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Mungo Park

Portrait of Mungo Park, from: Mungo Park. 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: printed by W. Bulmer and Co. for the author, 1799 [FCO Historical Collection DT356 PAR]Portrait of Mungo Park, from: Mungo Park. 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: printed by W. Bulmer and Co. for the author, 1799 [FCO Historical Collection DT356 PAR]In June 1788 nine of the twelve members of the Saturday Club, a gentlemen’s dining club, formed themselves into an ‘Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa,’ as they deemed it unworthy of their ‘present age’ that only so little was known about ‘so large a portion of the globe’ as the African continent.

When in May 1795 the twenty-three year old Scottish surgeon Mungo Park (1771-1806) left on his expedition to ‘ascertain the course and if possible, the rise and termination of [the river Niger]… [and] to visit the principal towns or cities in its neighbourhood, particularly Tombuctooo and Houssa,’ he was already the fourth explorer to be sent out by the African Association, as it was commonly known. Two of his predecessors, John Ledyard (1751-89) and Daniel Houghton (1740-91) had died in the attempt. The third, Simon Lucas (ca.1766-99), had not penetrated far into the interior, due to political upheaval in the region.

Park arrived in the Gambia in June. From there he travelled on with only a small amount of luggage, accompanied by his interpreter Johnson, a freed slave, and Demba, his servant. At first all went well but then Park was captured by Moors and badly treated. He eventually managed to escape and after being repeatedly robbed, suffering from fever, starvation and thirst, he finally reached the banks of the river Niger in July 1796:

I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission; the long sought for, majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, a broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward.

He travelled on to Silla but then decided to return to the Gambian coast for safety.

Park, who had been given up for dead, received a warm welcome in England. His travel account, written in a direct and unassuming style and providing a detailed description of the places he visited and their inhabitants, was a great success. Nevertheless, Park had only been able to fulfil one part of his objective, namely to establish the course of the river. The Niger’s source and its mouth were still unknown. In order to settle these questions, another, much more elaborate, government-sponsored expedition under Park’s leadership left for the Gambia in 1805. It was a disaster. When the party set off, it consisted of 44 Europeans; by the time it reached the Niger, only ten were still alive. By November, when Park wrote in a letter to his wife of his intention to sail down the river in a canoe to find its mouth, he had only three companions left. This letter was the last that was heard of him and for many years his fate was unknown.

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