Front Matter A Little Old World Early Mariners Is the World Flat Herodotus the Traveller Alexander Explores India Pytheas Finds British Isles Julius Caesar as Explorer Strabo's Geography The Roman Empire and Pliny Ptolemy's Maps Pilgrim Travellers Irish Explorers After Mohammed Vikings Sail Northern Seas Arab Wayfarers Travellers to the East Marco Polo Mediaeval Exploration Ends Mediaeval Maps Prince Henry of Portugal Bartholomew Diaz Christopher Columbus A Great New World Vasco da Gama Reaches India Discovery of Spice Islands Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean Magellan Sails Round World Cortes Conquers Mexico Explorers in South America Cabot Sails to Newfoundland Cartier Explores Canada Search for a Northwest Passage Frobisher Searches for Passage Drake's Famous Voyage Davis Straight Barents Sails to Spitzbergen Hudson Finds His Bay Baffin Finds His Bay Raleigh Searches for El Dorado Champlain and Lake Ontario Discoverers of Australia Tasman Finds Tasmania Dampier Discovers a Straight Behring Finds his Straight Cook Discovers New Zealand Cook's Third Voyage Bruce in Abyssinia Mungo Park and the Niger Vancouver and his Island Mackenzie and his River Parry and Lancaster Sound The Frozen North Franklin's Land Voyage Parry's Polar Voyage The Search for Timbuktu Landers Discover the Niger Ross Discovers North Pole Flinders Names Australia Sturt's Discoveries in Australia Ross in the Antarctic Seas Franklin Discovers Passage David Livingstone Burton and Speke in Africa Livingston Traces Nyassa Expedition to Victoria Nyanza Baker Finds Albert Nyanza Livingstone's Last Journey Through the Dark Continent Nordenskiold's NE Passage The Exploration of Tibet Nansen Reaches Farthest North Peary Reaches the North Pole The Quest for the South Pole Dates of Chief Events

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

Mungo Park and the Niger

Bruce died in the spring of 1794. Just a year later another Scotsman, Mungo Park, from Selkirk, started off to explore the great river Niger—whose course was as mysterious as that of the Nile. Most of the early geographers knew something of a great river running through Negroland. Indeed, Herodotus tells of five young men, the Nasamones, who set out to explore the very heart of Africa. Arrived at the edge of the great sandy desert, they collected provisions and supplied themselves with water and plunged courageously into the unknown. For weary days they made their way across to the south, till they were rewarded by finding themselves in a fertile land well watered by lakes and marshes, with fruit trees and a little race of men and women whom they called pigmies.

And a large river was flowing from west to east—probably the Niger. But the days of Herodotus are long since past. It was centuries later when the Arabs, fiery with the faith of Mohammed, swept over the unexplored lands. "With a fiery enthusiasm that nothing could withstand, and inspired by a hope of heaven which nothing could shake, they swept from district to district, from tribe to tribe," everywhere proclaiming to roving multitudes the faith of their master. In this spirit they had faced the terrors of the Sahara Desert, and in the tenth century reached the land of the negroes, found the Niger, and established schools and mosques westward of Timbuktu.

Portugal had then begun to play her part, and the fifteenth century is full of the wonderful voyages inspired by Prince Henry of Portugal, which culminated in the triumph of Vasco da Gama's great voyage to India by the Cape of Good Hope.

Then the slave trade drew the Elizabethan Englishmen to the shores of West Africa, and the coast was studded with forts and stations in connection with it. Yet in the eighteenth century the Niger and Timbuktu were still a mystery.

In 1778 the African Association was founded, with our old friend Sir Joseph Banks as an active member inquiring for a suitable man to follow up the work of the explorer Houghton, who had just perished in the desert on his way to Timbuktu.

The opportunity produced the man. Mungo Park, a young Scotsman, bitten with the fever of unrest, had just returned from a voyage to the East on board an East India Company's ship. He heard of this new venture, and applied for it. The African Association instantly accepted his services, and on 22nd May 1795, Mungo Park left England on board the Endeavour, and after a pleasant voyage of thirty days landed at the mouth of the river Gambia. The river is navigable for four hundred miles from its mouth, and Park sailed up to a native town, where the Endeavour  was anchored, while he set out on horseback for a little village, Pisania, where a few British subjects traded in slaves, ivory, and gold. Here he stayed a while, to learn the language of the country. Fever delayed him till the end of November, when the rains were over, the native crops had been reaped, and food was cheap and plentiful. On 3rd December he made a start, his sole attendants being a negro servant, Johnson, and a slave boy. Mungo Park was mounted on a strong, spirited little horse, his attendants on donkeys. He had provisions for two days, beads, amber, and tobacco for buying fresh food, an umbrella, a compass, a thermometer and pocket sextant, some pistols and firearms, and "thus attended, thus provided, thus armed, Mungo Park started for the heart of Africa."

Mungo Park


Three days' travelling brought him to Medina, where he found the old king sitting on a bullock's hide, warming himself before a large fire. He begged the English explorer to turn back and not to travel into the interior, for the people there had never seen a white man and would most certainly destroy him. Mungo Park was not so easily deterred, and taking farewell of the good old king, he took a guide and proceeded on his way.

A day's journey brought him to a village where a curious custom prevailed. Hanging on a tree, he found a sort of masquerading dress made out of bark. He discovered that it belonged to a strange bugbear known to all the natives of the neighbourhood as Mumbo Jumbo. The natives or Kafirs of this part had many wives, with the result that family quarrels often took place. If a husband was offended by his wife he disappeared into the woods, disguised himself in the dress of Mumbo Jumbo, and, armed with the rod of authority, announced his advent by loud and dismal screams near the town. All hurried to the accepted meeting-place, for none dare disobey. The meeting opened with song and dance till midnight, when Mumbo Jumbo announced the offending wife. The unlucky victim was then seized, stripped, tied to a post, and beaten with Mumbo's rod amid the shouts of the assembled company.

A few days before Christmas, Park entered Fatticonda—the place where Major Houghton had been robbed and badly used. He therefore took some amber, tobacco, and an umbrella as gifts to the king, taking care to put on his best blue coat, lest it should be stolen. The king was delighted with his gifts; he furled and unfurled his umbrella to the great admiration of his attendants. "The king then praised my blue coat," says Park, "of which the yellow buttons seemed particularly to catch his fancy, and entreated me to give it to him, assuring me that he would wear it on all public occasions. As it was against my interests to offend him by a refusal, I very quietly took off my coat—the only good one in my possession—and laid it at his feet." Then without his coat and umbrella, but in peace, Park travelled onward to the dangerous district which was so invested with robbers that the little party had to travel by night. The howling of wild beasts alone broke the awful silence as they crept forth by moonlight on their way. But the news that a white man was travelling through their land spread, and he was surrounded by a party of horsemen, who robbed him of nearly all his possessions. His attendant Johnson urged him to return, for certain death awaited him. But Park was not the man to turn back, and he was soon rewarded by finding the king's nephew, who conducted him in safety to the banks of the Senegal River.

Then he travelled on to the next king, who rejoiced in the name of Daisy Korrabarri. Here Mungo learnt to his dismay that war was going on in the province that lay between him and the Niger, and the king could offer no protection. Still nothing deterred the resolute explorer, who took another route and continued his journey. Again he had to travel by night, for robbers haunted his path, which now lay among Mohammedans. He passed the very spot where Houghton had been left to die of starvation in the desert. As he advanced through these inhospitable regions, new difficulties met him. His attendants firmly refused to move farther. Mungo Park was now alone in the great desert Negroland, between the Senegal and the Niger, as with magnificent resolution he continued his way. Suddenly a clear halloo rang out on the night air. It was his black boy, who had followed him to share his fate. Onward they went together, hoping to get safely through the land where Mohammedans ruled over low-caste negroes. Suddenly a party of Moors surrounded him, bidding him come to Ali, the chief, who wished to see a white man and a Christian. Park now found himself the centre of an admiring crowd. Men, women, and children crowded round him, pulling at his clothes and examining his waist-coat buttons till he could hardly move. Arrived at Ali's tent, Mungo found an old man with a long white beard. "The surrounding attendants, and especially the ladies, were most inquisitive; they asked a thousand questions, inspected every part of my clothes, searched my pockets, and obliged me to unbutton my waistcoat and display the whiteness of my skin—they even counted my toes and fingers, as if they doubted whether I was in truth a human being." He was lodged in a hut made of corn stalks, and a wild hog was tied to a stake as a suitable companion for the hated Christian. He was brutally ill-treated, closely watched, and insulted by "the rudest savages on earth." The desert winds scorched him, the sand choked him, the heavens above were like brass, the earth beneath as the floor of an oven. Fear came on him, and he dreaded death with his work yet unfinished. At last he escaped from this awful captivity amid the wilds of Africa. Early one morning at sunrise, he stepped over the sleeping negroes, seized his bundle, jumped on to his horse, and rode away as hard as he could. Looking back, he saw three Moors in hot pursuit, whooping and brandishing their double-barreled guns. But he was beyond reach, and he breathed again. Now starvation stared him in the face. To the pangs of hunger were added the agony of thirst. The sun beat down pitilessly, and at last Mungo fell on the sand. "Here," he thought—"here after a short but ineffectual struggle I must end all my hopes of being useful in my day and generation; here must the short span of my life come to an end."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


But happily a great storm came and Mungo spread out his clothes to collect the drops of rain, and quenched his thirst by wringing them out and sucking them. After this refreshment he led his tired horse, directing his way by the compass, lit up at intervals by vivid flashes of lightning. It was not till the third week of his flight that his reward came. "I was told I should see the Niger early next day," he wrote on 20th July 1796. "We were riding through some marshy ground, when some one called out 'See the water!' and, looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission—the long-sought-for majestic Niger glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly 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 endeavours with success. The circumstance of the Niger's flowing towards the east did not excite my surprise, for although I had left Europe in great hesitation on this subject, I had received from the negroes clear assurances that its general course was towards the rising sun."

He was now near Sego—the capital of Bambarra—on the Niger, a city of some thirty thousand inhabitants. "The view of this extensive city, the numerous canoes upon the river, the crowded population, and the cultivated state of the surrounding country, formed altogether a prospect of civilisation and magnificence which I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa." The natives looked at the poor, thin, white stranger with astonishment and fear, and refused to allow him to cross the river. All day he sat without food under the shade of a tree, and was proposing to climb the tree and rest among its branches to find shelter from a coming storm, when a poor negro woman took pity on his deplorable condition. She took him to her hut, lit a lamp, spread a mat upon the floor, broiled him a fish, and allowed him to sleep. While he rested she spun cotton with other women and sang: "The winds roared and the rains 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"; and all joined in the chorus: "Let us pity the white man, no mother has he."

Mungo Park left in the morning after presenting his landlady with two of his last four brass buttons. But though he made another gallant effort to reach Timbuktu and the Niger, which, he was told, "ran to the world's end," lions and mosquitoes made life impossible. His horse was too weak to carry him any farther, and on 29th July 1796 he sadly turned back. "Worn down by sickness, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, half-naked, and without any article of value by which I might get provisions, clothes, or lodging, I felt I should sacrifice my life to no purpose, for my discoveries would perish with me." Joining a caravan of slaves, he reached the coast after some nineteen hundred miles, and after an absence of two years and nine months he found a suit of English clothes, "disrobed his chin of venerable encumbrance," and sailed for home. He published an account of the journey in 1799, after which he married and settled in Scotland as a doctor. But his heart was in Africa, and a few years later he started off again to reach Timbuktu. He arrived at the Gambia early in April 1805. "If all goes well," he wrote gaily, "this day six weeks I expect to drink all your healths in the water of the Niger." He started this time with forty-four Europeans, each with donkeys to carry baggage and food, but it was a deplorable little party that reached the great river on 19th August. Thirty men had died on the march, the donkeys had been stolen, the baggage lost. And the joy experienced by the explorer in reaching the waters of the Niger, "rolling its immense stream along the plain," was marred by the reduction of his little party to seven. Leave to pass down the river to Timbuktu was obtained by the gift of two double-barreled guns to the King, and in their old canoes patched together under the magnificent name of "His Majesty's schooner the Joliba"  (great water), Mungo Park wrote his last letter home.

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


"I am far from desponding. I have changed a large canoe into a tolerably good schooner, on board of which I shall set sail to the east with a fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt; and though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I myself were 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."

It was in this spirit that the commander of the Joliba and a crew of nine set forth to glide down a great river toward the heart of savage Africa, into the darkness of the unexplored.

The rest is silence.