Heart of Darkness? Mungo Park’s Travels in Africa

 

The many travel books we have here at the Cathedral narrate journeys to every corner of the globe. Yet it was Africa that was amongst the last to be fully explored by Europeans. Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa is one of the earliest accounts we have of a European doing anything much more than hugging the African coast.

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Mungo Park. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

In 1790, a 50 year old Irishman named Daniel Houghton travelled up the Gambia River into the heart of West Africa, looking to pinpoint the exact location of Timbuktu and reconnoitre the upper reaches of the Niger. After initial dispatches reporting an increasingly difficult situation for Houghton, he was never heard from again. In 1794, a 25 year old Scottish surgeon called Mungo Park volunteered himself to be Houghton’s successor for the same mission. Whereas Houghton was an experienced and well-travelled soldier, with knowledge of both Arabic and the West African language of Mandingo, Park was relying on his youth and enthusiasm to see him through. However, Park survived to tell his tale.

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European influence in Africa was limited to coastal regions, like this British fort in mid-18th Century Gold Coast (Ghana) . Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The lower reaches of the Gambia were already well known to European merchants; The Portuguese had reached there by the mid-15th Century, and the English began trading in the area  at the end of the 16th Century. By the end of the 18th, a Westerner would still not have felt exactly at home in coastal West Africa, but he would have encountered a few of his countrymen here and there, and the occasional English speaking African merchant. As far as 200 miles upriver there was a British trading post. Beyond this point though, Park was journeying into the unknown.

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Europeans had little idea what lay in the interior of Africa, as this decidedly dodgy 18th Century illustration of a zebra and giraffe, shown alongside the mythical manticore, demonstrates. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

He soon came into various difficulties. Fever hit early on. Lions, hyenas and other predators were an ever present danger. Shown kindness by many of the natives, there were those few who sought to either extort or rob him. Traversing a patchwork of warring kingdoms and tribal territories, one needed to be a diplomat just as much as anything else. At one point, Park was even kidnapped by ‘Moors’ (the contemporary term for all Arabic-speaking North Africans) and held captive for four months, in terrible conditions and with only an irascible pig for company.

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African wildlife, from a 17th or early 18th illustration. Image copyright The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

‘[The pig sharing the hut with Park] has almost certainly been placed there by Ali’s [The Moorish Chief] order, out of derision to a Christian, and I found it a very disagreeable inmate, as it drew together a number of boys, who amused themselves by beating it with sticks, until they had so irritated the hog that it ran a bit and every person within its reach.’[1]

These and other experiences would lead Park to describe the Moors with the unkindest of words. He was, however, able to maintain a more enlightened view towards the Black Africans, saying that ‘whatever difference there is between the Negro and the European in the conformation of the nose and colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature.’[2] Park’s writing humanised Africans in a way which was relatively new in the late 18th Century, and as such his Travels were frequently quoted by Abolitionists – even if Park himself my not have supported their movement.

What we can say for sure is that Park demonstrated a great admiration for Africa and its people (excepting the Moors). He was to return there for a second expedition in 1805, but he died within the year. One of his stated aims was to ‘succeed in rendering the geography of Africa more familiar to my countrymen, and in opening to their ambition and industry new sources of wealth, and new channels of commerce.’[3] To a large extent, he achieved this goal – within a hundred years of his first journey, all Africa was under European rule, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia. The British had the biggest and best slice of the cake. Whether or not Mungo Park would have approved of the exploitative nature of European colonial administration remains a matter for conjecture.

Tom Hopkins

[1] Park 1799: 123

[2] Park 1799: 82

[3] Park 1799: 2

Bibliography 

Park, M, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, London 1799

 

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