Magazine article Geographical

Journey to the White Man's Grave

Magazine article Geographical

Journey to the White Man's Grave

Article excerpt

On 22 December 1797 the Scottish explorer Mungo Park sailed into Falmouth harbour. He had been away in Africa for almost three years and had solved one of the thorniest issues of the day - the course of the Niger. Simon Craig reports

Rumours of Scottish explorer Mungo Park's death first reached the west coast of Africa in 1806. It took another three years before a newspaper report of his "violent death" appeared in, of all places, Bombay. In fact this was not as odd as it sounds. He had disappeared at the southern fringes of the Islamic world, and pilgrims going to, or returning from, Mecca were likely to carry the news to other parts of that world before it became known elsewhere.

Park's final journey had begun at Portsmouth early in 1805 and ended a year later at Bussa in what is now Nigeria. Following the voyage to Africa's western-most point there had been a dreadful march, survived by only a dozen of 45 men, to reach the Niger River. The survivors then paddled some 1,900 kilometres downstream to the final disaster that was awaiting them at Bussa.

Exactly what happened there will never be known, but it seems clear that in his anxiety to find the termination of the Niger, Park had made enemies. He and a handful of survivors were ambushed at Bussa. Park himself is thought to have leapt into the river and drowned.

For all the courage and resourcefulness he had shown on this extraordinary journey, it was an inglorious end. His task had been to trace the course of the Niger, and a little tact and patience might have got him there. He had shown so much of both on his first trip, just 10 years before.

Mungo Park's origins were humble enough. The seventh of 13 children, he was born on a farm in the Scottish borders in 1771. After studying medicine at Edinburgh University he had moved south to London. There he met Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, and the naturalist on Captain Cook's voyage around the world between 1768 and 1771. Banks was to become effectively Park's patron.

His influence gained Park an appointment on a voyage to the East Indies in 1792. On his return the following year, he cemented the relationship by presenting Banks with a number of rare plants from Sumatra. Banks was a founder member of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, and it was in this capacity that he was to launch his young protege on a career path that would lead to both triumph and disaster.

By the end of the 18th century, most of the Earth's surface had been mapped in some detail. Easily the biggest gap in geographers' knowledge though was central Africa. Although Arab northern Africa was familiar, as was the entire coastline, the interior of sub-Saharan Africa was largely a blank for cartographers to fill in with their imaginations.

In 1788, the African Association set itself the task of replacing guesswork with knowledge. Among Africa's greatest mysteries was the Niger River. It was known that there was a mighty river in West Africa, somewhere south of the Sahara, but no living European had ever seen it.

The river had been described by two long-dead Arab geographers, Al-Idrisi, in the 12th century, and Leo Africanus, some 400 years later. Both described it as flowing westwards.

By the end of the 18th century several theories had been established about the Niger. Some thought it part of the Nile, others part of the Senegal. Some even said that it evaporated at an indefinite point south of the Sahara. With Banks behind him, Mungo Park was now appointed to settle the matter.

In 1794, the African Association employed Park as "a Geographical Missionary ... to ascertain the course and, if possible, the rise and termination of the River Niger." It turned out to be an awesome task.

West Africa was the "White Man's Grave" with yellow fever and malaria the biggest killers. …

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