Adewale Maja-Pearce revisits Park's journal and finds a testament to the nobility of African womanhood...
…it is impossible for me to forget the disinterested charity and tender solicitude with which many of these poor heathens (from the sovereign of Sego to the poor women who received me at different times into their cottages when I was perishing of hunger) sympathised with me in my sufferings, relieved me of my distresses, and contributed to my safety. This acknowledgment, however, is more particularly due to the female part of the nation… I do not recollect a single instance of hard-heartedness towards me in the women. In all my wanderings and wretchedness I found them uniformly kind and compassionate. Mungo Park: Travels in the Interior of Africa
Mungo Park never said that he discovered the River Niger, whatever his imperialist successors might have claimed on his behalf. In his deservedly famous book, first published in 1799, he himself pointed out that he was engaged by the African Society to ‘ascertain the sources and, if possible, the rise and termination of that river.’ His employers were already well aware of the existence of the ‘strong brown god’ and merely wanted it mapped in terms of its longitude and latitude. Moreover, in the course of his journey he freely admitted the help of the locals in directing him to its banks as he wandered through what was then a blank space for a Europe thirsting for knowledge, adventure and, above all, trade. Even the European merchants who dealt in the three chief commodities of the continent – gold, ivory and, notoriously, slaves - were largely confined to the coastal areas of Senegal and The Gambia, from where they haggled over prices with the African middlemen who brought them from the interior. Indeed, mapping the river was only part of his brief, and a subordinate one at that. More important again was Mungo Park’s own ‘passion’ (his word) ‘to examine into the productions of a country so little known, and to become experimentally acquainted with the modes of life and character of the natives’. To that end, his first task was to learn Mandingo, the most widely spoken language, which he did with astonishing speed before proceeding on a journey from which few expected him to return: his predecessor, Major Houghton, had been killed by the Moors a few years previously and they very nearly accounted for him, too. The behaviour of the Moors, a ‘savage and merciless people’ who ‘exult in the miseries and misfortunes of their fellow creatures’, eventually forced him to avoid the towns and villages where they were to be found in large numbers, but this was not always possible. The result, when he did encounter them, was uniformly the same, as witness the following:
They assembled round the hut of the Negro where I lodged, and treated me with the greatest insolence; they hissed, shouted and abused me; they even spat in my face, with a view to intimidate me and afford them a pretext for seizing my baggage. But finding such insults had not the desired effect, they had recourse to the final and decisive argument, that I was a Christian, and that of course my property was lawful plunder to the followers of Mohammed. They accordingly opened my bundles and robbed me of everything they fancied.
At one point he was taken prisoner for an entire month until he could effect his escape, but by then he had been dispossessed of everything he owned. He was only halfway through his journey but the rains had set in and it was no longer feasible for him to press on. The internal evidence suggests that he had reached the land of the ‘Houssas’ in what was to become southern Niger or northern Nigeria. Tracing the source of the Niger all the way down to the Atlantic would have to await his second, ill-fated journey, when he was killed in an attack on his party in the rapids at Bussa in what is now central Nigeria. In the meantime, he had to retrace his footsteps but his chances of making it back looked slim: ‘worn down by sickness, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, half-naked, and without any article of value by which I might procure provisions, clothes or lodging, I began to reflect seriously on my condition…’ At one point he was forced to endure two consecutive days without water to drink and prepared for the worst until a flash flood late in the night rescued him; but it was in keeping with the character of the man which shines through his narrative that he should be concerned with more than merely his own survival: ‘Here then, thought I, after a short but ineffectual struggle, terminate all my thoughts of being useful in my day and generation.’ That he eventually did make it back was due to guile, luck and what he himself acknowledged as an exceptionally strong constitution, but none of these was sufficient in themselves. The decisive factor was the ‘disinterested charity and tender solicitude’ of the ‘Negroes’ – ‘the gentleness of their manners presented a striking contrast to the crudeness and barbarity of the Moors’ – who give him succour when he was at his lowest. The following is just one of many examples he gratefully – and movingly - recorded in his journal: