Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The Adventures of Mungo Park

"Strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."


When the young Scottish surgeon, Mungo Park, started forth on his travels, to find out about the mysterious river Niger, little was known of the interior of Africa. It was twenty-six years since Bruce had discovered the source of the Nile, and still men thought that the Niger rose near it and flowed right across the Dark Continent from east to west, its mouths being the rivers Senegal and Gambia on the west coast. It had long been the dream of men of all nations to reach not only the Niger, but also the wonderful city on its banks called Timbuktu, which was said to be paved with gold.

In the year 1795, when the French Revolution was still at its height, Mungo Park, a young man of twenty-four, offered his services to the British African Society to explore this region. Tall and strong, with an iron will and a sweet expression, was this Mungo Park. He had already been to the East Indies, and a thirst for travel and adventure had seized him. He arrived on board an African trading-vessel, in May 1795, at the mouth of the Gambia, and sailed thence up the river to the English depot at Pisania. Here he was touched by the wretched condition of the slaves, who were brought from the interior and shipped to England to supply the European market. But his work lay in another direction.

It was December before he was ready to start. His sole companions were a negro servant and a slave boy. He took a horse for himself and two donkeys for his servants, food for two days, some beads and tobacco for exchange, a few clothes, an umbrella, compasses, a thermometer, besides a couple of pistols and a few firearms.

Thus provided, thus attended, thus armed, Mungo Park started for the heart of Africa. It must have needed a stout courage indeed, plenty of young enthusiasm and confidence, to face the unknown thus scantily equipped. Waterless deserts, trackless jungles, gloomy forests, angry natives—all had to be encountered before the Niger could be reached.

It is not possible to follow him in detail, interesting as his travels are. Now we see him standing before some black king begging leave, by means of gifts, to pass through his dangerous country. Now he is stealing forth silently under the moonlit sky to escape from furious natives, to pass the night in some great forest, where wild beasts made the night hideous with their howls. Now he is passing through country of untold beauty, where the windings of the Senegal, descending from its rocky heights, lend a pleasing variety to the scene. The banks of the Senegal were reached two days after Christmas. The next part of the road lay through an inhospitable region, inhabited by negroes of the most degraded type. So threatening were they, so brutal in their conduct, that the two native servants refused to venture farther, and Mungo Park went forward alone. Gathering together the few possessions now left him, he stole away under cover of the darkness, and with a stern resolution, unsurpassed in history, started on his forlorn hope of reaching the mysterious Niger. From all sides came the roar of wild beasts, adding terror to his already dangerous situation. But undismayed he plodded on, alone, through the night.

Suddenly one day he was seized and dragged before a black Moorish king, and all hope seemed to fade away. Men, women, and children crowded round to see the white man. He was insulted, tortured, starved. Day after day passed, leaving him no means of escape. The desert winds scorched him, sand-storms choked him; the heavens above were like brass, the earth beneath as the floor of an oven. Fever came on him, and he feared death with his great work yet unfinished. It was the end of May before he escaped from this intolerable life.

Early one morning, when the sun was just breaking across the sky and the Moors round him were sleeping heavily, he took his bundle, stepped stealthily over the sleeping negroes, jumped on to his horse, and rode away as fast as possible. But the horse, like its master, was reduced to mere skin and bone after four months' captivity. Every moment was one of life or death. Once he looked round to see three Moors on horseback in full pursuit. They were brandishing weapons and screaming threats, but he escaped, and rode breathlessly forward. Starvation now stared him in the face. To the pangs of hunger were added the agony of thirst. There was no water. The sun beat pitilessly down, the sand reflected the heat as from a furnace. Night came. His horse grew too tired to carry him any longer, but with his old strength of will he staggered on in the darkness, often falling from very weakness. Suddenly a flash of lightning bespoke a coming storm. On his ear fell the welcome sound of trees bending before a wind. It put new life into the fever-stricken explorer. But a terrific sand-storm swept over the land, and he fell down hopelessly under a sheltering bush. Then followed great storm-clouds, and soon big drops of rain began to fall, while lightning flashed and thunder crashed above. The refreshing rain fell on to his burning face and shaking hands, and saved his life.

In the third week of his flight his reward came. The prize for which men and nations had struggled for three centuries was to be his. Let him tell his own story. "Looking forward," he says, "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 east-ward. I hastened to the brink, and having drunk of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks to the great Ruler of all things for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success."

He was the first European to reach the Niger, and to tell the world that its course was "towards the rising sun," and not as men had thought.

But his troubles were not ended here. The natives would not allow him to enter their city Sego on the Niger, and he wandered away to take shelter from the sun under a tree. Hour after hour passed away and no one offered him food or lodging. The sun fell and a great storm gathered. Suddenly a poor negro woman passed him returning from her work. Seeing his pitiful condition she stopped to ask his story. Bidding him follow her, she took him in, broiled him a fish from the river, and spread a mat for him to sleep upon. And while he slept she sang with her companions of this strange new guest:—

"The winds roared and the rains fell,

The poor white man sat under our tree;

He has no mother to bring him milk,

No wife to grind his corn."

Far on into the night the women of Africa sang, as they worked—

"Let us pity the white man, no mother has he."

Mungo Park could not get much farther. Fever had reduced him to a mere skeleton, his one remaining shirt was threadbare. He made his way slowly back to the coast and thence to England, where he arrived after an absence of two years and nine months.

As the years passed on he longed to be back in Africa. He felt much remained to be done, and the early part of the new year 1805, found him leaving England for the last time. It was May before he left Pisania, this time with forty-four Europeans and a large quantity of baggage. It was August before he caught sight of the Niger, by which time most of his companions were either dead or dying. But his stout heart did not despair as he embarked on his last great venture, "with fixed resolution to discover the source of the Niger or perish in the attempt."

In a large, unwieldy, half-rotten canoe—christened His Majesty's schooner Joliba—he set sail with nine men to navigate the strange new river, studded with dangerous rocks, full of hippopotamus, whose banks were lined with cannibal tribes. This is the last sight we get of Mungo Park, gliding down the Niger towards the heart of savage Africa, into the deep darkness of the unknown. The rest is silence.

Years after, it was discovered that he had sailed some thousand miles down the river, past Timbuktu to Boussa. Here the boat was overturned by rapids, and, at the last, attacked by natives. The great Niger had claimed the brave explorer as her own.