Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer of Africa, was born on the 10th of September, 1771.
Mungo Park is famous for having determined the course of the River Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, he died trying to find its source. His first trip to Africa was as assistant surgeon on an expedition to Sumatra, under the direction of the botanist, Sir Joseph Banks. Following that successful trip, Park set off on an expedition to the unexplored territory of the Gambia. That arduous exploration was undertaken for pure scientific discovery and, unlike many of Park’s contemporaries, without regard for the establishment of trade routes. Park managed to explore the upper reaches of the Niger and map its progress, alone and on foot, before being taken prisoner by tribesmen and subsequently escaping. He went back to Africa in 1805, at the head of a government expedition to complete his exploration of the Niger. His team was decimated by fever and dysentery, and only eleven of the original party reached the Niger alive. In the end, Park and all of his European companions died on the river.
Mungo Park was born on the 10th of September, 1771, on the farm of Fowlshiels on the River Yarrow, near Selkirk, which his father rented from the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch. Mungo was the seventh of thirteen children and, notwithstanding his family’s limited resources, he and his siblings had the benefit of a private tutor, for whom his father was able to pay. He also attended the Grammar School in Selkirk, where he was known for his remarkable application and perseverance, and regularly maintained the place of ‘dux’ or head of his class. His father had thought him suitable for the Church, but Mungo was having none of that; he wanted to be a Doctor. So, he was apprenticed to Thomas Anderson, a surgeon in Selkirk and, for three sessions between 1789 and 1791, he attended medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, where he obtained a surgical diploma. He also developed an interest in Botany and was encouraged by a brother-in-law, James Dickson, who later became celebrated as one of the finest of botanists.
With a medical diploma tucked under his arm and a desire for fame and fortune, Mungo Park went to London in search of employment. Dickson, who was then working at a nursery in Hammersmith, introduced Park to Sir Joseph Banks, a famed English botanist and explorer who had circumnavigated the world with Captain James Cook. Banks was also president of the Royal Society and, in 1792, was planning an expedition to Sumatra. Parks impressed him and was immediately appointed to the post of assistant surgeon aboard an East India Company ship, the ‘Worcester’. On that trip to Benkulen, in Sumatra, Park made scientific observations and collected samples, about which he presented a paper to the Linnaean Society, after his return to London in 1794.
In 1795, the African Association or more properly, ‘The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa’, appointed Mungo Park to explore the course of the River Niger. Park set off from the River Gambia and reached a British trading station called Pisania, where obtained equipment and a guide. Park must have cut a strange figure in the middle of Africa, carrying an umbrella and sporting a tall hat. The hat was somewhat practical, though, as that was where he kept his notes safe throughout the journey. He was also accompanied by two slaves and off he went, into the interior, crossing the upper Senegal basin and the semi-desert region of Kaarta.
At a meeting with local tribesmen, Park was forced to give up his umbrella and his best blue coat. Shortly after, having reached Ludamar, he was taken prisoner by a Moorish chief. His slave, Demba, was sold, but after four months captivity, Park and Johnson, the other slave, managed to escape. Park refused to give up the expedition and went on alone, relying on the kindness of African villagers. He reached the Niger on the 20th or 21st of July, 1796, at Segu (Ségou), becoming the first European to view its waters. On his return journey, he fell ill at Kamalia and owed his life to a native with whom he stayed for seven months. Eventually, on the 22nd of December, 1797, he reached England once more. He had been thought to be dead, but his news of the Niger evoked great public enthusiasm and he became a celebrity. He put his notes to good use when his diary was published, in 1799, as ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa’. Park’s unaffected style rendered the work extremely popular and it is still worth a read; it is an acknowledged classic of its genre. With the £1000 royalties from his successful book, Park married and ‘retired’ to practice medicine in Peebles, but soon got itchy feet.
The lure of Africa called again in 1804, when Park was invited to head a government expedition to complete his exploration of the Niger. On the 31st of January, 1805, he set off with a team, which consisted of thirty-five soldiers from the Royal Africa Corps, four or five officers, including his brother-in-law Alexander Anderson, and four boat builders from Portsmouth. He had taken leave of his friend, Sir Walter Scott, quoting a favourable proverb, "Freits (omens) follow those that look to them." The omens for Park were not good. In total, forty Europeans travelled with Park, but the trip was blighted by the rainy season and his team decimated by fever and dysentery. Only eleven of the original party reached the Niger and by the 19th of November, 1805, only five remained alive. Park sent back a native guide called Isaaco with some correspondence. "I shall," he wrote, "set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt." And that is exactly what he did. He set off down stream from Segu in a converted canoe, which he christened H.M.S. ‘Joliba’, the native name for the Niger. With him were Lieutenant Martyn, three soldiers, a guide and three slaves, the remnants of his crew.
When Isaaco reached Laidley in the Gambia, news had already reached the coast, suggesting that Park was dead. During his one thousand mile journey on the Niger, the ‘Joliba’ had been attacked several times by natives, but repulsed by firearms, and had negotiated many rapids. Tragically, however, at the Bussa rapids, not far below Yauri, the boat got stuck on a rock and was attacked by hostile natives, armed with bows and arrows, and throwing spears. Park, Martyn, and the surviving soldiers, dived into the river and were drowned. The sole survivor was one of the slaves, who told the story of Mungo Park’s final moments. Isaaco was sent back to discover the truth, but all he found was Park's munitions belt. The irony was, that having avoided contact with local Muslim's by keeping to the center of the river, Park and his men were in turn mistaken for Muslim raiders and attacked. His death took several years to be confirmed, but his papers were eventually recovered and published, in 1815, as ‘The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa’.
There stands a statue in memory of Mungo Park in the High Street, in Selkirk.