron­age for some years be­fore he of­fered his ser­vices to the As­so­ci­a­tion. Through Banks, Park had been em­ployed as as­sis­tant sur­geon on an East In­dia Com­pany ship sail­ing for Ben­coolen in Su­ma­tra and had had his pa­per Eight small fishes from the coast of Su­ma­tra read be­fore the fledg­ling Lin­naean So­ci­ety (another of Banks’ en­deav­ours). In May 1794 Park had writ­ten to his brother that ‘ I have… got Sir Joseph’s word that if I wish to travel he will ap­ply to the African As­so­ci­a­tion.’ As we know, he did wish to travel - Banks made the ar­range­ments and Park had the plea­sure of see­ing the Niger, as he de­scribed it,

‘glit­ter­ing to the morn­ing sun, as broad as

Park re­turned to Bri­tain in tri­umph. He was the first As­so­ci­a­tion trav­eller to reach the in­te­rior and live to tell the tale and, what’s more, he had set­tled one of the puzzles of African ge­og­ra­phy. He might not know where the Niger ter­mi­nated, but he could con­firm that it flowed to the east.

Banks lost no time in spread­ing the news of Park’s and the As­so­ci­a­tion’s suc­cess. The tim­ing was fortuitous – the war against the French was go­ing badly, Napoleon had de­feated the Aus­tri­ans, the Royal Navy was close to mutiny over bad con­di­tions and, even worse, poor lead­er­ship. Things were so bad that the French had even man­aged to make a land­ing in Wales the previous year. Park’s suc­cess was a wel­come di­ver­sion and the press was happy to play it up: sev­eral news­pa­pers ran sto­ries in the weeks af­ter his re­turn. The Times went so far as to claim that Park had made con­tact with a great city, twice the size of Lon­don, whose peo­ple were keen to trade with Bri­tain.

Lon­don’s beau monde was no less wel­com­ing to the celebrity trav­eller. Banks and Earl Spencer, a mem­ber of the As­so­ci­a­tion and brother of the no­to­ri­ous so­cialite Ge­or­giana, Duchess of Devon­shire, guar­an­teed Park’s en­try into so­ci­ety, and for a while the 26-yearold Scot­tish crofter’s son found him­self the cen­tre of at­ten­tion in Lon­don’s grand houses. Such was his rep­u­ta­tion that the Duchess of Devon­shire went as far as to glo­rify events of the night fol­low­ing his ar­rival on the Niger in a song, which was put to mu­sic by the Ital­ian com­poser G.G. Fer­rari and il­lus­trated with an en­grav­ing by the Duchess’s com­pan­ion (and suc­ces­sor) Lady El­iz­a­beth Fos­ter.

When Sir Joseph Banks had come home from his voy­age round the world he was only too happy to per­form in Lon­don’s sa­lons and, no doubt, to keep his male friends en­ter­tained over the port with racier sto­ries of his sex­ual ex­ploits. But Park did not have the tem­per­a­ment for this sort of so­ci­ety.

He had grown up on the Scot­tish Bor­ders – dour, de­mand­ing coun­try – and had then trained as a doc­tor in Ed­in­burgh. He had first trav­elled to Lon­don at the in­vi­ta­tion of his broth­erin-law Dickson, who had then brought him to the at­ten­tion of Sir Joseph Banks. Banks had soon recog­nised Park’s strength, re­source­ful­ness, in­tel­li­gence and other qual­i­ties – Henry Beau­foy, the As­so­ci­a­tion’s Sec­re­tary, called him ‘ a young man of no mean tal­ents’. To have sur­vived the many so­cial oc­ca­sions held at Banks’ Soho Square house, Park must have had the nec­es­sary so­cial ac­com­plish­ments. But on his re­turn from Africa, he soon be­gan to tire of his celebrity. The back­lash was in­evitable. Where the Duchess of Devon­shire had lav­ished at­ten­tion on him, her friend Lady Hol­land now de­scribed him as hav­ing ‘ nei­ther fancy or ge­nius, and if he does fib it is dully.’

The African As­so­ci­a­tion was due to hold its an­nual meet­ing of sub­scribers

in May, as usual, and Banks wanted an ac­count of Park’s trav­els to be ready by then, along with a new map of the area. The map was to be drawn by Ma­jor James Ren­nell, a former East In­dia Com­pany Sur­veyor-Gen­eral and now the African As­so­ci­a­tion’s hon­orary ge­og­ra­pher. Ren­nell had a daunt­ing task, for although Park had been sent out with some 65-worth of sci­en­tific equip­ment, in­clud­ing a pocket sex­tant, a mag­netic com­pass and a ther­mome­ter from the mas­ter-maker Ed­ward Troughton, he was soon robbed of ev­ery­thing but the com­pass. From then on, his ob­ser­va­tions be­came less spe­cific, less sci­en­tific. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions he al­most lost what­ever notes he had been able to make, which he car­ried tucked in­side his hat. Just be­fore reach­ing safety on his way out of the in­te­rior, stripped of what lit­tle he pos­sessed, he had had his hat re­turned to him pre­sum­ably be­cause his as­sailants be­lieved the pa­pers were some sort of magic juju.

The task of help­ing Park write up his notes fell to the As­so­ci­a­tion’s new Sec­re­tary, Bryan Edwards. This was to prove a con­tro­ver­sial choice. There was no doubt­ing Edwards’ lit­er­ary tal­ents – his His­tory of the Bri­tish West Indies was highly praised when it ap­peared in 1794 and earned him a Fel­low­ship at the Royal So­ci­ety. By the time of Park’s re­turn, Edwards was an MP and the owner of a bank in Southamp­ton. But he was also the pro­pri­etor of large Ja­maican es­tates that re­lied on slave labour. New laws had made it il­le­gal to hold peo­ple in slav­ery within Bri­tain in the late 1780s, but there was no leg­is­la­tion against slav­ery or the slave trade else­where in the world. There was, how­ever, a grow­ing and in­creas­ingly vo­cal op­po­si­tion to the trade in Bri­tain (leg­is­la­tion against the slave trade was fi­nally passed by the Bri­tish Par­lia­ment in 1807). Mem­bers of the African As­so­ci­a­tion were at the fore­front of the cam­paign against the trade, most ob­vi­ously the lead­ing anti-slav­ery cam­paigner Wil­liam Wil­ber­force. But it was Bryan Edwards, the As­so­ci­a­tion’s pro-slav­ery Sec­re­tary, who was given the task of en­cour­ag­ing Park in his lit­er­ary en­deav­ours and of pre­par­ing his man­u­script for the print­ers, though nei­ther man seemed to en­joy the task at first.

Edwards’ let­ters to Banks dur­ing this time are full of com­plaints at Park’s lack of ta­lent and ap­pli­ca­tion, ‘the oc­cur­rences which he re­lates are so unim­por­tant, that it re­quires some skill in com­po­si­tion and ar­range­ment.’ It wasn’t un­til Novem­ber 1798 that Park hit his stride and Edwards be­gan to re­lax, de­scrib­ing Park’s ac­count of his cap­tiv­ity in Lu­damar as ‘ ex­tremely well done’. By the end of Jan­uary, the con­ver­sion was com­plete and Edwards was full of praise: ‘ Park goes on tri­umphantly,’ he wrote to Banks. ‘ He im­proves in his style so much by prac­tice that his jour­nal now re­quires but lit­tle cor­rec­tion; and some parts, which he has lately sent me, are equal to any­thing in the English Lan­guage.’

Park’s au­di­ence seemed to share Edwards’ opin­ion. Trav­els into the In­te­rior of Africa was pub­lished in April 1799. The en­tire first run of around 1500 copies sold in a week and two fur­ther edi­tions sold out that first year. The crit­ics liked it too, with the Gen­tle­man’s Mag­a­zine set­ting the tone by claim­ing that ‘ Few books of Voy­ages and Trav­els have been more

favourably re­ceived.’ Once the book was launched, Park went north. With both his rep­u­ta­tion and his fi­nances en­hanced he now de­cided it was time to en­sure his pos­ter­ity in another way. In Scot­land he mar­ried and set­tled down to life in the coun­try. The only cloud on his hori­zon was his in­abil­ity to find work as a sur­geon.

With­out any ap­pro­pri­ate work, once the scars from his African jour­ney had healed, the fevers had eased, the sto­ries been told and re­told, Park be­gan to long for new ad­ven­tures. In July of 1800 he heard that Bri­tish forces had re­cap­tured the Ile de Gorée, off the Sene­galese coast, and wrote to Banks point­ing out its pos­si­ble sig­nif­i­cance in de­vel­op­ing trade with the African in­te­rior.

At the end of 1801, Park, his wife and child made the short move to Pee­bles to take up a med­i­cal prac­tice. It seems he was as en­er­getic as a lo­cal doc­tor as he had been as a trav­eller. The prac­tice pro­vided only a mea­gre liv­ing, but there were the con­so­la­tions of home, the coun­try­side and of some in­spired com­pany, in­clud­ing that of the nov­el­ist Sir Wal­ter Scott. But Park was restless, could not for­get Africa and, around this time, told Scott he ‘ would rather brave Africa and all its hor­rors than wear out his life in long and toil­some rides over cold and lonely heaths and gloomy hills.’ Along­side the de­sire to get back to Africa, there was also a mo­tive - he had guessed the Niger’s source and set­tled the ques­tion of its di­rec­tion, but the mat­ter of its ter­mi­na­tion and of Tim­buktu had still to be re­solved. He felt that he should be the one to an­swer the out­stand­ing ques­tions about the Niger. In Oc­to­ber 1803 a let­ter ar­rived sum­mon­ing him to the Colo­nial Of­fice in Lon­don.

The plan pro­posed by Lord Ho­bart of the Colo­nial Of­fice was not what Park had been ex­pect­ing. In­stead of be­ing sent on a ge­o­graph­i­cal mis­sion to search for the end of the Niger, he was asked to con­duct ne­go­ti­a­tions on trade treaties with the var­i­ous rulers and also to build a string of forts be­tween the Gam­bia and Niger rivers. To make all this pos­si­ble, he was to be ac­com­pa­nied by a gun­boat and a small force of Bri­tish red­coats.

A change in ad­min­is­tra­tion in Lon­don put the plan on hold – it took most of 1804 for the new govern­ment of Prime

Park re­turned to Bri­tain in tri­umph. He was the first As­so­ci­a­tion trav­eller to reach the in­te­rior and live to tell the tale and, what’s more, he had set­tled one of the puzzles of African ge­og­ra­phy. He might not know where the Niger ter­mi­nated, but he could con­firm that it flowed to the east

Min­is­ter Pitt to es­tab­lish it­self. Dur­ing this time, Park re­turned to Scot­land. With him trav­elled a Moor by the name of Sidi Om­back Boubi, a gov­ern­mentspon­sored Ara­bic tu­tor, who must have caused quite a stir in Scot­land by ab­stain­ing from drink­ing al­co­hol and by his habit of slaugh­ter­ing his own food. By the au­tumn of 1804, the new Sec­re­tary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Camden, had had time to con­sider the project. Camden was un­en­thu­si­as­tic about the mil­i­tary ob­jec­tives. In­stead, he wanted ‘ a Jour­ney of En­quiry with­out any mil­i­tary at­ten­dance upon it’, paid for by the Govern­ment, but or­gan­ised by the African As­so­ci­a­tion.

Ma­jor Ren­nell, the As­so­ci­a­tion’s ge­og­ra­pher, had stud­ied the in­for­ma­tion brought back by Park, sent by Houghton and gleaned from the Moors in Lon­don and con­cluded that ‘ it can scarcely be doubted that the Joliba or Niger ter­mi­nates in lakes in the east­ern quar­ter of Africa.’ Park ar­rived in Lon­don in­sist­ing that the Niger would be found to flow into the Congo and from there into the At­lantic. To prove it, he sug­gested tak­ing 30 sol­diers and six car­pen­ters, cross­ing from the Gam­bia to the Niger, build­ing boats and sail­ing to the end of the river. Ren­nell was con­vinced Park would end up stranded in the mid­dle of nowhere. Banks agreed with Ren­nell that it was ‘ one of the most haz­ardous [ex­pe­di­tions] a man can un­der­take’, fraught with ‘ the most fright­ful haz­ards’, but still be­lieved Park should go. On 18 De­cem­ber, 1804, in the com­fort of the Min­istry in Lon­don, Banks and Lord Camden agreed a timetable. If Park left Eng­land in Jan­uary, he would need two months to reach the up­per­most nav­i­ga­ble part of the Gam­bia, two months to cross to the Niger and two months to build his boats. Tim­ing was cru­cial: they needed to reach the Niger be­fore the rains started, be­fore malaria be­came a prob­lem, paths were made slip­pery and rivers swollen.

Nei­ther Banks nor Park had counted on the slow grind­ing of gov­ern­men­tal bu­reau­cracy. It took a month for Park’s in­struc­tions to be writ­ten out, even though they were more or less copied from his orig­i­nal pro­posal. With a cap­tain’s com­mis­sion, a credit of 5000, a guar­an­tee of a set­tle­ment of 4000 for his wife in the event of his death, Park sailed out of Portsmouth on 31 Jan­uary, ac­com­pa­nied by his brother-in-law, Alexan­der An­der­son, and a Selkirk artist, Ge­orge Scott. Among his pa­pers was a let­ter from Lord Camden re­mind­ing him that ‘ His Majesty has se­lected you to dis­cover and as­cer­tain whether any, and what com­mer­cial in­ter­course can be opened, with the in­te­rior’.

By March they were on Cape Verde Is­land and by the be­gin­ning of April, Park was able to write to his wife, Ailie, from Ile de Gor e as­sur­ing her that ev­ery­thing was now ready. There had been no prob­lem rais­ing vol­un­teers. On the con­trary: ‘ Al­most ev­ery soldier in the gar­ri­son vol­un­teered to go with me.’ Park had cho­sen only the best. ‘ So lightly do the peo­ple here think of the dan­ger at­tend­ing the un­der­tak­ing, that I have been un­der the ne­ces­sity of re­fus­ing sev­eral mil­i­tary and naval of­fi­cers who vol­un­teered to ac­com­pany me.’ He then ended, ‘The hopes of spend­ing the re­main­der of my life with my wife and chil­dren will make ev­ery­thing seem easy; and you may be sure I will not rashly risk my life, when I know that your hap­pi­ness, and the wel­fare of my young ones, de­pend so much upon it.’

Park and his party of 43 Euro­peans did not reach Pisa­nia, at the end of the nav­i­ga­ble stretch of the Gam­bia River, un­til the last days of April, when, ac­cord­ing to Banks’ timetable, they should al­ready have been build­ing boats

on the Niger. May is one of the hottest months in West Africa, with the weather be­com­ing in­creas­ingly op­pres­sive un­til the rains break in June. Park didn’t men­tion this in his let­ters home, but he was well aware of the prob­lem, as the first en­try in his jour­nal shows. Nor could he have failed to re­mem­ber what he had writ­ten of Karfa Taura, the slave trader who had saved him on his jour­ney from the Niger back to the coast: ‘ when a car­a­van of na­tives could not travel through the coun­try, it was idle for a sin­gle white man to at­tempt it.’

He knew the dif­fi­cul­ties ahead and could have called a halt and sat out the heat and the rains on the Gam­bian coast or at the fort on Gorée. But there had been enough de­lays. He was Mungo Park, the celebrity trav­eller who had gone into the in­te­rior and lived to tell the tale. And this time he was not alone, but trav­el­ling with a car­a­van of white men.

Con­trary to his con­fi­dent as­ser­tion in that last jour­nal en­try that ‘ we sail to­mor­row morn­ing, or evening’, Park

re­mained at Sansand­ing. The fol­low­ing day, 17 Novem­ber 1805, he wrote to Lord Camden in Lon­don with the sad news ‘that of 44 Euro­peans, who left the Gam­bia iver in per­fect health, five only are at present alive; namely, three sol­diers, (one de­ranged in his mind,) ieu­tenant Mar­tyn, and my­self.’ Park knew just how grim this report would ap­pear and so was quick to point out that although so many had died, they had been killed by the cli­mate, not by hos­tile Africans. The plan to open a trade route from the Gam­bia to Niger rivers was still vi­able – but not in the rainy sea­son. And putting a pos­i­tive spin on his sit­u­a­tion, he wrote that he ‘ was far from de­spond­ing…I shall set sail to the east with the fixed res­o­lu­tion to dis­cover the ter­mi­na­tion of the Niger or per­ish in the at­tempt.’

Two days later, on 19 Novem­ber, he wrote another let­ter to his wife, an­nounc­ing the death of her brother, Alexan­der An­der­son. ‘ I am afraid that, im­pressed with a woman’s fears, and the anx­i­eties of a wife, you may be led to con­sider my sit­u­a­tion as a great deal worse than it re­ally is. It is true my dear friends Mr An­der­son and Ge­orge Scott, have both bid adieu to the things of this world; and the greater part of the sol­diers have died on the march dur­ing the rainy sea­son; but you may be­lieve me, I am in good health. The rains are com­pletely over, and the healthy sea­son has com­menced, so that there is no dan­ger of sick­ness; and I have still a suf­fi­cient force to pro­tect me from any in­sult in sail­ing down the river to the sea.’

‘We have al­ready em­barked all our things, and shall sail the mo­ment I have fin­ished this let­ter. I do not in­tend to stop or land any­where, till we reach the coast; which I sup­pose will be some time in the end of Jan­uary. We shall then em­bark in the first ves­sel for Eng­land. If we have to go round by the West Indies, the voy­age will oc­cupy three months longer; so that we ex­pect to be in Eng­land on the first of May. The rea­son of our de­lay since we left the coast was the rainy sea­son, which came on us dur­ing the jour­ney; and al­most all the sol­diers be­came af­fected with the fever.’

‘I think it not un­likely but I shall be in Eng­land be­fore you re­ceive this. You may be sure that I feel happy at turn­ing my face to­wards home. We this morn­ing have done with all in­ter­course with the na­tives; and the sails are now hoist­ing for our de­par­ture for the coast.’

What were his chances of suc­cess The weather was no longer a prob­lem – they were now in the trav­el­ling sea­son. He was board­ing ship with sacks of cowrie

There were re­ports from a Moor who knew for a fact that Park had been at­tacked by Tuaregs. In 1810, a Bri­tish trader in Morocco told Banks he had news that Park’s party had been seen on the Niger in the sum­mer of 1808. There were many other (ru­mours|. But how to find out if they were true?

shells, the lo­cal cur­rency, plenty of arms, goods to trade for ne­ces­si­ties and a store of pro­vi­sions. With him was Lieu­tenant Mar­tyn, three sol­diers, three slaves and a guide. Isaaco, the man who had guided him from the start, was now re­turn­ing to the Gam­bia River – and tak­ing Park’s let­ters and jour­nal with him – but another guide, Amadi Fa­touma, was go­ing with him for the next stage of the jour­ney.

Park seems to have had lit­tle help from Lieu­tenant Mar­tyn and the three sur­viv­ing sol­diers. Mar­tyn’s state of mind can be gauged from a let­ter he wrote home just be­fore leav­ing Sansand­ing. ‘ Thun­der, Death and Light­en­ing:- the Devil to pay,’ he be­gan, list­ing the deaths along the way and then find­ing con­so­la­tion in the ‘ Ex­cel­lent liv­ing since we came here, the Beef and Mut­ton as good as was ever eat. Whit­breads [sic] Beer is noth­ing to what we get here…my head is a lit­tle sore this morn­ing – was up late last night drink­ing Ale in com­pany with a Moor who has been at Gi­bral­tar and speaks English got a lit­tle tipsy fin­ished the scene by giv­ing the Moor a damned good thrash­ing.’

On 18 Novem­ber, Park re­ceived a mes­sage from Man­song, the King of nearby Segu who had of­fered him pro­tec­tion for the first stage of his jour­ney, urg­ing him to leave as soon as pos­si­ble, be­fore word of the in­fi­dels spread along the river. So with the four Bri­tons and four Africans, Park boarded the Joliba and set sail on a jour­ney that could only have two pos­si­ble end­ings: ei­ther he would find the end of the Niger and re­turn home in glory, or he would die.

Park had writ­ten to his wife that ‘ we can ex­pect to be in Eng­land on the first of May’, but there was nei­ther sight nor word of him that spring. In Lon­don, where he re­mained a celebrity, ex­pec­ta­tion ran high. Then on 10 July 1806, the fol­low­ing no­tice ap­peared in The Times: ‘ a let­ter, it is said, has been re­ceived from the River Gam­bia, stat­ing, that Mr. MUNGO PARKE [sic], the trav­eller, and his ret­inue (two or three ex­cepted) have been mur­dered by the na­tives of the in­te­rior of that coun­try. This story is stated to have been ver­i­fied by the ar­rival of the per­sons who es­caped the mas­sacre, at Wi­dah.’

In Septem­ber, the pa­per ran another report, ‘ that Mr. Park and the few of his com­pan­ions who re­mained, had been mur­dered by or­der of the King of Segu, who con­sid­ered them as spies.’ A cou­ple of weeks later, Banks re­ceived word via one of his Moroc­can con­tacts that ‘ Mr Park ar­rived at Timbuctoo in March last’. The report, trans­lated from the Ara­bic, read:

‘ a few days since a boat came to this place [the port of Tim­buktu] hav­ing Chris­tians on board: they hoisted a white flag, and re­mained at an­chor in the Nile from the ris­ing till the set­ting sun: no one went to them, nor did they come (or com­mu­ni­cate) with any one: they did not ap­pear (to be) hos­tile, but on the con­trary, (they seemed) peace­ably in­clined, and in­of­fen­sive. I think they wished to trade with us, but the mean­ing of the flag was not un­der­stood here, and they re­turned to­wards Jen­nie in the morn­ing, since which we have nor seen noth­ing of them, nor of their boat.’ Banks con­fessed to another friend that he had ‘ doubts whether the whole per­for­mance is not a Fa­ble.’ In De­cem­ber another report leaked out of Africa, this time from a Moor who knew for a fact that Park had been at­tacked by Tuaregs. In 1810, a Bri­tish trader in Morocco told Banks he had news that Park’s party had been seen on the Niger in the sum­mer of 1808. There were many other ru­mours. But how to find out if they were true The previous year, 1809, the Bri­tish had taken over the long-held French post on the Sene­gal River. There then fol­lowed a se­ries of happy co­in­ci­dences, which helped es­tab­lish the events fol­low­ing Park’s de­par­ture from Sansand­ing. The new Bri­tish Gov­er­nor of the Sene­gal heard that Isaaco, the guide Park had sent back to the Gam­bia River, had been seen in the area. Isaaco was ap­proached and agreed to travel to the Niger to see what news he could find of Park. Isaaco reached Sansand­ing in Oc­to­ber 1810, where he had the good for­tune to meet Amadi Fa­touma, who had re­placed him as Park’s guide. ‘ They are all dead,’ Amadi cried when he saw Isaaco, ‘ they are lost for­ever.’

Isaaco ar­rived back in Sene­gal in Septem­ber 1811 and with him he car­ried Amadi Fa­touma’s ac­count of events of Park’s fi­nal demise:

Next day ( aturday) Mr Park de­parted, and I slept in the vil­lage ( aour). Next morn­ing, I went to the king to pay my re­spects to him; on en­ter­ing the house I found two men who came on horse­back;

‘The mode of sup­port­ing for­eign­ers,’ he wrote from first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence, ‘does great hon­our to their hu­man­ity.’ Mungo Park

they were sent by the chief of Yaour. They said to the king, “We are sent by the chief of Yaour to let you know that the white men went away, with­out giv­ing you or him (the chief ) any­thing; they have a great many things with them, and we have re­ceived noth­ing from them; and this Amadou Fa­touma now be­fore you is a bad man, and has like­wise made a fool of you both.” The king im­me­di­ately or­dered me to be put in irons; which was ac­cord­ingly done, and ev­ery­thing I had taken from me, some were for killing me, and some for pre­serv­ing my life. The next morn­ing early the king sent an army to a vil­lage called Boussa near the river side. There is be­fore this vil­lage a rock across the whole breadth of the river. One part of the rocks is very high; there is a large open­ing in that rock in the form of a door, which is the only pas­sage for the wa­ter to pass through; the tide cur­rent is here very strong. The army went and took pos­ses­sion of the top of this open­ing.’

‘Mr Park came there af­ter the army had posted it­self; he nev­er­the­less at­tempted to pass. The peo­ple be­gan to at­tack him, throw­ing lances, pikes, ar­rows, and stones. Mr Park de­fended him­self for a long time; two of his slaves at the stern of the ca­noe were killed; they threw ev­ery­thing they had in the ca­noe into the river, and kept fir­ing; but be­ing over­pow­ered by num­bers and fa­tigue, and un­able to keep up the ca­noe against the cur­rent, and no prob­a­bil­ity of es­cap­ing, Mr Park took hold of one of the white men, and jumped into the wa­ter; Mar­tyn did the same, and they were drowned in the stream in at­tempt­ing to es­cape. The only slave re­main­ing in the boat, see­ing the na­tives per­sist in throw­ing weapons at the ca­noe with­out ceas­ing, stood up and said to them, “Stop throw­ing now, you see noth­ing in the ca­noe, and no­body but my­self, there­fore cease. Take me and the ca­noes, but don’t kill me.” They took pos­ses­sion of the ca­noe and the man, and car­ried them to the king.’

In 1826, 20 years af­ter Park’s death, the Bri­tish ex­plor­ers Hugh Clap­per­ton and Richard Lan­der passed by Bussa and had Amadi’s story con­firmed to them by sev­eral peo­ple, in­clud­ing a man who claimed to have been an eye­wit­ness. This man in­sisted that the trav­ellers were killed not by the King of Yauri but on the or­ders of the King of Bussa, who heard of the ar­rival of an un­fa­mil­iar boat con­tain­ing lighter-skinned and heav­il­yarmed peo­ple, and as­sumed that Park and his com­pan­ions were Fu­lani raiders.

As well as con­fir­ma­tion of Park’s death, Clap­per­ton was also hop­ing to re­trieve some of Park’s be­long­ings, in par­tic­u­lar his last jour­nal. In this he was dis­ap­pointed, for the King of Yauri had given it to a trader who was sub­se­quently killed by Fu­lani raiders. Lan­der re­turned to the Niger sev­eral years later and in Bussa was given Park’s em­broi­dered damask robe and while in Yauri he bought the dou­ble-bar­relled gun Park had given to the king. Both of these were lost in his sub­se­quent jour­ney, dur­ing which he set­tled the ques­tion of the course of the Niger.

One thing Lan­der saw but could not ob­tain was a printed book with Park’s name in it. But in 1858, a Bri­tish army of­fi­cer saw this same ‘ vol­ume of log­a­rithms, with Mungo Park’s name, and au­to­bi­o­graphic notes and mem­o­randa’ and was able to trade it for his pocket knife. It was then given to the Royal Ge­o­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety in Lon­don, where it re­mains, the last known relic of one of the great trav­ellers in Africa, and one who con­sid­ered he was trav­el­ling among civilised peo­ple. ‘ The mode of sup­port­ing for­eign­ers,’ he wrote from first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence, ‘ does great hon­our to their hu­man­ity.’

Previous pages: Por­trait of Mungo Park & mud brick mosque in Tim­buktu, (Im­age: Michele Al­fieri)

Left: Map of Park’s trav­els in Africa

Above: View of Tim­buktu, Hein­rich Barth 1858

Over­leaf: Tra­di­tional pas­sen­ger boat on the Niger River (Im­age: Michel Pic­caya)

Left: The Mungo Park mon­u­ment in Selkirk, Scot­land (Im­age by An­drew Cur­rie, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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