Mungo Park, I presume?

First, let me just say I love the name Mungo. I’ve loved it forever. I first loved it when I found the name St Mungo in a book of Scottish folk tales and saints that I read in high school. I loved it when it popped up in the Harry Potter series as St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. I loved it when I talked someone into giving the name Mungo to their Westie.  So when the name Mungo Park popped up in my Regency researches, I absolutely had to find out more about him.

Mungo Park

It turns out Mungo Park was a Scots physician, an early explorer into the interior of Africa, and a best-selling author. He was a geographical pioneer, the first European to travel to the central section of the Niger River and correctly identify its course .


Before Park went exploring (or trespassing, to be honest and to quote Terry Pratchett’s creation, Havlock Vetenari), Europeans believed that the Niger Delta, a vast region of mangrove swamps containing thousands of distributaries along more than 160 kilometres (100 miles) of Nigerian coastland, was simply wetlands rather than a river delta. Europeans also didn’t understand that the river they were calling the Quorra (Kworra) was actually the lower reaches of the Niger. If anything, they thought that the Senegal River might be the seaward end of the Niger.

Clearly, someone needed to go see and report back.

On 26 September 1794 Mungo Park offered his services to the African Association for this task. Park was already a physician, but as one of 12 children from a farming family without the benefit of patronage of nobility there was no way he could rise to exalted ranks in that profession. He was eager to make his name and his fortune, and exploring Africa could do it. Additionally, Park said that he “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 character of the natives.”

Happily, he was recommended by Sir Joseph Banks, and was chosen to undertake the dangerous journey.

portsmouth ships

On 22 May 1795 the intrepid Scotsman left Portsmouth aboard the Endeavour,  bound for Gambia. Park reached the Gambia River on 21 June, but had to go another 200 miles just to get to a British trading station, Pisania, and even start his real travels. It took him several months to prepare for the expedition, during which time he learned the local language of Mandingo and suffered a month-long bout of malarial fever. He finally set out on 2nd December with just two hired guides and a mule, because “he refused to travel with a local slave caravan – a decision thought to be symbolic.”

Park and his guides headed out, crossing the upper Senegal basin toward Jarra.


This took them through the semi-desert region of Kaarta, where Park became decidedly grumpy and developed a severe dislike of the Arab Tuareg, evincing “considerable hostility towards them” because he though they behaved like “barbarians” lacking any “spark of humanity”.

Although this is sometimes given as evidence of Park’s racism and hatred of Africans, it is a bit misleading. Park did not have the same antagonism for the darker-complexioned members of the Sahelian empires, such as the  Fulani, Mandinka, and Dogon people of the region. Park’s animosity toward the Tuareg probably stemmed from the fact he was captured by an Arabian chieftain at Ludamar and kept imprisoned for four months, in contrast to the treatment he experienced among the sub-Saharan peoples. For example, when he fell deathly ill in the south-west Malian village of Kamalia, a Mandinka man took him in and nursed him back to health over a period of seven months, a kindness Park felt he could never honor enough nor ever repay.


On 21 July 1796 he finally found the Niger River at Ségou, up river from Bamako, a principle city of the Mali Empire and capital of modern-day Mali. He then followed the river upstream toward the legendary city of Timbuktu, but he only made it about 80 miles (130 km) before he had to turn back. He headed back downstream toward Bamako, before leaving the river to strike out for Pisania once more. In these travels he traced the central course of the Niger River for almost 300 miles (500 km).

Park finally reached Pisania again on 10 June 1797. From there he had to take a slave ship going to Antigua (the setting of the Bertram’s slave estates in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park) so he could catch a British vessel home from there. He arrived back in Edinburg on 22 December 1797, long after he had been presumed dead.

His return caused an sensation. Bryan Edwards, a member of the African Association, helped Park quickly (for the time) put together a book detailing his adventures. The book, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, became a massive best-seller when it came out in 1799. (Was this where Austen got the idea to put the Bertram estates on Antigua?) Park’s  “dispassionate — if not scientific or objective — descriptions set a standard for future travel writers to follow and gave Europeans a glimpse of Africa’s humanity and complexity.”

Park married Allison (or Alice) Anderson in August 1799 and moved back to Foulshiels, a small village along bank of the Yarrow Water near Selkirk, where he had been born on 11 September 1771. He and his wife didn’t stay there long. In October 1801 he moved his growing family to Peebles, a small town in Tweeddale on the boarder between Scotland and England, where he worked as a physician.

In 1803 the African Association asked him to return to the ‘Dark Continent’ once more to hopefully chart the full course of the Niger River this time. His wife, sensibly, didn’t want him to go, but the terms they offered him — five thousand pounds for expenses and a thousand pounds a year in salary – was too tempting. Park agreed to go.

On 31 January 1805 Park once again set sail from Portsmouth to Gambia, but this time he had been given a captain’s commission and had a good idea of the route he would take to the Niger River. His brother-in-law, Alexander Anderson, was his second-in-command, and the expedition was bolstered by more than two dozen soldiers.

Alas, by the time Park reached the Niger River in summer of 1805 “only eleven Europeans were left alive; the rest had succumbed to fever or dysentery.” With his sadly reduced band of men, Park traveled upriver from Bamako to Ségou, where he asked for – and received — permission from the local ruler, Mansong Diarra, to continue the journey. Park converted the two canoes he had used to travel to Ségou into one boat, which he christened the H.M.S. Joliba, the Manding name for the Niger.

Park would lose even more men to tropical disease before he left Ségou, one of whom was his brother-in-law. Before his departure from Ségou on 19 November 1805, Park gave his Mandingo guide, Isaaco, letters to take back to Gambia for transmission to Britain. It was the last communication the West would ever receive from Mungo Park.

When they did not hear from Park, the British government asked his former guide, Isaaco, to try to find out Park’s fate. Isaaco was able to find a survivor of the expedition, a local guide named  Amadi Fatouma:

Amadi Fatouma stated that Park’s canoe had descended the river as far as Sibby without incident. After Sibby three canoes chased them and Park’s party repulsed them with firearms. A similar incident occurred at Cabbara and again at Toomboucouton (Timbuktu). At Gouroumo seven canoes pursued them … After passing the residence of the king of Goloijigi 60 canoes came after them which they “repulsed after killing many natives”. Further along they encountered an army of the Poule nation and kept to the opposite bank to avoid an action. After a close encounter with a hippopotamus they continued past Caffo … to an island where [Amadi] was taken prisoner. Park rescued him, and 20 canoes chased them … At Gourmon they traded for provisions and were warned of an ambush up ahead. They passed the army … and entered Haoussa, finally arriving at Yauri … Below Djenné, came Timbuktu, and at various other places the natives came out in canoes and attacked his boat. These attacks were all repulsed … at the Bussa rapids, not far below Yauri, the boat became stuck 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 …

Although Park was remembered as a hero in Great Britain, later Victorian explorer Alexander Gordon Laing reported that Park was hated in Africa. According to Laing, Mungo Park had “acted with such arrogance that his own name came to represent any European, and was used as a curse, ‘”Mungo Park” became a generic insult hurled at European travelers; the lost explorer was passing into myth’ and it is said that the “Emir of Yauri uses Park’s silver-topped cane as his staff of office.” However, Laing was traveling among the Tuareg, whom Park hated and who hated Park as well, and there is no evidence that Park was anything other than liked by the sub-Saharan peoples he met. In fact, upon Park’s death, the king of the Segou province ordered a raid into Massina territory to avenge Park’s murder.

As for Park himself, he seemed to love Africa and had a great respect for the natives he met along the Niger River. Park asserted that, “whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature”.

To this day, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society awards the Mungo Park Medal annually in his honor.

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