Biographies & Memoirs


Mungo Park in Africa


In 1803 Joseph Banks wrote to a friend: ‘I am aware that Mr Park’s expedition is one of the most hazardous a man can undertake; but I cannot agree with those who think it is too hazardous to be attempted: it is by similar hazards of human life alone that we can hope to penetrate the obscurity of the internal face of Africa.’1

Throughout the late 1790s Banks had been increasingly tied down to his presidential chair in London. Physically he was marooned by his gout, and intellectually by the continuous administrative claims of the Royal Society. Yet despite this enforced immobility, and perhaps because of it, Banks’s huge imaginative interest in geographical exploration had continued to expand.

From Soho Square his gaze swept steadily round the globe like some vast, enquiring lighthouse beam. The fine, free anthropological adventures in the South Seas of earlier years were a thing of the past, of his lithe youth. But perhaps he could find others to undertake them. He followed the adventures of contemporary travellers with passionate interest. James Boswell gave a mutually flattering account of Banks reading his Tour of the Hebrides when it was first published in October 1785: ‘The President of the Royal Society clasped his hands together and remained for some time in an attitude of silent admiration.’2

Banks determined to support and encourage travel and exploration, both for its scientific value and increasingly for the national interest. In 1779 he had first given evidence before a special committee of the House of Commons recommending ‘Botany Bay, on the Coast of New Holland’ as the place for colonial settlement and a penal colony. For the next twenty years he kept in close touch with the governors of New South Wales, arranged for a continuous supply of botanical specimens to be shipped back to Kew, and sponsored several expeditions to explore the continent further, such as Matthew Flinders’ heroic circumnavigation in 1802-03, and his travels in the mountain ranges of Victoria.

In June 1788 Banks had also become a founder member of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Districts of Africa, attending its first historic meeting at the St Alban’s tavern in The Strand.3 Its Secretary was Bryan Edwards, a close friend of Banks’s, whose writing on the West Indies and indigenous folklore and witchcraft was later to inspire ballad poems by both Southey and Coleridge (notably Coleridge’s ‘The Three Graves’ in 1798). This pioneering body, which came to be known simply as the Africa Association (and much later, in 1831, was to be merged with the Royal Geographical Society), was soon sponsoring small but highly adventurous expeditions into Egypt and the horn of Africa. Its motives at this stage were scientific and commercial, with no missionary or colonial intentions. Its primary aim was discovery, not conquest. This would change once Banks was appointed to the Privy Council in 1797, and became ever more closely involved in prosecuting the war against Napoleon Bonaparte. From then all exploration took on a more political and frankly imperial significance. Yet Africa and Australia always fascinated Banks for their own sake.

All of the early sponsored African expeditions ended in mystery. John Ledyard was sent out to explore westwards from Cairo in 1788, Major Daniel Houghton to cross the Sahara in 1791, and Friedrich Hornemann to explore southwards from Tripoli in 1799. Various reports and rumours drifted back to Banks and the Africa Association, but none of these early heroic travellers returned alive.4

The great prize was to reach the semi-legendary city of Timbuctoo, somewhere south of the Sahara. Here, it was said, lay a great West African metropolis, packed with treasures and glittering with towers and palaces roofed with gold. It was strategically situated astride the fabled river Niger, at the confluence of the Arabic and African trade routes. Beyond Timbuctoo, it was thought that the mysterious Niger might flow due eastwards, providing a trade route across the entire African continent, and eventually meeting up with the Nile in Egypt. But to the Europeans nothing was known for certain, though many speculative maps had been drawn by military cartographers, such as Major John Rennell’s ‘Sketch of the Northern Parts of Africa’, presented to the Association in 1790.

Banks remained optimistically on the lookout for young men of promise and daring. Perhaps he was searching for versions of his earlier self, the fearless young anthropologist and botanist in Tahiti. The fact that his marriage to Lady Banks had produced no children may well have given him a special, personal interest in the careers of these young protégés.

In 1792 he was introduced to a lanky, sandy-haired young doctor from Scotland. Mungo Park had been named by his mother after the Gaelic martyr St Mungo. He struck Banks as a tall, very largely silent, but strangely impressive young man with that promising shine of adventure in his eyes. He was twenty-one years old, unmarried, and announced that he was desperate to travel. Banks immediately sensed a likely candidate, with a suitable physique and a tough, unpretentious background.

He learned that Park had been born into a large, hard-working family at Foulsheils, near Selkirk, in 1771. He had had a happy but Spartan upbringing on a lowland farm, growing up in the valley of the Yarrow river. He was physically hardy and resilient, but also well-read and thoughtful. His background was not unlike Robert Burns’s, but his temperament was quite different. Sober, reserved, intensely private almost to the point of withdrawal, Park was a natural loner. But he also had stoic, unshakeable determination, probably influenced by his mother’s Calvinism. His faraway eyes had a blue, impassive glitter. If he was a dreamer, he was not afraid of nightmares. Not, at least, to begin with.

At fourteen Park went to live with his uncle, Thomas Anderson, a surgeon in Edinburgh. Here he learned medicine, and made the closest-perhaps the only-friend of his life, his cousin Alexander Anderson. He also admired Alexander’s pretty little sister Allison, but she was only eight. Park took his medical degree at Edinburgh University, but could not settle down to domestic doctoring. He wrote poetry, studied astronomy and botany, climbed Ben Nevis, and read travel writers. He was tall, bony, handsome, and deeply uncommunicative. ‘His friendship was not easily acquired, for he was ever of a shy, retired, though not suspicious temper,’ wrote a later biographer. ‘To strangers his calm reserved manner had something of the appearance of apathy and total want of feeling…Even his dearest friends…were sometimes ignorant of the designs that lay nearest to his heart, and formed the subjects of his secret meditations.’5

In autumn 1792, at the age of twenty-one, he went to London to seek his fortune and find wider horizons. He had been given the introduction to Sir Joseph Banks through his brother-in-law, James Dickson, a botanist who worked at the British Museum gardens. After a breakfast interview at Soho Square, Banks arranged for Park to join a naval expedition to Sumatra in the East Indies, as Assistant Surgeon. He also gave him the run of his library, to prepare himself with reading and study. After his own experiences at Batavia twenty-two years before, Banks must have known that this voyage would be a demanding-perhaps fatal-trial of both the young man’s physical constitution and his morale.

On this first expedition to Sumatra, Park quickly discovered his love of travel and his extraordinary sense of self-sufficiency. When he returned eighteen months later in May 1794, tanned and fit, Banks recognised his remarkable qualities, and suggested to the Africa Association that they should send Park to explore the Niger. Speaking in his quiet, lowland accent, Park confessed to Banks that he had ‘a passionate desire’ to discover the unknown Africa, and ‘to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life and character of the natives’. If he should ‘perish in the journey’, he was willing that his hopes and expectations should perish with him. He required no promise of ‘future reward’, and he had no missionary intent. This romantic attitude deeply appealed to Banks, as also to the accountants of the Africa Association.6

In the event the Association supplied Park with basic kit for his expedition, and a salary of seven shillings and sixpence a day, or just over £11 a month. They also booked him a passage on a merchant ship bound for the Gold Coast (oddly, like Banks’s, it was named the Endeavour), and supplied a £200 letter of credit to buy supplies and trading goods at Pisania, the last white outpost on the river Gambia. Park’s kit was indeed very basic: it included two shotguns, two compasses, a sextant, a thermometer, a small medicine chest (the regular use of quinine as a prophylactic against malaria had not yet been adopted), a wide-brimmed hat and the indispensable British umbrella. There were also two vital objects of sartorial formality: a blue dress coat with brass buttons, and a malacca cane with a silver top.7

‘My instructions were very plain and concise,’ Park later wrote in his characteristic style. ‘I was directed on my arrival in Africa to pass on to the river Niger, either by the way of Bambouka, or by such other route as should be found most convenient. 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 or cities in its neighbourhood, particularly Timbuctoo and Houssa; and that I should be afterwards at liberty to return to Europe, either by the way of the Gambia or by such other route as…should appear to me advisable.’8


Mungo Park’s ship took a little more than four weeks to reach the Gold Coast, and by 5 July 1794 he was installed in Pisania, a tiny, remote outpost a hundred miles up the river Gambia. It was occupied by only three other white men, each living in a small compound: a doctor, and two white traders whose main business was gold, ivory and slaves. Park kept his views on slavery to himself, took lodgings with Dr Laidley, and was made welcome. As the rainy season set in, he learned the local language, Mandingo, read and botanised, practised navigation by the stars with his sextant, and (after spending too long observing an eclipse of the moon) endured a month-long bout of malarial fever, which ‘seasoned’ him, in the local terminology, and probably saved his life later on.9

Dr Laidley nursed him with great kindness and care, and inspired the first of many vivid evocations of the African experience in Park’s Travels: ‘His company and conversation beguiled the tedious hours during that gloomy season, when the rain falls in torrents; when suffocating heats oppress by day, and when the night is spent by the terrified traveller in listening to the croaking of frogs (of which the numbers are beyond imagination), the shrill cry of the jackal, and the deep howling of the hyena: a dismal concert interrupted only by the roar of such tremendous thunder as no person can form a conception of, but those who have heard it.’10

Park laid in a modest £16-worth of trading items-amber, tobacco, beads and Indian silks. These items were carefully chosen, not for profit, but to pay his way in diplomatic gifts and formal permissions to cross tribal territories. He bought a horse and two mules, and hired two servants to accompany him. The first was Johnson, an African guide and interpreter, a calm, stately man who had seen many things: he had been a slave in Jamaica, and then a freed man in service in England, where he married and then returned to Africa. Characteristically, Park paid half Johnson’s salary to his wife. The second was Demba, a young African slave boy, ‘sprightly’, charming and quick-witted, to whom Park promised to purchase his freedom on their safe return.11 These preparations, and Park’s slow recovery from the fever, took five months.

Anxious for Park’s safety, Dr Laidley tried to persuade them to leave in the company of a slave caravan, but Park refused, a rejection that was later seen as symbolic. The little expedition left Pisania for the interior on 2 December 1795. ‘I believe they secretly thought they should never see me afterwards,’ wrote Park.12 Shortly after, a cheerful letter arrived from Joseph Banks, wondering if Park had returned from Timbuctoo already: ‘By the time you receive this you will no doubt have returned from a perilous Journey if you have accomplished the business of seeing Tambookta you will deserve from the Association every thing they can do for you as I have no doubt you will be able to give a good Account of what you have seen.’13

In the event, the journey took two years to accomplish. Speculative maps had been drawn of this region, based on the stories of slave traders, but it was virtually unknown territory to any European. It was not even clear where the fabled river Niger rose, or in which direction it flowed. Park had to depend on luck, endurance, local hospitality and his sextant. But he had a Romantic belief in his own destiny, and a strange inner tranquillity, which could accept even the most disastrous turn of events with equanimity.

Park first followed the course of the river Gambia eastwards. He made good progress, but had most of his gifts and valuables claimed or forcibly removed by tribal chiefs in the first few weeks. On 18 February 1796 he reached the point where Major Houghton had written his last note. Here he turned northwards into the region of Ludmar, controlled by a powerful Moorish chieftain, Ali, whose protection Park intended to claim.

But in Ludmar the hoped-for Moorish hospitality imperceptibly changed into captivity, and polite interrogation degenerated into deliberate humiliation. Park had all his remaining goods seized, his interpreter Johnson taken away, and his boy servant Demba abducted. By 12 March he was effectively a solitary prisoner at Ali’s camp.14 He was confined to a hut, and subjected to an intrusive physical examination by Ali’s wife Fatima and her entourage of Moorish women. ‘A party of them came into my hut, and gave me plainly to understand that the object of their visit was to ascertain by actual inspection, whether the rite of circumcision extended to the Nazarenes [Christians], as well as the followers of Mahomet…I thought it best to treat the business jocularly.’15

Park eventually escaped, and on 20 July 1796 caught his first sight of the river Niger at Sego, some 300 miles inland. It was known locally as the ‘Jolliba’, or Great Water, and it struck him like a sacred vision.16 He described this in a striking passage, a mixture of the dreamlike and the familiar. ‘Looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission-the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering in the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing to the eastward. 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 far crowned my endeavour with success.’17 Eastwards, noted Park gravely, exactly as predicted by Herodotus.

Shortly after, the cruelty of the Moors was strangely set aside by an act of unexpected kindness and hospitality. At dusk Park was greeted by a Negro woman who had been labouring in the fields near the river. She invited him back to her hut, lit a lamp, spread a mat and made him supper of fish baked over a charcoal fire. Evidently Park half-expected some kind of sexual overture. But instead the woman invited into the hut various female members of her family, and they all quietly sat round him in the firelight, spinning cotton and singing him to sleep. Park suddenly realised the song was extempore, and the subject was himself. He was amazed when he began to understand the words: ‘It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words literally translated, were these:-“The winds roared, and the rain fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he…” ’18

The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realised that it was he-the heroic white man-who was in reality the lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift.

This incident had a huge impact when Mungo Park’s Travels were eventually published in Britain, and one can imagine what memories it stirred in Banks of his Tahiti nights so many years before. It was however also easy to sentimentalise. The glamorous and well-intentioned Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, rewrote the women’s song and had it set to music by the Italian composer Giorgio Ferrari, and circulated among the London salons. The first stanza of her version, ‘A Negro Song’, is remarkably close to the original wording, and retains its strange tenderness:

The loud wind roar’d, the rain fell fast;

The White Man yielded to the blast:

He sat him down, beneath our tree;

For weary, sad and faint was he;

And ah! no wife or mother’s care,

For him, the milk or corn prepare.

But Georgiana could not forbear to add a second stanza, which makes the situation far more conventional, and puts the white explorer back in command of his fate. She also added a plangent chorus, which in three lines subtly transformed the African women into pious, domestic supplicants.

The storm is o’er; the tempest past;

And Mercy’s voice has hush’d the blast.

The wind is heard in whispers low;

The White Man far away must go;

But ever in his heart will bear

Remembrance of the Negro’s care.


Go, White Man, go!-but with thee bear

The Negro’s wish, the Negro’s prayer;

Remembrance of the Negro’s care.19

Park travelled on down the river as far as Silla, where, exhausted, he decided to turn back short of Timbuctoo on 25 August 1796. On the return journey he was robbed and stripped by Moorish banditti in ‘a dark wood’ before he reached Kalamia. They took everything-his horse, his compass, his hat, all his clothes except his trousers and his battered boots (’the sole of one of them was tied onto my foot with a broken bridle rein’). They had evidently intended to kill him, but saw him as a feeble white man beneath contempt. They did however throw his hat back to him-not realising that it contained the papers of his travel journal folded up in the band. In what became another famous passage, Park described sitting down in utter despair, believing that the end had come. ‘After they were gone, I sat for sometime looking round me with amazement and terror…I saw myself in a vast wilderness in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone; surrounded by savage animals, and men still more savage. I was 500 miles from the nearest European settlement. All these circumstances crowded at once on my recollection; and I confess my spirits began to fail me. I considered my fate as certain, and that I had no alternative, but to lie down and perish.’20

Park’s thoughts turned helplessly towards prayer, and ‘the protecting eye of Providence’. But then something curious happened. As he hung his head in utter exhaustion and misery, his gaze began listlessly wandering over the bare ground at his feet. He noticed a tiny piece of flowering moss pushing up through the stony earth beside his boot. In a flash, his scientific interest was aroused, and leaning forward to examine the minute plant, for one moment he forgot his terrible situation. He carefully described this movement out of paralysing despair: ‘At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification, irresistibly caught my eye. I mention this to show from what trifling circumstances the mind will sometimes derive consolation; for though the whole plant was not larger than the top of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves, and capsula, without admiration.’

In that moment of pure scientific wonder, Park’s thoughts and outlook were transformed: ‘Can the Being (thought I) who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and suffering of creatures formed after his own image?-surely not! Reflections like these would not allow me to despair. I started up, and disregarding both hunger and fatigue, travelled forwards, assured that relief was at hand; and I was not disappointed.’

He soon fell in with two friendly shepherds, and continued on his way westwards, towards the sea and the long journey home. Miraculously, he found he could pay his passage by writing phrases from the Koran on loose scraps of paper, saved from his journal, and selling these as religious charms.21

Although it was Park’s scientific curiosity that saved him-the precise botanical term ‘capsula’ carries significant weight-a theologian might convincingly describe this moment as an example of the power of the Argument by Design. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner has a similar vision when, alone and becalmed in the Pacific, and dying of thirst, he sees the beautiful, phosphorescent sea creatures playing round the ship’s hull, and in a moment of redeeming selflessness he is saved.

O happy living things! No tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me

And I blessed them unaware.22

At this moment the albatross of despair falls from his neck.

Park’s moment of revelation fascinated the young Joseph Conrad. He wrote in an essay,’Geography’ (1924), of his inspiring boyhood image of Mungo Park: ‘In the world of mentality and imagination which I was entering, it was they, the explorers, and not the characters of famous fiction who were my first friends. Of some of them I had soon formed for myself an image indissolubly connected with certain parts of the world. For instance, the western Sudan, of which I could draw the rivers and principal features from memory even now, mean for me an episode in Mungo Park’s life. It means for me the vision of a young, emaciated, fairhaired man, clad simply in a tattered shirt and worn out breeches sitting under a tree.’

It is interesting that Conrad imagined Park in the Sudan, as if he had indeed successfully crossed the whole of Africa from west to east, via Lake Chad.23


Park slipped back into London just before Christmas 1797. He went quietly into the British Museum gardens to greet his brother-in-law James Dickson, who saw a tall, tanned figure walking up unannounced between the potted plants. Then Park went to Soho Square to receive a thunderous greeting from Banks, who had given him up for lost. In the last week of January 1798 the True Briton and The Times hailed his return with long articles, though claiming somewhat optimistically that he had glimpsed Timbuctoo and also found the great city of Houssa, a huge, magical metropolis twice as big as London.

Banks wrote delightedly about Park, his ‘Missionary from Africa’ (’missionary’ was still an entirely secular term), to his old crony Sir William Hamilton in Naples. For this sort of despatch Banks adopted a kind of breathless telegraphese. Park, wrote Banks, ‘has made most interesting discoveries he has penetrated Africa by way of the Gambia near a thousand miles in a strait line from Cape Verde…He has discovered a river traced for more than 300 miles till it was larger than the Thames at London. His adventures are interesting in a degree he will publish them soon & I will send you the book he was soon robbed of all his property and proceeded as a beggar sometimes gaining a little by the sale of Charms which he could easily manufacture as they are sentences of the Koran written in Arabic…hunger and thirst he frequently & patiently Endured & is come Home in good health.’24

Banks also announced the success of the expedition to the pioneering German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach, who wrote back from Göttingen: ‘how ardently I long to see once Mr Park’s own extensive Account of his wonderful & highly interesting Travels’. Blumenbach added a characteristic enquiry: ‘I wonder if he has not met with any white negroes [Albinos] similar to those you saw at Otaheite…?’25 Banks was not able to help with this, and left Park to spend over a year writing up his original journal. Park began with the editorial help of Bryan Edwards, of the Africa Association, but soon found he had become master of a new form of travel narrative, and continued without further assistance, working away quietly back in Scotland. When the manuscript was at last delivered to Soho Square, Banks was delighted and deeply moved by what he read.26

The book revealed Park as the essential Romantic explorer. His heart was a terra incognita quite as mysterious as the interior of Africa, about which he wrote with quiet humour and unflinching observation. The manuscript was published, with revised maps by Rennell, in the spring of 1799 as Travels in the Interior of Africa, and instantly became a bestseller, enabling Park to marry his childhood sweetheart, Allison Anderson of Selkirk.

Allison was a willowy, beautiful, cheerful young woman who bore Park two sons and a daughter, and encouraged him to settle down as a physician in Peebles. He proved an excellent doctor, quiet and sympathetic, and his fame brought him plenty of distinguished patients, including the young Walter Scott, who lived nearby at Melrose. But Park’s wanderlust was not appeased. He began to consider all sorts of exotic places his family might emigrate to, not least Australia or even China. Allison knew he was restless when in 1803 he employed an Arab doctor to teach him Arabic. Scott remembered how he rode over one day to visit Park, but found he was not at home, a more and more frequent occurrence, according to Allison. Scott finally discovered him wandering along the banks of the river Yarrow, solitary and distracted, skimming stones across the water. He explained to Scott how he used to throw stones to gauge the depth of the Niger before attempting a crossing. Then he broke out that he ‘would rather brave Africa and all its horrors’ than wear out his life as a country doctor, especially in such a cold climate, surrounded by ‘lonely heaths and gloomy hills’. Scott guessed that a new journey was being secretly planned.27


Park’s second expedition to West Africa (1805) had a very different complexion to the first. He was financed by the Colonial Office, and given troops and funds to buy his way through the various tribal lands along the Niger. He was offered a salary of £4,000 if he returned, and the same payment to his widow Allison if he did not. He was allowed to take along his best friend, his wife’s brother Dr Alexander Anderson, as a companion, and a young Edinburgh draughtsman, George Scott, as the expedition’s official artist.

Banks had spent many months trying to organise this expedition, but as war with France continued, its raison d’être had clearly altered. It was now transformed from a geographical survey to that of an armed trading caravan, its main purpose to seek to establish a commercial trade route down the Niger. Banks had secretly sent the outline of a grand imperial ‘project’ to the President of the Board of Trade, the Earl of Liverpool, as early as June 1799. The Niger expedition would form just one small element in this strategy. ‘Should the undertaking be fully resolved upon, the first step of Government must be to secure to the British Throne, either by conquest or by Treaty, the whole of the Coast of Africa from Arguin to Sierra Leone…’

For a moment Banks had a heady vision of a vast, benign commercial empire stretching over the dark continent and bringing light and happiness in its wake: ‘I have little doubt that in a very few years a trading Company might be established under the immediate control of Government, who…would govern the Negroes far more mildly, and make them far more happy than they now are under the Tyranny of their arbitrary Princes…by converting them to the Christian Religion…and by effecting the greatest practicable diminution of the Slavery of mankind, upon the Principles of natural Justice and commercial Benefit.’

Banks added that ‘the whole Tenor of Mr Park’s book’ showed that such a strategy was possible, and that the grand civilising mission should include ‘the more intelligible doctrines’ of the Scriptures and the more useful branches of ‘European mechanics’. But then he checked himself, and concluded that he had been ‘led away too far by this Idea’. It is not clear how much of this imperial dream he ever vouchsafed to Park himself.28

One indication of the changed plan was that Park and Anderson were appointed to the military ranks of captain and lieutenant, in an attempt to give them authority over their troops. Park was uneasy about this, as appears in a letter from Lord Camden at the Colonial Office to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, dated 24 September 1804: ‘Mr Park has just been with me. He is inclined to attempt the expedition proposed for the sum I mentioned…It is therefore to be determined in what manner a Journey of Discovery and of Enquiry for commercial purposes can best be attempted. Mr Park seems to think that he shall be able to travel with less suspicion and therefore with more effect, if he was only accompanied by 2 or 3 persons on whom he could depend.’29 But in the end he was supplied with forty soldiers.

After a delayed departure from England because of confused expeditionary orders and financing, Park arrived at the island of Goree, off the West African coast, on 28 March 1805. This was barely six weeks before the onset of the rainy season, and was the hottest time of the year for travelling. Nearly a month was spent organising the detachment of forty volunteer troops, commanded by twenty-two-year-old Captain John Martyn, and packing up supplies from the coastal fort. Park finally left the Gambia on 27 April, having written letters to Lord Camden, to Joseph Banks, and to his wife Allison. For the first time, he also made a Will.30

The arrival of the rains, long before they reached the Niger, had a catastrophic effect on both their progress and their health. They were ravaged by malarial fever and dysentery, and men dropped behind one by one. They were attacked frequently by wild dogs, by crocodiles, and once by a party of lions. They were continuously soaked by the torrential rains, which fell implacably day and night. Their donkeys’ packs (containing gifts of amber beads, pistols, cloth) were split open and looted by tribesmen.

Park was indefatigable in caring for his troops and donkeys, paying natives for help, and arranging staging camps for those left behind. But the death toll was terrible all along the 500-mile march inland from Bamako to join the Niger at Sego. By the time they reached the river on 19 August, only twelve Europeans from the original party were still alive.

The exhausted expedition made camp and began tortuous negotiations with the local leader, chief Mansong. Mansong finally agreed to send them sufficient canoes to embark the remaining men and baggage. These cost Park ‘very handsome presents’, but the relief of taking to the water was immense. ‘The velocity was such as to make me sigh,’ he wrote of their swift journey downstream. Although suffering from dysentery and crippling headaches, Park delighted in the elephants, and a passing hippo which blew ‘exactly like a whale’.31

At Sansanding four more white troops died, and young George Scott. Park dosed himself with mercury calomel to cure a potentially lethal attack of dysentery, and recorded in his journal that with the burning in his mouth and stomach he ‘could not speak nor sleep for six days’. It is notable that he somehow managed to keep the knowledge of this illness from his remaining troops, who believed that he was in good health and completely adapted to the terrible conditions. His steady bearing never altered, as catastrophe followed catastrophe, and their surroundings grew steadily more hostile. When Private William Garland died, animals carried away his body from the hut during the night. The Moors urged Mansong to kill the beleaguered white men and seize their goods. ‘They alleged that my object was to kill Mansong and his sons by means of charms, that the White People might come and seize on the country. Mansong, much to his honour, rejected the proposal, though it was seconded by two-thirds of the people of Sego, and almost all Sansanding.’32

With nine remaining men, including his beloved brother-in-law Anderson, three white troopers, his military friend Captain Martyn, two black slaves (promised their freedom) and his Arabic guide Amadi, Park constructed a forty-foot wooden ‘schooner’ from the shells of two native canoes roughly carpentered together. It was narrow-just six feet wide-but its shallow one-foot draught made it excellent for negotiating rapids. He built a small cabin on the stern, armoured the deck with bullock hides and rigged and stocked the craft for a non-stop descent of the river, which he was now convinced (rightly) turned southwards after Timbuctoo and reached the Atlantic in the bay of Benin. He expected opposition, and supplied each remaining man with fifteen muskets apiece and a huge supply of ammunition.

The atmosphere among the surviving members of the expedition is caught in a letter which the cheery, hardbitten Captain John Martyn wrote on 1 November 1805 to a fellow officer, Ensign Megan, safely back at the military station of Goree on the coast. ‘Dear Megan-Thunder, Death and Lightning-the Devil to pay! Lost by disease Mr Scott, two sailors, four carpenters and thirty one of the Royal African Corps, which reduces our numbers to seven, out of which Dr Anderson and two soldiers are quite useless…Captain Park has not been unwell since we left Goree; I was one of the first taken sick with fever and ague…’

Martyn goes on to describe Park’s quiet efficiency, the building of the schooner, and the continued motivation of the expedition to pursue the course of the Niger. ‘Captain Park has made every enquiry concerning the River Niger, and from what we learn there remains no doubt that it is the Congo. We hope to get there in about three months or less…Captain Park is this day fixing the Mast-schooner rigged-40 feet long-All in the clear. Excellent living since we came here (August 22), the Beef and Mutton as good as ever was eat. Whitbreads Beer is nothing to what we get here…’

Finally he added a scrawled note on the stained outer flap of his letter, dated 4 November. It captures a soldier’s-eye view of the British imperial mission. ‘PS Dr Anderson and Mills dead since writing the within-my head a little sore this morning-was up late last night drinking Ale with a Moor who has been at Gibraltar and speaks English-got a little tipsy-finished the scene by giving the Moor a damn’d good thrashing.’33

For Park the loss of his close friend and brother-in-law was the most terrible blow, an event that put something like despair for the second time in his heart. He wrote in his journal: ‘At a quarter past five o’clock in the morning, my dear friend Mr Alexander Anderson died, after a sickness of four months. I feel much inclined to speak of his merits but…I will rather cherish his memory in silence, and imitate his cool and steady conduct, than weary friends with a panegyric in which they cannot be supposed to join. I shall only observe that no event which took place during the journey ever threw the smallest gloom over my mind till I laid Mr Anderson in the grave. I then felt myself as if left a second time, lonely and friendless, amidst the wilds of Africa.’34

Before setting out from Sansanding, Park wrote three farewell letters: to his sponsor Lord Camden at the Colonial Office, to Sir Joseph Banks, and to his beloved wife Allie. In each he stated that he was in good spirits and determined to press on, and hoped to be back in England the following summer. But he also sent back to Goree by Arabic messenger his journals written up to that date, as if this would be the last chance.

His letters appear to be an extraordinary mixture of dogged courage and feverish delusions. To Lord Camden he wrote with quite uncharacteristic bravado: ‘I shall 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.’35

To his wife, carefully dating his letter ‘Sansanding 19 November 1805’, he wrote more reassuringly and calmly. ‘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…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…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…the sails are now hoisting for our departure for the coast.’36

But to Joseph Banks he wrote with almost visionary detachment, making no mention of hardships or dangers, but as one explorer speaking quietly to another, over a last cigar: ‘My dear Friend…It is my intention to keep to the middle of the River and make the best use I can of Winds and Currents till I reach the termination of this Mysterious Stream…I have purchased some fresh Shea Nuts which I intend taking with me to the West Indies as we will likely have to go there on our way home…I expect we will reach the sea in three months from this, and if we are lucky enough to find a vessel, we shall lose no time on the Coast.’37

From this point, there is no further direct evidence from Park, as no later letters or journals survive. His last known note records that he was departing, his party reduced to ‘three soldiers (one deranged in his mind), Lieutenant Martyn, and myself’.


Casting off from Sansanding on about 21 November 1805, Park paddled downriver, keeping well clear of the banks until he hove to outside Timbuctoo, hoping to trade. But apparently he did not dare to disembark because of the threat from hostile Tuareg tribesmen. So finally Mungo Park never entered the city of his dreams.

This dream of ‘Timbuctoo’ would continue to haunt English writers and explorers for another thirty years. The young Alfred Tennyson submitted a 300-line blank-verse poem entitled ‘Timbucto’ for the Chancellor’s Medal at Cambridge University in 1827. He headed it with an epigraph drawn from Chapman’s Homer: ‘Deep in that lion-haunted Island lies/A mystic City, goal of high emprise!’ Young Tennyson asked dreamily:

Wide Afric, doth thy Sun

Lighten, thy hill enfold a City as fair

As those which starr’d the night o’ the elder World?

Or is the rumour of thy Timbucto

A dream as frail as those of ancient Time?…

His poem concludes prophetically with a new fear, one which would become frequent in both English and French travel-writing of the midnineteenth century (especially in Gérard de Nerval’s 1851 Voyage en Orient), that the actual discovery of the legendary city would reduce its seductive image to something mundane. Tennyson’s private, tantalising mirage of ‘tremulous’ domes, abundant gardens and ‘Pagodas hung with music of sweet bells’ would resolve itself into the bleak reality of a few primitive mud huts.

…The time is well-nigh come

When I must render up this glorious home

To keen Discovery: soon your brilliant towers

Shall darken with the waving of her wand;

Darken, and shrink and shiver into huts,

Black specks amid a waste of dreary sand,

Low-built, mud-wall’d, Barbarian settlements:

How changed from this fair City!

Alfred Tennyson won the Chancellor’s Medal, but he never went to Africa.38

As he proceeded downriver, Park inexplicably refused to pay any tribute to the local chiefs, considering that he had made all necessary payment to Mansong. This was a fatal mistake which the young Mungo Park would never have made. After this failure to render these customary gifts (in effect a river-tax or toll), the boat was attacked from the riverbank almost continuously by infuriated tribesmen. These attacks became more severe when they entered the territory of the Houssa, and their Arabic guide Amadi left them by agreement. On one occasion they were pursued by a flotilla of sixty canoes, and they were constantly subjected to showers of arrows, spears and clubs.

Reports agree that the boat was eventually ambushed by Tuareg tribesmen at the rapids of Boussa, some 500 miles downstream from Timbuctoo, and with only another 300 miles to go. Here it seems to have run aground in a narrow, shallow, rocky defile. A witness later found by Amadi described a day-long battle, during which Park threw all his valuables overboard, hoping either to lighten the boat and shoot the rapids, or to placate the tribesmen. If that is true, he achieved neither. At the last, with all their men either killed or wounded, Park and Martyn threw themselves into the river. Their bodies were never recovered. They were either drowned, or killed when they came ashore, or-haunting possibility-disappeared into captivity.

One black slave remained alive on board the Joliba. He surrendered, was spared, and was finally released by the local Tuareg chieftain. He was the witness that Amadi eventually tracked down. His account includes one particularly haunting detail: that when Park jumped into the river he held one of the other white men in his arms. There is no explanation for this. Perhaps he was still trying to save one of his wounded soldiers, or was making some sort of last stand with young Martyn.

Nothing else survived-no journals, letters or personal effects of any kind-except for an annotated copy of an astronomical almanac (thought, correctly, to be a sacred book) and a single swordbelt. Amadi was able to buy back the almanac at great expense, but the swordbelt was retained by the local tribal chief as a ceremonial horse’s bridle. Park was aged thirty-four at the time of his death (reckoned to be about February 1806), and his widow Allison was paid the compensation of £4,000 by the Africa Association. She died in Selkirk in 1840. Park’s Journal of a Second Voyage was published in 1815 with a brief, anonymous Memoir; but rumours of his survival persisted for many years in Britain.39

The legend of Mungo Park surviving somewhere beyond Timbuctoo-either the prisoner of some tribal king, or else ‘gone native’ (itself an idea that began to trouble nineteenth-century colonialists) and living as a great chieftain himself-became increasingly haunting. A biography of Park was published by ‘H.B.’ in 1835, but theories about his disappearance would continue into the twentieth century. In June 1827, the same year as Tennyson’s ‘Timbucto’ poem, Park’s eldest son Thomas, obsessed by tales of his father, set out to find him.

Thomas Park had studied science at Edinburgh University, and was now a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Taking a year’s leave of absence, he sailed to Accra on the Gold Coast, where he taught himself the Ashanti language, and made a preliminary sortie into the African interior. From a single surviving letter, sent from Accra to his mother in Scotland, and dated September 1827, it emerges that Thomas had set out on his quixotic mission without warning his family. His jaunty optimism strangely mirrors that of his father’s last letters to his wife: ‘My dearest Mother, I was in hopes I should have been back before you were aware of my absense. I went off-now that the murder is out-entirely from fear of hurting your feelings. I did not write to you lest you should not be satisfied. Depend upon it my dearest mother, I shall return safe. You know what a curious fellow I am, therefore don’t be afraid for me. Besides, it is my duty-my filial duty-to go, and I shall yet raise the name of Park. You ought rather to rejoice that I took it into my head…’

He went on to send love to his siblings, especially his sister, and to mention a possible plan to take his own boat down the Niger. But he gives no other details, no address or means by which he might be communicated with in Accra, and says nothing about companions, preparations or equipment. He signed off in the quiet, resolute Mungo Park style: ‘I shall be back in three years at the most-perhaps in one. God bless you, my dearest mother, and believe me to be, your most affectionate and dutiful son, Thomas Park.’40

Thomas embarked on a full-scale expedition in October 1827, marching 140 miles inland to Yansong. It was rumoured that he travelled not like ordinary white men, but in a native style adapted from his father’s first expedition. He had taken ‘no precaution with regard to the preservation of his health, but, adopting the habits of the people with whom he mingled, anointed his head and body with clay and oil, ate unreservedly the food of the natives and exposed himself with scarcely any clothing to the heat of the sun by day and the influence of the pernicious dews by night’.41

Having reached Yansong, Thomas started to make enquiries about his father, but was almost immediately overcome by malarial fever. One account has him lying beneath a sacred tree (like Mungo), awaiting deliverance. Another has him climbing the tree to watch a native festival, drinking too much palm wine in the hot sun, and falling out of its branches. Whatever brought about his death, Thomas Park never returned, and his body was never found. A month later, in November 1827, a clean white shirt, pressed and labelled ‘T Park’, turned up in a basket of laundry delivered to the explorer Richard Lander at Sokoto, a hundred miles away on the western coast.


There are many abiding mysteries about both of Mungo Park’s expeditions. In the first, of 1794, there was his extraordinary physical courage combined with a patience amounting to almost suicidal passivity. He refused on principle to engage in personal confrontation, or stand on European ‘superiority’. His apparent acceptance of extreme moral and physical humiliation at the hands of native tribesman was exceptional. His reliance on poor villagers, fishermen and native women, rather than on tribal leaders and chieftains, perhaps reflected something of his Scottish upbringing. His dogged determination and adaptability were oddly combined with a strange ineptness and imprudence. His scientific fascination with local wildlife-bees, lions, hippos and birds-seemed instinctive and inexhaustible. His real motives for undertaking the first Niger expedition, beyond a desire for adventure, remain wonderfully enigmatic. His attitude to slavery is not clear. But his role as an essentially solitary traveller, a lonely wanderer among men and communities, came to seem intensely Romantic.

The second expedition of 1805 was entirely different in both manner and motivation from the first. Britain was now at war with France throughout the globe, and competitive exploration easily became colonial ambition. Mungo Park was ten years older, very conscious of family duties, and interested in financial reward. But equally, his intensely romantic attachment to his wife Allison did not prevent him from returning to the Niger, and the high likelihood of death. His agreement to lead an armed expedition, to accept a military commission and payment (and in effect a form of life insurance) from the Colonial Office, suggests a quite new kind of professionalism. So too does his acceptance of a commercial mission, to search for a ‘new trade route into the Sudan’, as well as his decision to learn Arabic before he set out. On his first trip he traded mostly in amber and cloth; on his second, in guns and gunpowder.

Whether all this means that Mungo Park had consciously undertaken an ‘imperial’ mission in his second expedition remains ambiguous. At least up to the last boat journey from Sansanding, he was respectful of all native customs, modest in his behaviour, and humane and honourable in his treatment of anyone he met (including his own troops). The contrast with a soldier like John Martyn (who seems already to have been rehearsing his part for a Rudyard Kipling story) could not be more great.

The dauntless tone of Park’s journals, even in the final desperate weeks at Sansanding, may disguise his character as much as it reveals it. The impenetrable optimism of his last letters in November 1805, not only to Lord Camden, but also to Sir Joseph Banks and to his wife, remains enigmatic. So too do the contradictory reports of the circumstances of his death. The tragic obsession of his son Thomas to solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance suggests that something far more personal than imperial ambitions was always engaged. Thomas’s parting declaration-that he would ‘raise the name of Park’-has a curious resonance, and may be said to have been eventually fulfilled by the brass plate that was mounted by Victorian admirers on a monument overlooking the vast and shadowy delta of the river Niger, and dedicated ‘To Mungo Park, 1795, and Richard Lander, 1830, who traced the course of the Niger from near its source to the sea. Both died in Africa for Africa’.

Mungo Park’s career clearly fits into the wider pattern of great Romantic exploration during this period. His own patron Sir Joseph Banks had established the British tradition, and the few letters they exchanged show a special mutual understanding of the explorer’s mixture of endurance and delight. Other figures who actually made it home, like Bryan Edwards (from the West Indies), Charles Waterton (from South America) and William Parry (from the Arctic), would give it an increasingly literary dimension. At the very time that Park died (if he did die) in 1806, Alexander von Humboldt was just publishing the story of his South American wanderings in A Personal Narrative.

Mungo Park’s story inspired a number of poets. Wordsworth included a passage about Park ‘alone and in the heart of Africa’ in an early version of The Prelude. He picked out another moment of crisis, when Park had collapsed in the desert, expecting to die from sunstroke, but later wakened to find

His horse in quiet standing at his side

His arm within the bridle, and the sun

Setting upon the desert.

Wordsworth subsequently withdrew this passage, probably because Robert Southey had used Park’s experiences at greater length in his adventure epic Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Southey’s fictitious hero is compared to Mungo Park in a long historical prose Note to the poem: ‘Perhaps no traveller but Mr Park ever survived to relate similar sufferings.’ But this is a case where the historical fact is more powerful than the fiction based upon it. Park’s quiet, fresh, limpid prose has easily outlasted Southey’s gaudy, melodramatic poem.

Keats’s two Nile sonnets (1816) owe much of their décor to Park and Friedrich Hornemann. But Shelley’s epic about his wandering alter-ego, the poet in Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815), deeply reflects the spiritual loneliness of the desert traveller who pursues a perilous river, and knows he will probably never return. Shelley’s wilderness, while it includes ‘dark Aethiopia in her desert hills’, is geographically vague, though it moves more towards India and an imaginary East. But he catches something of Mungo Park’s enigmatic wanderlust, and transforms it into an unearthly Miltonic quest for the strange and magnificent limits of the known world:

The Poet, wandering on, through Arabie

And Persia, and the wild Carmanian waste,

And o’er the aerial mountains which pour down

Indus and Oxus from their icy caves,

In joy and exultation held his way;

Till in the vale of Cashmire, far within

Its loneliest dell, where odorous plants entwine

Beneath the hollow rocks a natural bower,

Beside a sparkling rivulet he stretched

His languid limbs…42

Later, his friend Thomas Love Peacock would remember Shelley stretching his languid limbs on the banks of the Thames, imagining vast and endless expeditions up the Niger, the Amazon, the Nile, though by now these trips would be taken aboard small steamships: ‘Mr Philpot would lie listening to the gurgling of the water around the prow, and would occasionally edify the company with speculations on the great changes that would be effected in the world by the steam navigation of rivers: sketching the course of a steamboat up and down some mighty stream which civilisation had either never visited, or long since deserted; the Missouri and the Columbia, the Oronoko and the Amazon, the Nile and the Niger, the Euphrates and the Tigris…under the over canopying forests of the new, or the long-silent ruins of the ancient world; through the shapeless mounds of Babylon, or the gigantic temples of Thebes.’43

Park’s Travels were widely used (by both sides) in the intense discussions surrounding the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Ten years later the radical surgeon William Lawrence would refer to Park’s observations on African racial types, and particularly the difference between ‘Negro and Moor’. John Martin’s epic painting Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion (1812), showing a bereft and solitary figure painfully pulling himself over desert rocks towards a distant river, may have been partly inspired by Mungo Park and the other explorers who never came back.44

Then there was the young explorer Joseph Ritchie, to whom Keats gave a copy of his newly published poem Endymion, with instructions to place it in his travel pack, read it on his journey, and then ‘throw it into the heart of the Sahara Desert’ as a gesture of high romance. Keats received a letter from Ritchie, dated from near Cairo in December 1818. ‘Endymion has arrived thus far on his way to the Desart, and when you are sitting over your Christmas fire will be jogging (in all probability) on a camel’s back o’er those African Sands immeasurable.’45 After this there was silence. Joseph Ritchie never returned.

 This final crazed descent of the river in HMS Joliba, as Park’s vessel was named, can be considered as the first enactment of a journey that was to be repeated many times in subsequent fiction and film. First perhaps in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, set in the Congo), and then in such films as Apocalypse Now (1979, adapted from Heart of Darkness, but set in North Vietnam) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, set in South America). It is made more haunting and resonant precisely by the fact that Park’s own journal of these final weeks did not survive. Everything known is reported at second or third hand, and the truth can only-in the end-be imagined.

 Inspired by Cook and Banks, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) had returned from South America in 1804 with 60,000 botanical and zoological specimens, preserved in forty-five enormous packing cases. But unlike Banks, he proceeded to publish his findings in thirty volumes over the next two decades, and later summarised his view of the world in an all-embracing, visionary work, Cosmos (1845), which attempted to unite all the contemporary scientific disciplines, from astronomy to biology. He studied volcanoes and oceanic currents, invented isobars, mapped the changes in the earth’s magnetic field from pole to equator, and first proposed the science of climate change.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!