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date: 26 February 2024

Park, Mungofree


Park, Mungofree

  • Christopher Fyfe

Mungo Park (1771–1806)

by Thomas Rowlandson, c. 1805

Park, Mungo (1771–1806), traveller in Africa, was born on 11 September 1771 at Foulshiels (sometimes misspelt Fowlshiels), near Selkirk, the seventh of the thirteen children of Mungo Park (1714?–1793), a prosperous tenant farmer on the estate of the duke of Buccleuch, and Elspeth Hislop (1742–1817). The dates of his birth and other events in his life, persistently misattributed by successive authors, have been authoritatively corrected by Kenneth Lupton in Mungo Park, the African Traveler (1979).

Education and early exploration

Park was brought up in the Church of Scotland, and was educated at home by a hired tutor, and then at Selkirk grammar school. In 1785, aged fourteen, he was apprenticed to Thomas Anderson, a surgeon in Selkirk, and in 1788 entered Edinburgh University to study medicine. He took more interest in botany than medicine, and in 1792 went to London where his brother-in-law, James Dickson, a seedsman, had made himself a well-known botanist. Through him he met Sir Joseph Banks, a wealthy patron of botanical research, who arranged for him to go, in 1793, as surgeon's mate on an East India ship to Bencoolen, Sumatra, then under British rule. During his stay there he collected botanical specimens for Banks.

Banks was a member of the African Association, founded in 1788 'for promoting the discovery of the inland parts' of Africa. In 1790 it had sent Daniel Houghton, a retired army officer, to go up the Gambia River and make for Timbuktu, but he had died within a year. On Park's return to London in 1794 Banks suggested him as a successor. He agreed, and the association appointed him, his instructions including 'to ascertain the course, and if possible, the rise and termination' of the Niger. He left on 22 May 1795 for the Gambia, and on 5 July reached Pisania, 200 miles up the river. There he stayed five months in the house of Dr John Laidley, a long-established slave-trader, learning Mandinka, and recovering from his first attack of malaria.

On 2 December Park set out on horseback, accompanied by two Mandinka servants on donkeys—Johnson who, having been shipped as a slave to Jamaica, gained freedom there, and had spent seven years in England, and Demba, one of Laidley's young household slaves. They were joined from time to time by other travellers who could act as guides. Park wore ordinary European clothes, including a beaver hat in which he kept his daily journal (it was the only article of his original clothing he was to return with), and took with him a small supply of trade goods to pay his expenses. 'And although the African mode of living was at first unpleasant to me, yet I found, at length, that custom surmounted trifling inconveniences, and made everything palatable and easy' (Travels, 45). His route was eastwards, making for Segou, a city known to be on the Niger.

Park faced potential hostility. Here, as elsewhere in coastal west Africa, local rulers refused to let European traders venture inland. They had to stay in their trading posts and trade through local middlemen. When he explained he was not a trader, he was allowed to go on, but still had to give the customary presents, and pay transit duties, out of his small supply of trade goods, or with any articles of his personal property, including clothing, that were fancied. This he resented, but could not avoid. There were a few small hold-ups, but by the end of the year he had covered over 300 miles, and reached the Bambara states of Khasso and Kaarta where he was well received by the respective rulers.

At this period militant Islam was spreading through the west African interior. North of Kaarta, the desert-edge Muslim rulers (called ‘Moors’, though a thousand miles from Morocco) were threatening their Bambara neighbours, who were themselves in rivalry with one another. Park, fearing war, diverted his route north through Ludamar where he was captured by Moors, and held prisoner by their ruler, Ali. Here, as a Christian, and believed to be a spy, he was deliberately tormented and humiliated (he was made to share his hut with a pig) and deprived of almost all his belongings, even sometimes of food and drink. After three months in almost intolerable heat, he was allowed to go on, but was forced to leave Demba behind as a slave, while Johnson went back to the Gambia with his papers. He subsequently tried to have Demba redeemed but never knew if he had succeeded.

In constant fear of being recaptured and ill used by Moors, Park had to avoid villages at first, and struggled on through barren savannah, tormented by thirst. When he could safely emerge he was sometimes refused food, having nothing to pay for it—though more than once he was fed by village women whom he found 'uniformly kind and compassionate' (Travels, 263). Then, at last, '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' (ibid., 194). But when he reached Segou the ruler denied him entry to his city (though sent some cowries to help him pay his way). He went on to Sansanding, another substantial town, then to Silla where 'worn down by sickness, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, half naked, and without any article of value' (ibid., 211), he decided to turn back. He followed the Niger upstream, making for Bamako, under the heavy rains that had now begun. Three times he had to swim swollen streams, pushing his horse ahead of him (his journal notes safe in his hat). At Bamako he turned west. During the rains food was scarce, so he had little to eat. Then he was set upon by robbers who stole his horse and most of his clothes. Yet he refused to despair. Conscious that 'I was still under the protecting eye' of Providence, comforted and inspired by seeing 'the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification' (ibid., 244), he went on. At the next town his patience was rewarded for the ruler recovered his clothes and his long-suffering, now almost skeletonic, horse (which Park gave him as a present, with the saddle and bridle). Severely ill with fever, he struggled on to Kamalia where he found a kindly Muslim trader, Karfa Taura, who agreed to look after him and eventually to take him to the Gambia.

Park waited at Kamalia for seven months, recovering his health, and, as always, informing himself about the country and its peoples: a print of a sketch he drew of Kamalia was included in his published Travels, depicting him in one corner, bearded and barefoot, though still hatted. When the rains ceased, his host went round the country collecting debts most of which were paid in slaves. At last a large caravan set out, including thirty-five slaves, chained together and forced to travel at a speedy pace when they crossed country where there was either no food, or there was danger from robbers, covering the 500 mile journey in just under two months. On 10 June 1797 they reached Pisania where Park met his friends (who had supposed him dead), shaved off the 'venerable encumbrance' of his beard, and arranged to have Karfa paid twice what he had been promised. He then embarked on an American slave ship, where, the surgeon having died, he acted as surgeon to the slaves, returning eventually to England, via Antigua, after an absence of two years, seven months.

Park's Travels (1799)

Together with Bryan Edwards, the secretary of the African Association, Park drew up a draft account of his travels for the members of the association. James Rennell added a map which showed the Niger flowing eastward (as Park had seen it) and petering out into a vast swamp. Park then returned to Selkirk and wrote up the draft for publication. His Travels, published in 1799, was a best-seller. Three editions were printed during the first year, and it was immediately translated into French and German, and eventually other languages. Written in a straightforward, unpretentious, narrative style, it gave readers their first realistic description of everyday life in west Africa, depicted without the censorious, patronizing contempt which so often has disfigured European accounts of Africa. For though Park disliked what he perceived as the superstitions of paganism and the bigotry of Islam, and regretted that 200 years of acquaintance with Europeans had left them totally ignorant of Christianity, he presented the people he met as people basically like himself. Having shared their activities, he recorded their joys and sorrows sympathetically, admiring what he thought admirable, and deploring what he thought deplorable. In it he comes over personally as an attractively modest figure, anxious to impart information but without making it boring or pedantic, and making light of his recollected adventures. The volume included as appendices a Mandinka vocabulary, Rennell's comments on the apparent implications of his geographical discoveries, and a women's song he had recorded, turned into verse by the duchess of Devonshire, and printed with accompanying music by G. G. Ferrari.

What was to disconcert (and still disconcerts) some readers was the detached way in which Park wrote not only on slavery but on the slave trade (in which indeed he had been a participant), presenting them without condemnation as established social institutions. Of the proposed abolition of the trade, then an active political issue, his only comment was, 'my opinion is, the effect would neither be so extensive or beneficial as many wise and worthy persons fondly expect' (Travels, 298).

Marriage, and the last expedition

On 2 August 1799 Park married Allison Anderson, daughter of his former employer, qualified as an MRCS, and rather unwillingly practised as a doctor in Peebles, hoping for some more attractive employment. War with France gave the government ideas of a military expedition into the west African interior, and in 1803 he was approached as a possible leader. But the government fell, and the scheme lapsed. Meanwhile he invited a Moroccan from the Egyptian embassy in London to Selkirk to teach him Arabic. He also came round to feeling that the Niger must eventually turn south, and would perhaps emerge as the Congo.

At last, in 1804, another invitation came. With £5000 expenses allowed, Park was to go out to the former French island colony Goree, recently captured, recruit up to forty-five soldiers from the garrison, make for the Niger, and then follow its course 'to the utmost possible distance to which it can be traced'. He was commissioned as a captain (as he was to command soldiers), with a salary of £5000, and £1000 for his brother-in-law and close friend, Alexander Anderson, who went with him. Another Selkirk man, George Scott, went as draughtsman. For reasons beyond Park's control, their departure was delayed until the end of January 1805, and it was the end of March before they reached Goree, where thirty-five soldiers and one officer, Lieutenant John Martyn, with two sailors and four carpenters, volunteered to go with him. On 6 April they left for the Gambia, where Park recruited a Serahuli trader, Isaaco, as their guide, and then set off for the interior. The rulers whose territories they passed through made no objection, but, as always, demanded the customary payments.

They followed Park's former homeward route, making for the Niger at Bamako and hoping to reach it within a couple of months. But travelling with so large a party, their baggage loaded on donkey-back, was slow work. The earlier delays to his proposed timetable now proved disastrous, for early in June the heavy rains began. The soldiers fell sick, and one after another they died. But, having gone so far, Park felt he could not turn back. By the time they reached Bamako, and 'I once more saw the Niger rolling its immense stream along the plain!' (Journal, 140), thirty-one of the party were dead, including George Scott. Park managed to cure himself of severe dysentery by taking mercury, an agonizing form of treatment. The ruler of Segou let them go on to Sansanding where Park sold off his surplus goods in the market to raise money to construct a boat to take them down the river. He and one of the remaining soldiers, Abraham Bolton, put together and decked two large canoes, making a 40 foot, flat-bottomed sailing boat, rigged to sail with any wind, which he named his majesty's schooner Joliba (a local name for the Niger). Meanwhile, after four months' illness, despite Park's devoted care, Alexander Anderson died—a cruel blow. Isaaco was sent back with Park's journal and correspondence, and a much-travelled trader, Amadi Fatouma, agreed to accompany them as far as the Hausa country. By late November only Martyn and three soldiers (one deranged in his mind) survived to accompany Park, with Amadi and three slaves, down the river with (as Park wrote in his last dispatch to London) 'the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt' (Journal, lxxx).

They had food supplies on board, and Park determined to press on without stopping at the towns they passed, or seeking permission from the riverine rulers. As he wrote in his last letter to his wife, 'I do not intend to stop or land anywhere, till we reach the coast' (Journal, lxxxii). This hazardous decision (which raises the conjecture that his own emotional sufferings from the deaths of so many companions had impaired his judgement) meant shooting at those who approached them, provoking retaliatory fire, and inflicting casualties. In one engagement Amadi had great difficulty in restraining the trigger-happy Martyn from more needless slaughter. Eventually the river ran south, and early in the new year (1806) they reached Yelwa in the Hausa country (modern Nigeria), some 1500 miles from Sansanding (and, had they known it, not much more than 500 miles from the mouth). Here, as agreed, Amadi left them. Then, a few miles on, at Bussa, where they were slowed by rapids, they were apparently attacked from the shore. They retaliated, and in the subsequent conflict Park, Martyn, and the soldiers perished, probably by drowning.

The details of their deaths had to be pieced together from contradictory statements, and have never been fully resolved. When rumours of Park's death reached the coast Isaaco was sent, in 1810, to gather evidence. He contacted Amadi who gave him, in journal form, in Arabic, an account of his experiences on the expedition. Isaaco too wrote a journal of his experiences in Arabic. Both were translated into English and published in London in 1815 with Park's journal, and a memoir of Park by John Whishaw. Added to these published accounts were stories picked up by subsequent European travellers, notably Hugh Clapperton and Richard and John Lander.

Park's death put a stop to the quest for the Niger until after the Napoleonic wars, and it was 1830 before the Landers finally reached its mouth. But his story caught popular imagination, particularly in Scotland. Tall and handsome, practical, adventurous and aspiring, but at the same time unassuming and rather reserved in manner, he seemed an exemplar of Scottish virtues. An imposing statue by a local sculptor, Andrew Currie, was put up in Selkirk in 1859. Bronze figures were added to the pedestal in 1906 by Thomas Clapperton, and there are commemorative plaques on houses he was connected with in Selkirk and Peebles. Monuments were also put up by the colonial government of the Gambia at Pisania, and by the colonial government of Nigeria on Jebba Island, near Bussa. And at the bi-centenary of his birth, 1971, money was raised to install two memorial chairs in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh.

Park's wife, three sons, and a daughter survived him. His wife was paid the £4000 contracted in case he failed to return. His son Thomas, a naval officer, set out in 1827 from the Gold Coast to try to discover any news of his father's fate, but died on the way. His line and name continued through his youngest son, Archibald, an officer in the Indian army.


  • K. Lupton, Mungo Park, the African traveler (1979)
  • M. Park, Travels in the interior districts of Africa (1799)
  • The journal of a mission to the interior of Africa in the year 1805 by Mungo Park (1815)
  • B. H., The life of Mungo Park (1835)


  • NHM, corresp. with Sir Joseph Banks [copies]
  • Selkirk Library, letters to Sir Joseph Banks


  • T. Rowlandson, watercolour drawing, 1805, NPG [see illus.]
  • A. Currie, statue, 1859, Selkirk, Scotland
  • R. Bell, engraving (after miniature by H. Edridge), repro. in B. H., Life of Mungo Park
  • T. Dickinson, engraving (after miniature by H. Edridge), repro. in Park, Travels, frontispiece
  • miniature (after H. Edridge), NPG

Wealth at Death

£2079 15s. 7d.: Lupton, Mungo Park

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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Natural History Museum, London