Death on the Niger: The Truth about Mungo Park: This Year Marks the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Mungo Park, One of the Great Explorers of Africa and the Founding Figure of Modern Travel Writing. Author of the Bestselling Gates of Africa and a Leading Expert on the Scottish Explorer, Anthony Sattin Traces Park's Final Journey Up Mali's Niger River in an Attempt to Cast Light on His Mysterious Death

By Sattin, Anthony | Geographical, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Death on the Niger: The Truth about Mungo Park: This Year Marks the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Mungo Park, One of the Great Explorers of Africa and the Founding Figure of Modern Travel Writing. Author of the Bestselling Gates of Africa and a Leading Expert on the Scottish Explorer, Anthony Sattin Traces Park's Final Journey Up Mali's Niger River in an Attempt to Cast Light on His Mysterious Death


Sattin, Anthony, Geographical


He was one of the most celebrated explorers of his age, a pioneer of overland travel at the end of the great age of maritime exploration. He had travelled through uncharted Africa, where so many had died before him, and come home safe to tell the tale. Then, in 1805, he went back, determined to settle the question of where the Niger River ended. Mungo Park was never seen again.

Almost eight months after Park's final correspondence reached the UK, The Times revealed that "a letter, it is said, has been received from the River Gambia, stating, that Mr Mungo Parke [sic], the traveller, and his retinue (two or three excepted) have been murdered by the natives of the interior of that country". The newspaper carried another story in September 1806 reporting that the party had been accused of spying and killed by the king of Segou. Other stories emerged over the following years, but none revealed the exact nature of his death.

Park was, of course, well aware of the dangers he was likely to encounter--he had already survived one harrowing journey through West Africa. However, his successful return had led him to regard himself as a survivor, and his employers in London seemed to agree. So what happened?

THE LURE OF AFRICA

Park's first journey in Africa, which began in 1795, was an act of optimism. Five years earlier, Major Daniel Houghton had been sent out by Sir Joseph Banks and the other committee members of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, charged with finding the source, course and mouth of the Niger River and of locating the fabled city of Timbuktu. Indeed, "instead of deterring me from my purpose, [news of the major's death] animated me to persist in the offer of my services with the greater solicitude," Park wrote.

Before his first departure for Africa, Park had described the journey to Timbuktu as "a short expedition", but it took 19 months and nearly cost him his life. He suffered malaria, beatings, a stoning, numerous thefts, hunger and thirst.

Nevertheless, it was a success--the African Association's first real achievement--and on his return at Christmas 1797, Park was hailed in London as the first European to bring home news from the Niger River. The Times exaggerated his achievements, he was a feature in society--Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, composed a song in his honour--and his account of his travels sold well.

When the fuss died down, Park returned to the Borders, where he married and began to practice as a country doctor. But he wasn't suited to a settled life and would, he told his friend, the novelist Sir Walter Scott, "rather brave Africa and all its horrors than wear out his life in long and toilsome rides over cold and lonely heaths and gloomy hills". So he was more than ready when the call came from the African Association.

Park was to travel as a representative of the British government and was given authority to negotiate treaties with rulers along the Niger. A detachment of soldiers was to accompany him.

The association hoped that the journey would settle the question of where the Niger River ended. There were two widely held views at the time. One school of thought, following Claudius Ptolemy, insisted that the Niger flowed due east and ran into the Nile. The other school, championed by the celebrated British geographer Major James Rennell, believed that the river flowed into a great lake that Rennell called Wangara (Lake Chad). Park and Banks were sure that the river would end in the Atlantic; Banks thought it would turn out to be a branch of the Congo River.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

Park wanted to reach the Niger before the rains began in late June 1805, but left London a month late, in January 1805. He reached Ile de Goree, off modern-day Dakar, at the beginning of April. There, three officers and 33 privates from the British garrison volunteered to join him, lured by the offer of double pay and, for the convicts among them, a chance of freedom. …

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Death on the Niger: The Truth about Mungo Park: This Year Marks the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Mungo Park, One of the Great Explorers of Africa and the Founding Figure of Modern Travel Writing. Author of the Bestselling Gates of Africa and a Leading Expert on the Scottish Explorer, Anthony Sattin Traces Park's Final Journey Up Mali's Niger River in an Attempt to Cast Light on His Mysterious Death
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