Biography of Mungo Park

Illustrated portrait of Mungo Park above men on horses.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Mungo Park, a Scottish surgeon and explorer, was sent out by the 'Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa' to discover the course of the River Niger. Having achieved a degree of fame from his first trip, carried out alone and on foot, he returned to Africa with a party of 40 Europeans, all of whom lost their lives in the adventure.

  • Born: 1771, Foulshiels, Selkirk, Scotland
  • Died: 1806, Bussa Rapids, (now under the Kainji Reservoir, Nigeria)

Early Life

Mungo Park was born in 1771, near Selkirk in Scotland, the seventh child of a well-to-do farmer. He was apprenticed to a local surgeon and undertook medical studies in Edinburgh. With a medical diploma and a desire for fame and fortune, Park set off for London, and through his brother-in-law, William Dickson, a Covent Garden seedsman, he got his opportunity. He was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks, a famed English botanist and explorer who had circumnavigated the world with Captain James Cook.

The Allure of Africa

The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, of which Banks was treasurer and unofficial director, had previously funded (for a pittance) the exploration of an Irish soldier, Major Daniel Houghton, based at Goree on the West African coast. Two important questions dominated discussions about the interior of West Africa in the drawing-room of the African Association: the exact site of the semi-mythical city of Timbuktu, and the course of the River Niger.

Exploring the River Niger

In 1795 the Association appointed Mungo Park to explore the course of the River Niger—until Houghton had reported that the Niger flowed from West to East, it was believed that the Niger was a tributary of either the river Senegal or Gambia. The Association wanted proof of the river's course and to know where it finally emerged. Three current theories were: that it emptied into Lake Chad, that it curved round in a large arc to join the Zaire, or that it reached the coast at the Oil Rivers.

Mungo Park set off from the River Gambia, with the aid of the Association's West African 'contact', Dr. Laidley, who provided equipment, a guide, and acted as a postal service. Park started his journey dressed in European clothes, with an umbrella and a tall hat (where he kept his notes safe throughout the journey). He was accompanied by a formerly enslaved man called Johnson who had returned from the West Indies, and an enslaved person called Demba, who had been promised his freedom on completion of the journey.

Park's Captivity

Park knew little Arabic—he had with him two books, 'Richardson's Arabic Grammar' and a copy of Houghton's journal. Houghton's journal, which he had read on the voyage to Africa served him well, and he was forewarned to hide his most valuable gear from the local tribesmen. At his first stop with the Bondou, Park was forced to give up his umbrella and his best blue coat. Shortly after, in his first encounter with the local Muslims, Park was taken prisoner.

Park's Escape

Demba was taken away and sold, Johnson was considered too old to be of value. After four months, and with Johnson's aid, Park finally managed to escape. He had few belongings other than his hat and compass but refused to give up the expedition, even when Johnson refused to travel further. Relying on the kindness of African villagers, Park continued on his way to the Niger, reaching the river on 20 July 1796. Park traveled as far as Segu (Ségou) before returning to the coast, and then to England.

Success Back in Britain

Park was an instant success, and the first edition of his book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa sold out rapidly. His £1000 royalties allowed him to settle in Selkirk and set up a medical practice (marrying Alice Anderson, the daughter of the surgeon to whom he had been apprenticed). Settled life soon bored him, however, and he looked for a new adventure—but only under the right conditions. Banks was offended when Park demanded a large sum to explore Australia for the Royal Society.​

Tragic Return to Africa

In 1805 Banks and Park came to an arrangement—Park was to lead an expedition to follow the Niger to its end. His part consisted of 30 soldiers from the Royal Africa Corps garrisoned at Goree (they were offered extra pay and the promise of a discharge on return), plus officers including his brother-in-law Alexander Anderson, who agreed to join the trip, and four boat builders from Portsmouth who would construct a forty-foot boat when they reached the river. In all 40 Europeans traveled with Park.

Against logic and advice, Mungo Park set off from the Gambia in the rainy season–within ten days his men were falling to dysentery. After five weeks one man was dead, seven mules were lost, and the expedition's baggage was mostly destroyed by fire. Park's letters back to London made no mention of his problems. By the time the expedition reached Sandsanding on the Niger only eleven of the original 40 Europeans were still alive. The party rested for two months but the deaths continued. By November 19 only five of them remained alive (even Alexander Anderson was dead). Sending the native guide, Isaaco, back to Laidley with his journals, Park was determined to continue. Park, Lieutenant Martyn (who had become an alcoholic on native beer), and three soldiers set off downstream from Segu in a converted canoe, christened the HMS Joliba. Each man had fifteen muskets but little in the way of other supplies.

When Isaaco reached Laidley in the Gambia news had already reached the coast of Park's death–coming under fire at the Bussa Rapids, after a journey of over 1,000 miles on the river, Park and his small party were drowned. Isaaco was sent back to discover the truth, but the only remains to be discovered was Mungo Park's munitions belt. The irony was that having avoided contact with local Muslims by keeping to the center of the river, they were in turn mistaken for Muslim raiders and shot at.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography of Mungo Park." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2020, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2020, September 1). Biography of Mungo Park. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography of Mungo Park." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).