By Charles Matthews

Friday, October 1, 2010

8. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 211-234

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Mungo Park in Africa
Tied down by gout and administrative responsibility, Joseph Banks was still fascinated by exploration, so in 1788 he became one of the founders of the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Districts of Africa  (later mercifully shortened to the Africa Association and finally merged with the Royal Geographic Society in 1831).  The association was designed to promote exploration and commerce, though it of course also paved the way for colonialism and the cultural imperialism of Christian evangelicals, particularly after the war against Napoleon began and Banks became a member of the Privy Council. The great goal of the explorers of the late eighteenth century was the city of Timbuctoo (now Timbuktu in the nation of Mali), which had the legendary aura of an El Dorado.

In 1792 Banks met a twenty-one-year old Scottish-physician named Mungo Park. The tall, athletic Park had come to London to find something more interesting to do with his life than being a doctor. Banks arranged for him to go on a naval expedition to Sumatra as an assistant ship's surgeon. He acquitted himself so well on the eighteen-month voyage that Banks suggested to the Africa Association that they send Park to explore the Niger. He was outfitted with "two shotguns, two compasses, a sextant, a thermometer, a small medicine chest (the regular use of quinine as a prophylactic against malaria had not yet been adopted), a wide-brimmed hat and the indispensable British umbrella. There were also two vital objects of sartorial formality: a blue dress coat with brass buttons, and a malacca cane with a silver top." His objective was to seek out the source of the Niger and to try to get as far as Timbuctoo.

By July 1795 Park was at Pasania, a hundred miles up the river Gambia. He spent five months there, learning Mandingo and recovering from a bout with malarial fever, before setting off with an African guide and interpreter named Johnson and an African slave boy, Demba, whom Park intended to set free on his return. Their expedition began, following the Gambia eastward, on December 2.  But when he entered the territory controlled by a Moorish chieftain known as Ali, all of the good he had brought with him for trading were stolen, Johnson and Demba disappeared, and Park became a virtual prisoner of Ali. He recalled in particular a rather embarrassing examination by Ali's wife, Fatima, and her female entourage, who wanted to know if he was circumcised.

Park escaped, and on July 20, 1796, got his first sight of the Niger, which, he was pleased to note, flowed eastward, as Herodotus had predicted. He was treated kindly by a group of women who invited him in, fed him, and sang him to sleep. He realized that the extemporized song was about him, the poor white man that they had fed and sheltered. "The women reversed all Park's assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realised that it was he -- the heroic white man -- who was in reality the lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree and drank at their river." When he left he gave the woman who had taken him in the four brass buttons from his coat.

On August 25, he decided not to proceed as far as Timbuktu and to begin his return journey. But he was set upon by Moorish bandits, who robbed him of everything he had left, except his trousers, his boots (which were falling apart) and his hat, in the band of which he had hidden his travel journal. He recorded sitting there in despair, naked, hungry and exhausted, staring at the ground, with "no alternative, but to lie down and perish."
He noticed a tiny piece of flowering moss pushing up through the stony earth beside his boot. In a flash, his scientific interest was aroused, and leaning forward to examine the minute plant, for one moment he forgot his terrible situation. He carefully described this movement out of paralysing despair: "At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification, irresistibly caught my eye. I mention this to show from what trifling circumstance the mind will sometimes derive consolation.... Can the Being (thought I) who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and suffering of creatures formed after his own image? -- surely not!" 
He kept going on his journey westward, discovering that he could pay his way by writing out verses from the Quran on scraps of paper torn off of the pages of his journal and selling them. Holmes likens Park's redemption from despair to that of the Ancient Mariner, who is released from the curse of killing the albatross when he blesses the sea creatures surrounding his ship.

Park returned to London just before Christmas in 1797. His adventures made him a celebrity and when his account of them was published in the spring of 1799 as Travels in the Interior of Africa, he earned enough to marry Allison Anderson, who had been his childhood sweetheart. He settled down as a physician in Peebles, and fathered two sons and a daughter. Among his patients was the young Walter Scott, to whom Park confessed in 1803 that he was discontented with being a country doctor on the "lonely heaths and gloomy hills" of Scotland and "would rather brave Africa and all its horrors."

So in 1805 Park set out on his second expedition, this one well-financed and -equipped. The war with France changed the aim of the expedition "from a geographical survey to that of an armed trading caravan, its main purpose to seek to establish a commercial trade down the Niger." Banks proposed it as a step "to secure to the British Throne, either by conquest or by Treaty, the whole of the Coast of Africa from Arguin [in Mauritania] to Sierra Leone." He sounded the note of British imperialism, to bring the benefits of Christianity and benign rule to the natives, though "It is not clear how much of this imperial dream he ever vouchsafed to Park himself."

Park would be accompanied by his wife's brother, Alexander Anderson. They were to be given the military ranks of captain and lieutenant respectively, and though Park pleaded to be allowed to travel with only two or three people, including George Scott, the expedition's artist, in the end he was accompanied by forty soldiers under the command of twenty-two-year-old Captain John Martyn. They arrived at Goree on March 28, 1805, just before the beginning of the rainy season, and finally set off on the Gambia on April 27. The rains came, and the soldiers began to succumb to malaria fever and dysentery. By the time they reached the Niger on August 19, only twelve Europeans from the original party remained alive. Five more, including Scott, died when they reached Sansanding, and Park nearly poisoned himself with mercury calomel trying to cure a bad case of dysentery.

They set out on the Niger with a party of nine, including Anderson, three troopers, Martyn, two slaves who had been promised freedom, and an Arabic-speaking guide, Amadi. Park planned to descend the river after it turned southward at Timbuktu and follow it to the bay of Benin. Martyn recorded Park's efficiency in a letter written to a fellow officer, but on November 4, he added a note on the outside of the envelope telling of the death of Anderson and a trooper. Park also recorded Anderson's death and burial in his journal: "I then felt myself as if left a second time, lonely and friendless, amidst the wilds of Africa." Before leaving Sansanding, he wrote farewells to the sponsor of the expedition, Lord Camden at the Colonial Office, to Banks, and to his wife. "But he also sent back to Goree by Arabic messenger his journals written up to that date, as if this would be the last chance."

About November 21, 1805, accompanied by Martyn and three soldiers (he wrote in a last note that one of the soldiers was "deranged in his mind"), he set off downriver from Sansanding. They never reached Timbuctoo, which became a symbol of an inaccessible goal. One of Tennyson's early poems is called "Timbucto," and it won him the Chancellor's Medal at Cambridge in 1827.  Park was reportedly attacked from the riverbank because he refused to pay the tribute demanded by local chiefs. Amadi, the guide, left them by agreement, but later found a witness who reported that after the rest of the party was killed, Park and Martyn jumped into the river. Their bodies were never found.

Park was thirty-four at the time of his assumed death in February 1896. His wife was paid £4,000 in  prearranged compensation, and the portion of his journal that survived was published in 1815. But legends of Park's survival persisted, and in 1826 his son Thomas set out to try to find him. Thomas had studied science at Edinburgh University and was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, but he left without warning his family. The accounts of his travels and death are various and unreliable. His body was never found, but "in November 1827, a clean white shirt, pressed and labeled 'T Park,' turned up in a basket of laundry delivered to the explorer Richard Lander at Sokoto, a hundred miles away on the western coast." (Note: Thomas Park's journey, as described by Holmes, is impossible to follow on a map today. "Yansong," which Holmes says is "140 miles inland" from Accra, has either disappeared or undergone a name change. The references to it on Google seem to be from the sources contemporary with Park's journey on which Holmes based his account. There is a Sokoto in northwest Nigeria, but not on the "western coast.") 

Mungo Park's story had the kind of appeal you might expect to the Romantic imagination. It was picked up by Wordsworth in an early version of The Prelude and by Robert Southey in Thalaba the Destroyer, though Holmes observes that "Park's quiet, fresh, limpid prose has easily outlasted Southey's gaudy, melodramatic poem." A better tribute to Park may be Shelley's Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, which "reflects the spiritual loneliness of the desert traveller who pursues a perilous river, and knows he will never return.... [Shelley] captures something of Mungo Park's enigmatic wanderlust, and transforms it into an unearthly Miltonic quest for the strange and magnificent limits of the known world." And Keats gave a copy of his poem Endymion to the explorer Joseph Ritchie when he set out on a journey into the Sahara, with instruction to read it and "throw it into the heart of the Sahara Desert." Ritchie wrote to Keats in December 1818 from Cairo that "Endymion has arrived thus far on his way to the Desart." Ritchie never returned.

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