Mungo Park (explorer)

Mungo Park (explorer)
Mungo Park

Mungo Park (explorer)
Born 11 September 1771 (1771-09-11)
Selkirkshire, Scotland
Died 1806 (1807) (aged 34/35)
Bussa, Nigeria
Nationality British
Fields Exploration
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Known for Exploration of African continent

Mungo Park (11 September 1771 – 1806) was a Scottish explorer of the African continent. He was credited as being the first Westerner to encounter the Niger River.


Early life

Mungo Park was born in Selkirkshire, Scotland at Foulshiels on the Yarrow Water, near Selkirk,[1] on a tenant farm which his father rented from the Duke of Buccleuch. He was the seventh in a family of thirteen. Although tenant farmers, the Parks were relatively well-off –- they were able to pay for Park to have a good education, and Park's father died leaving property valued at £3,000 (UK£ 160,000 in 2011).[2] The Parks were Dissenters, and Park was brought up in the Calvinist tradition.

Park was educated at home before attending Selkirk grammar school, then, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a surgeon named Thomas Anderson in Selkirk. During his apprenticeship, he made friends with Anderson's son Alexander and became acquainted with his daughter Allison, who would later become his wife.

In October 1788, Park started at the University of Edinburgh, attending for four sessions studying medicine and botany. Notably, during his time at university, he spent a year in the natural history course of Professor John Walker. After completing his studies, he spent a summer in the Scottish Highlands, engaged in botanical fieldwork with his brother-in-law, James Dickson, a gardener and seed merchant in Covent Garden. In 1788 he and Sir Joseph Banks had founded the London Linnean Society.

In January 1793, Park completed his medical education by passing an oral examination at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London. Through a recommendation by Banks, he then obtained the post of assistant surgeon on board the East Indiaman Worcester. In February 1793 the Worcester sailed to Benkulen in Sumatra. Before departing, Park wrote to his friend Alexander Anderson in terms that reflect his Calvinist upbringing:

My hope is now approaching to a certainty. If I be deceived, may God alone put me right, for I would rather die in the delusion than wake to all the joys of earth. May the Holy Spirit dwell in your heart, my dear friend, and if I ever see my native land again, may I rather see the green sod on your grave than see you anything but a Christian.[3]

On his return in 1793, Park gave a lecture to the Linnaean Society, describing eight new Sumatran fish. He also presented Banks with various rare Sumatran plants.

First journey

View of Kamalia in Mandingo country, Africa, from: Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa
Map of Mungo Park's journeys
Park was one of the first explorers of Central Africa, and was one of the first explorers mentioned in Travels in Central-Africa - from Mungo Park to Dr. Barth and Dr. Vogel.

In 1794 Park offered his services to the African Association, then looking for a successor to Major Daniel Houghton, who had been sent in 1790 to discover the course of the Niger River and had died in the Sahara. Supported by Sir Joseph Banks, Park was selected.

On 21 June 1795, he reached the Gambia River and ascended it 200 miles to a British trading station named Pisania. On 2 December, accompanied by two local guides, he started for the unknown interior. He chose the route crossing the upper Senegal basin and through the semi-desert region of Kaarta. The journey was full of difficulties, and at Ludamar he was imprisoned by a Moorish chief for four months. On 1 July 1796, he escaped, alone and with nothing but his horse and a pocket compass, and on the 21st reached the long-sought Niger River at Ségou, being the first European to do so. He followed the river downstream 80 miles to Silla, where he was obliged to turn back, lacking the resources to go further.[4][5]

On his return journey, begun on 30 July, he took a route more to the south than that originally followed, keeping close to the Niger as far as Bamako, thus tracing its course for some 300 miles. At Kamalia he fell ill, and owed his life to the kindness of a man in whose house he lived for seven months. Eventually he reached Pisania again on 10 June 1797, returning to Scotland by way of Antigua on 22 December. He had been thought dead, and his return home with news of the discovery of the Niger River evoked great public enthusiasm. An account of his journey was drawn up for the African Association by Bryan Edwards, and his own detailed narrative appeared in 1799 (Travels in the Interior of Africa). It was extremely popular and is available in Project Gutenberg.[6]

Between journeys

Settling at Foulshiels, in August 1799 Park married Allison, daughter of his old master, Thomas Anderson. Two offers made to him to go to New South Wales in some official capacity came to nothing, and in October 1801 Park moved to Peebles, where he practiced as a physician.

Second journey

In the autumn of 1803 Mungo Park was invited by the government to lead another expedition to the Niger. Park, who chafed at the hardness and monotony of life at Peebles, accepted the offer, but the expedition was delayed. Part of the waiting time was occupied perfecting his Arabic – his teacher being Sidi Ambak Bubi, a native of Mogador, whose behavior both amused and alarmed the people of Peebles.

In May 1804 Park went back to Foulshiels, where he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, then living nearby at Ashesteil, with whom he soon became friendly. In September, Park was summoned to London to leave on the new expedition; he left Scott with the hopeful proverb on his lips, "Freits (omens) follow those that look to them."

Park had at that time adopted the theory that the Niger and the Congo were one, and in a memorandum drawn up before he left Britain he wrote: "My hopes of returning by the Congo are not altogether fanciful."

On 31 January 1805 he sailed from Portsmouth for Gambia, having been given a captain's commission as head of the government expedition. Alexander Anderson, his brother-in-law and second-in-command, had received a lieutenancy. George Scott, a fellow Borderer, was draughtsman, and the party included four or five artificers. At Goree (then in British occupation) Park was joined by Lieutenant Martyn, R.A., thirty-five privates and two seamen.

The expedition did not reach the Niger until mid-August, when only eleven Europeans were left alive; the rest had succumbed to fever or dysentery. From Bamako the journey to Ségou was made by canoe. Having received permission from the local ruler to proceed, at Sansandig, a little below Ségou, Park made ready for his journey down the still unknown part of the river. Helped by one soldier, the only one capable of work, Park converted two canoes into one tolerably good boat, 40 feet long and 6 feet broad. This he christened H.M. schooner Joliba (the native name for the Niger River), and in it, with the surviving members of his party, he set sail downstream on 19 November.

Anderson had died at Sansandig on 28 October, and in him Park had lost the only member of the party – except Scott, already dead – "who had been of real use." Those who embarked in the Joliba were Park, Martyn, three European soldiers (one mad), a guide and three slaves. Before his departure, Park gave to Isaaco, a Mandingo guide who had been with him thus far, letters to take back to Gambia for transmission to Britain.

The spirit with which Park began the final stage of his enterprise is well illustrated by his letter to the head of the Colonial Office: "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. Though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I would still persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger."

To his wife, Park wrote of his intention not to stop nor land anywhere until he reached the coast, where he expected to arrive about the end of January 1806.

These were the last communications received from Park, and nothing more was heard of the party until reports of disaster reached Gambia.


At length, the British government engaged Isaaco to go to the Niger to ascertain Park's fate. At Sansanding, Isaaco found Amadi Fatouma, the guide who had gone downstream with Park, and the substantial accuracy of the story he told was later confirmed by the investigations of Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander.

Amadi Fatouma stated that Park's canoe had descended the river to Yauri, where he (Fatouma) landed. In this long journey of some 1,000 miles Park, who had plenty of provisions, stuck to his resolution of keeping aloof from the natives. Below Jenné, came Timbuktu, and at various other places the natives came out in canoes and attacked his boat. These attacks were all repulsed, Park and his party having plenty of firearms and ammunition and the natives having none. The boat also escaped the many perils attendant on navigating an unknown stream strewn with many rapids; Park had built the Joliba so that it drew only a foot of water.

But at the Bussa rapids, not far below Yauri, the boat struck on a rock and remained fast. On the bank were gathered hostile natives, who attacked the party with bow and arrow and throwing spears. Their position being untenable, Park, Martyn and the two remaining soldiers sprang into the river and were drowned. The sole survivor was one of the slaves, from whom was obtained the story of the final scene.

Isaaco, and later Lander, obtained some of Park's effects, but his journal was never recovered. In 1827 his second son, Thomas, landed on the Guinea coast, intending to make his way to Bussa, where he thought his father might be detained a prisoner; but after penetrating a little distance inland he died of fever. Park's widow Allison died in 1840. Mungo Park's remains are buried along the banks of the River Niger in Jebba Nigeria.


J. Thomson's Mungo Park and the Niger (London, 1890) contains the best critical estimate of the explorer and his work. See also the Life (by Wishaw) prefixed to Journal of a Mission into the Interior of Africa in 1804 (London, 1814); H. B., Life of Mungo Park (Edinburgh, 1835); and an interesting passage in Lockhart's Life of Sir Walter Scott, vol. ii.

One of Park's direct descendants is the Canadian author (of Scottish lineage), Professor Andrew Price-Smith, who has published extensively on health and development issues in Southern Africa.

Mungo Park's adventures on the Niger are the subject matter of Water Music, a richly detailed comic adventure novel published in 1981 by the American writer T.C. (a/k/a T. Coraghessan) Boyle.


  • Park, Mungo (1816). Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. London: John Murray. 


The Royal Scottish Geographical Society award the Mungo Park Medal annually in Park's honour.

See also



 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

External links

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