I know; cool name but who?
Mungo Park was an explorer, the first white man to set foot in central Africa. He walked from village to village, shedding gifts, clothes, health and companions until he had nothing but the filthy threadbare clothes on his back - and sometimes not even that. He walked approximately 3000 miles through unmapped territory to somehow miraculously return to the coast of western Africa and then to London and then his home in Scotland. While at home in Scotland he practice medicine as a country doctor, in got married and had a family, befriended Sir Walter Scott, and penned an account of his travels that brought him some measure of fame and captured the imagination of the British public.
And mostly all the while he pined for the adventures that almost killed him. There's something about facing every day that makes man feel most alive and so Mungo Park applied to the British Government to go back and trace the full extent of the Niger River at the head of an expedition. For a number of reasons, this journey has ill-fated and after being decimated by sickness and treachery, Mungo Park has at last betrayed, attacked and drowned near modern day Bussa, Nigeria in 1805.
The beginning of the narrative starts off a bit slow as he's going from village to village and it's hard to keep the names straight. One of the initial things that struck me , though is that even though there has been no European cultural penetration further than the coast and the Portuguese, French and British slave traders, Islam has already spead deeply into the Interior of the African Continent.
The Moors, or the Islamic desert nomads of the north, do not come off well. They are churlish, ignorant, heartless, self-serving, double-crossing and cruel to the Africans and the one Christian they meet. Mungo Park is kept captive by them for a number of months, never sure of his fate from day to day. He escapes only through his ability to think on his feet and little kindnesses, mostly from the Queen. \
The different villages he travels through are ruled by Chieftains or "Dootys" and wider areas by Kings. He has a translator with him at first but later he's on his own - he knows enough Mandingo to communicated but that's only one language - the regions he walks through is diverse and varied. Sometimes he is treated like a celebrity, sometimes he treated as oddity or as an infidel - when he's with the Moors at one point they tie up a hog by his tent which constantly squeals and keeps him awake. He is told that if he's hungry he can eat dress and eat the pig, which is of course an unclean animal according to the Islamic Law.
Another thing which is eye-opening is just how prevalent the slave trade. I'd always had this image in my head of white slave catchers out in the jungle chasing down peaceful,, defenseless villagers who they captured, put in chains and sent them on a ship to South Carolina. What I learned from reading this book is that slavery was a part of the culture there. You were either born a slave, you were enslaved after your village or Kingdom lost a war or you were enslaved when you or your family fell into debt or destitution. Then you either stayed put, or were traded to another village or taken to the coast. Some statistics: "Slave trade was also well established along the West African coast. According to some estimates, there were 1,473,000 slaves shipped out from the Bight of Benin between the years 1600 and 1800, with over 1.2 million of these slaves being dispatched in the 18th century alone.1" Another quote from the same source, "The transatlantic trade in particular accounted for the forced migration of perhaps 3.5 million people between the 1650s and the 1860s, while a steady stream of slaves flowed north across the Sahara for a millennium, ending at the beginning of the twentieth century. Within Nigeria, slavery was widespread, with social implications that are still evident today. The Sokoto Caliphate, for example, had more slaves than any other modern country, except the United States in 1860.2"
Most of the European troops and explorers are killed by fever, disease and dysentery. At one point, Mungo takes 5-6 weeks to recover. The rest are killed by betrayal.
As for the narrative itself, it's straightforward and crisp. He kept detailed notes in his hat which he always loses along with his life and the rest of his clothes at one point. Again, he starts by going village to village; as he gets further north he gets encounters the Niger and then the desert - this is where he's held captive. At this point, he decides to turn back. He does not know whether the Niger drains into the Congo, crosses to the other side of Africa - little does he know that it sweeps out a wide arc and doubles back on itself and drains back into the Atlantic across a delta that's half as long as the island of England itself. After he makes his escape, he encounters a friendly Village Chieftain who takes him in and then he travels back to the coast with a slave caravan - in fact making friends with many of the slaves. His take: The slave trade would have less actual impact on slavery as an institution than well-intentioned people think. Finally it's common now to paint imperialism with a damning brush and historically speaking, "opening up regions to trade" is justifiably equated with exploitation. But I would say that the British were idealistic in their own way. They were the first to abolish slavery in their protectorates and the quit the trade; they did want to find if they could help the African find other ways of subsisting and part of that was by entering into mutually beneficial trade agreements. The Christian Missionaries did believe that they were carrying a civilizing influence, and the Christ they believed in was a definite moral step up from what was going on - especially in comparison with how Islam was being practiced.
But maybe the Africans were right - they looked at the Europeans with their superior killing technology, muskets cannons and boats and understood - once these guys had a foothold, it was only a matter of time. So why not kill rob and kill them now.
Park's second expedition reminds me a lot of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. They start too late, the rainy season begins, and they members of the expedition - numbering in the 40s to begin with, is picked off in handfuls by disease, madness and violence until there are only 4-5 left in a canoe going down the Niger. Park is betrayed and then attacked where the river narrows to high stone cliffs- bombarded by rocks and projectiles, his canoe is upset and he drowns.
After everything he went through, it's a horribly fitting death. Of course, after narrowly escaping the first time, he should never have gone back - but who would have guessed that the extra soldiers and other members of the expedition, plus the materiel itself would be a burden rather than protection.
A lucky fine, mind- opening - thanks to George Eliot for the reference in Middlemarch.