Mungo Park (September 11, 1771 – 1806)
was a Scottish explorer of
the African continent.
He was credited
as being the first Westerner to encounter the Niger River
was born in Selkirkshire,
Foulshiels on the Yarrow Water, near
Selkirk , on a tenant farm which his father rented from the
Duke of Buccleuch.
the seventh in a family of thirteen. Although tenant farmers, the
Parks were relatively well-off –- they were able to pay for Park to
have a good education, and Park's father died leaving property
valued at £3,000. The Parks were Dissenters, and Park was brought
up in the Calvinist
Park was educated at home before attending Selkirk grammar school,
then, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed
to a surgeon
named Thomas Anderson in Selkirk. During his apprenticeship, he
made friends with Anderson's son Alexander and became acquainted
with his daughter Allison, who would later become his wife.
In October 1788, Park started at the University of Edinburgh
for four sessions studying medicine and botany. Notably, during his
time at university, he spent a year in the natural history course
of Professor John Walker
completing his studies, he spent a summer in the Scottish
Highlands, engaged in botanical fieldwork with his brother-in-law,
James Dicks as a gardener and seed
merchant in Covent
In 1788 he and Sir Joseph Banks
had founded the London Linnean Society
1793, Park completed his medical education by passing an oral
examination at the Royal College of Surgeons of
England in London.
Through a recommendation by
Banks, he then obtained the post of assistant surgeon on board the
East Indiaman Worcester
. In February 1793 the Worcester
sailed to Benkulen in Sumatra.
Before departing, Park wrote to his friend Alexander Anderson in
terms that reflect his Calvinist upbringing:
On his return in 1793, Park gave a lecture to the Linnaean Society,
describing eight new Sumatran fish. He also presented Banks with
various rare Sumatran plants.
In 1794 Park offered his services to the African Association
, then looking for a
successor to Major Daniel Houghton
who had been sent in 1790 to discover the course of the Niger River
and had died in the Sahara
. Supported by Sir Joseph Banks
, Park was selected.
21, 1795, he reached the Gambia River and ascended it 200 miles to a British trading
station named Pisania.
On December 2, accompanied by two
local guides, he started for the unknown interior. He chose the route
crossing the upper Senegal basin and
through the semi-desert region of Kaarta.
The journey was full of difficulties,
and at Ludamar he was imprisoned by a Moorish
chief for four months. On July 1, 1796, he
escaped, alone and with nothing but his horse and a pocket compass,
and on the 21st reached the long-sought Niger River at Ségou, being the
first European to do so.
He followed the river downstream 80
miles to Silla, where he was obliged to turn back, lacking the
resources to go further.
return journey, begun on July 30, he took a route more to the south
than that originally followed, keeping close to the Niger as far as
Bamako, thus tracing its course for some 300 miles.
At Kamalia he fell ill, and owed his life to the kindness of a man
in whose house he lived for seven months. Eventually he reached
Pisania again on June 10, 1797, returning to Scotland by way of Antigua on December 22.
He had been thought dead,
and his return home with news of the discovery of the Niger River
evoked great public enthusiasm. An account of his journey was drawn
up for the African Association by Bryan Edwards, and his own
detailed narrative appeared in 1799 (Travels in the Interior of
). It was extremely popular and is available in Project Gutenberg
Settling at Foulshiels, in August 1799 Park married Allison,
daughter of his old master, Thomas Anderson. Two offers made to
him to go to New South
Wales in some official capacity came to nothing, and in
October 1801 Park moved to Peebles, where he practiced as a physician.
In the autumn of 1803 Park was invited by the government to lead
another expedition to the Niger. Park, who chafed at the hardness
and monotony of life at Peebles, accepted the offer, but the
expedition was delayed. Part of the waiting time was occupied
perfecting his Arabic – his teacher
being Sidi Ambak Bubi, a native of Mogador, whose behaviour both amused and alarmed the people
In May 1804 Park went back to Foulshiels, where he made the
acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott
living near by at Ashesteil, with whom he soon became friendly. In
September, Park was summoned to London to leave on the new
expedition; he left Scott with the hopeful proverb on his lips,
"Freits (omens) follow those that look to them."
at that time adopted the theory that the Niger and the Congo were
one, and in a memorandum drawn up before he left Britain he wrote: "My hopes of returning by the Congo are
not altogether fanciful."
January 31, 1805, he sailed from Portsmouth for Gambia, having been
given a captain's commission as head of the government
Alexander Anderson, his brother-in-law and
second-in-command, had received a lieutenancy. George Scott, a
, was draughtsman,
and the party included four or five artificers. At Goree
(then in British occupation) Park was joined by
Lieutenant Martyn, R.A., thirty-five privates and two seamen.
The expedition did not reach the Niger until mid-August, when only
eleven Europeans were left alive; the rest had succumbed to fever
. From Bamako the journey
to Ségou was made by
Having received permission from the local ruler to
proceed, at Sansandig, a little below Ségou, Park made ready for
his journey down the still unknown part of the river. Helped by one
soldier, the only one capable of work, Park converted two canoes
into one tolerably good boat, 40 feet long and 6 feet broad. This
he christened H.M. schooner Joliba
(the native name for
the Niger River), and in it, with the surviving members of his
party, he set sail downstream on November 19.
Anderson had died at Sansandig on October 28, and in him Park had
lost the only member of the party – except Scott, already dead –
"who had been of real use." Those who embarked in the
were Park, Martyn, three European soldiers (one
mad), a guide and three slaves. Before his departure, Park gave to Isaaco, a
Mandingo guide who had been with him
thus far, letters to take back to Gambia for
transmission to Britain.
The spirit with which Park began the final stage of his enterprise
is well illustrated by his letter to the head of the Colonial
Office: "I shall," he wrote, "set sail for the east with the fixed
resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in
the attempt. Though all the Europeans who are with me should die,
and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if
I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least
die on the Niger."
To his wife, Park wrote of his intention not to stop nor land
anywhere until he reached the coast, where he expected to arrive
about the end of January 1806.
These were the last communications received from Park, and nothing
more was heard of the party until reports of disaster reached
At length the British government engaged Isaaco to go to the Niger
to ascertain Park's fate. At Sansandig Isaaco found Amadi, the
guide who had gone downstream with Park, and the substantial
accuracy of the story he told was later confirmed by the
investigations of Hugh Clapperton
and Richard Lander
Amadi stated that Park's canoe had descended the river to Yauri
, where Amadi landed. In this long journey of
some 1,000 miles Park, who had plenty of provisions, stuck to his
resolution of keeping aloof from the natives. Below Jenné, came Timbuktu, and at various other places the natives came out
in canoes and attacked his boat.
These attacks were all
repulsed, Park and his party having plenty of firearms and
ammunition and the natives having none. The boat also escaped the
many perils attendant on navigating an unknown stream strewn with
many rapids; Park had built the Joliba
so that it drew
only a foot of water.
But at the Bussa rapids, not far below Yauri
the boat struck on a rock and remained fast. On the bank were
gathered hostile natives, who attacked the party with bow and arrow
and throwing spears. Their position being untenable, Park, Martyn
and the two remaining soldiers sprang into the river and were
drowned. The sole survivor was one of the slaves, from whom was
obtained the story of the final scene.
Isaaco, and later Lander, obtained some of Park's effects, but his
journal was never recovered. In 1827 his second son, Thomas, landed on
the Guinea coast,
intending to make his way to Bussa, where he
thought his father might be detained a prisoner; but after
penetrating a little distance inland he died of fever.
Park's widow Allison died in 1840.
J. Thomson's Mungo Park and the Niger
contains the best critical estimate of the explorer and his work.
See also the Life
(by Wishaw) prefixed to Journal of a
Mission into the Interior of Africa in 1805
(London, 1815); H.
B., Life of Mungo Park
(Edinburgh, 1835); and an
interesting passage in Lockhart
's Life of Sir Walter
, vol. ii.
One of Park's direct descendants is the Canadian author (of
Scottish lineage), Professor Andrew Price-Smith, who has published
extensively on health and development issues in Southern
Mungo Park's adventures on the Niger are the subject matter of
, a richly
detailed comic adventure novel published in 1981 by the American
writer T.C. Boyle
The Royal Scottish
award the Mungo Park Medal
annually in Park's
- Foulshiels – The Institute of Geography, University of
- http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5266 'Mungo Park, Travels in
the Interior of Africa v.I;
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5305 v. II.