During the late 18th and early 19th century, the African continent was considered to be a real challenge for all European explorers.
Many have died there due to illness, accidents, or because they fell foul of the indigenous people. Perhaps one of the most famous explorers of West Africa is Mungo Park, a Scot who was the first Westerner known to have traveled the central portion of the Niger River. The account of his travels is still in print.
Mungo Park was born to a family of prosperous farmers who were able to pay for his good education. When Park was only fourteen, he was apprenticed to a surgeon in Selkirk, Thomas Anderson, whose daughter later became Park’s wife. At the age of sixteen, Park enrolled in the medical studies at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1792. His first work experience as a doctor was on the East India Company’s ship “Worcester” as an assistant ship’s surgeon.
In 1794, Mungo offered his services to the African Association who needed a successor to Major Daniel Houghton at the time. In 1790, Houghton had been sent to discover the course of the Niger River but died in Sahara. Park got selected, and on 22 May 1795, he left England on a vessel to Gambia. After a month he reached the Gambia River and traveled the 200 miles (300 km) to a British trading station named Pisania.
At the beginning of December, accompanied by two local guides, Park started his exploration of the unknown interior. The route he chose was crossing the upper Senegal basin and through Kaarta, a semi-desert region. His journey wasn’t exactly a smooth one. As soon as he reached Ludamar, Park was imprisoned by a Moorish chief for four months.
He managed to escape on the 1st July 1796. He had nothing except for his pocket compass and his horse. After three weeks Park became the first European who had reached the long-sought Niger River at Ségou.
But he didn’t manage to get very far. After traveling 80 miles (130 km) downstream, Park arrived at Silla where due to a lack of resources, he had to turn back. On his way back, as soon as he arrived at Kamaila, Mungo fell very ill. He survived only because of the kindness of a man who kept him in his house and took care of him for seven months. On the 10th June 1797, Park reached Pisania and in December that year returned to Scotland.
Back home he was believed to be dead, so his return took everyone by surprise. His discoveries of the Niger River sparked the public interest and enthusiasm. Park’s detailed narrative “Travels in the Interior of Africa” appeared in 1799, instantly becoming a best-seller. In it, he claimed that:
“whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature.” – Park, Mungo (1799). Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed Under the Direction and Patronage of the African Association, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. London: W. Bulmer and Company