Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. — G. K. Chesterton

Mungo Park

Civilization: British — Africa
   Field of Renown:  explorer — Niger River
Era:  Foundation

Mungo Park was a Scottish doctor who was the first European to reach the Niger river in west Africa. He went on two expeditions, and on the return from his first journey, he published a widely read book detailing his adventures. After settling back in Scotland for four years he resolved to return to Africa and embarked on a second journey. This one ended in disaster, and nothing was heard from him after a communication in late 1805.

At the time of Mungo's first journey, the interior of the continent of Africa was entirely unknown, due to very difficult traveling conditions and the lack of navigable rivers. According to the natives, it was said that a great river, called the Niger flowed between the Gulf of Guinea and the Sahara, but it was not known whether it flowed east or west, or whether it joined with any other rivers. The mouth of the Niger, in modern Nigeria, formed a delta so broad and marshy that it was not recognized as the mouth of a great river. The natives claimed that the Niger was a major trading route and there were stories of wealthy and mysterious cities on it, such as Timbuktu, that no white man had ever seen. The idea of exploring the region was very intriguing, but the climate was so deadly and the traveling conditions so difficult, no white man had succeeded in penetrating the area.

Mungo park went to medical school in Scotland and after graduating went aboard a sailing vessel. A life of adventure appealed to him, so he volunteered his services to the "African Association", a scientific organization dedicated to the exploration of the interior of West Africa. After becoming acclimated to the region, Mungo set out with a small group of native guides from the Gambia river, one of the few navigable rivers in Africa. From that point, they journeyed on land, and succeeded in reaching the Niger near its western source. He followed its course over 300 miles to the east before returning over much of the same route he had come. His three year journey was fraught with difficulties and dangers and he was imprisoned and nearly perished on several occasions. The full story of his travels was captured in his book, Travels in the Interior of Africa, which became on his return an immediate best-seller.

After four years in Scotland Mungo consented to return to Africa with the purpose of following the Niger all the way to its mouth. To this end, he proposed to learn Arabic, the language of trade in the region. On his second journey he traveled with a large party including both Europeans and natives. The second journey proved to be a disaster since it was far more difficult to travel with a large group than a small one. Many of the Europeans became sick and died, the natives were hostile to the large, armed group, and provisions were more difficult to come by. Within a year a large number of the party had died, and Mungo's last communication was dated near the end of 1805.

Some time afterward the story was told of Mungo's fate. He and the remaining group had reached the Niger and successfully traveled many miles by boat. Eventually there boat was lost in the rapids, and they were attacked by unfriendly natives. Only a single native guide survived the journey.

Key events during the life of Mungo Park:

Mungo Park born into a Scottish farming family.
Attended University of Edinburgh
Completed Medical school and became a ship's surgeon.
Embarked on a journey of exploration to Africa sponsored by the "African Society."
Returned to Britain after having reached the Niger.
Published Travels in the Interior of Africa.
Married and began practicing medicine in Scotland.
Embarked on second journey to Africa.
Last communications from Park received in Britain.
Hugh Clapperton brings back word of Mungo's death on the Niger.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Mungo Park and the Niger  in  A Book of Discovery  by  M. B. Synge
Adventures of Mungo Park  in  The Struggle for Sea Power  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

Mungo Park: After a portrait in Park's Travels into the Interior of Africa
 in A Book of Discovery

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