Birthday: September 11, 1771
Died At Age: 34
Sun Sign: Virgo
Born in: Selkirkshire
Famous as: Explorer
Died on: 1806
place of death: Bussa, Nigeria
Cause of Death: Drowning
education: University of Edinburgh, Selkirk Grammar School
Who was Mungo Park?
Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer who attempted to explore the true course of the Niger River. He is believed to have been the first Westerner to travel to the central portion of the Niger River. Famous for his adventures on the hazardous explorations he undertook, he lost his life in his attempt to find the source of the Niger River. Born as the son of a wealthy farmer in Selkirkshire, Scotland, his parents initially wanted him to pursue a religious career. However, life had other plans for him and he went on to study medicine at University of Edinburgh and became a trained medical surgeon. He was then appointed as assistant surgeon on board the East India Company's ship Worcester, and travelled to Benkulen in Sumatra. He studied the plant and animal life in Sumatra and gained valuable experience. Subsequently he was appointed by the African Association to explore the true course of the Niger River and set off on his first exploration in 1795. He had several exciting albeit dangerous experiences on this trip but he was unable to find the source of the Niger. He embarked on another expedition to Africa after a few years but perished on the trip along with all the other members of his party.
Childhood & Early Life
Mungo Park was born in Selkirkshire, Scotland, on 11 September 1771 into a well-to-do farming family. He had several siblings.
He received a good education. Initially he was tutored at home before being sent to Selkirk grammar school. He was an intelligent boy with a keen interest in natural sciences.
At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to Thomas Anderson, a surgeon. Eventually he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in October 1788 and studied medicine and botany. He also spent a year in the natural history course taught by Professor John Walker. He completed his medical studies in 1791.
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Park was acquainted with the naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks on whose recommendation he got an interesting job as an assistant surgeon on board the East India Company's ship ‘Worcester’ in 1791.
He sailed along with the crew to Benkulen in Sumatra in 1793. There he examined and studied the local flora and fauna and on his return in 1794, gave a lecture to the Linnaean Society, describing eight new Sumatran fish. He also gave a collection of various rare Sumatran plants to Banks.
The experience he gained on this trip kindled in him a desire to embark on further explorations. At that time the African Association was looking for a successor to Major Daniel Houghton, who had been sent to discover the course of the Niger River in 1790 and had died in the Sahara.
Sir Joseph Banks recommended Mungo Park for the position which he readily accepted. Park began his exploration at the mouth of the Gambia River in June 1795 and travelled around 200 miles to reach Pisania, a British trading station.
He started his exploration of the unknown interiors in December 1795, accompanied by two local guides. It was a hazardous journey and he was imprisoned by a Moorish chief. He somehow managed to escape on 1 July 1796, with just a horse and a pocket compass. Finally on 21 July, he reached the long-sought Niger River at Ségou, being the first European to do so.
After following the river downstream for around 80 miles to Silla, he was forced to stop. By now his resources were depleted and he had no means of continuing on his exploration of the course of the river. Disappointed, he turned back.
He took a different route on his return journey and kept close to the Niger River as far as Bamako, thus tracing its course for some 300 miles. He fell ill at Kamalia and was near death when he found help from a man who let him live at his house for seven months while he recuperated.
Finally after regaining his health, he made his way back to Pisania in June 1797 and returned to Scotland by December the same year. His return evoked great public enthusiasm as he had been thought dead. He wrote a detailed account of his expedition which was published as ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa’ in 1799.
Back home, he practiced as a physician for a few years before being invited by the government to lead another expedition to the Niger. He started his second expedition in January 1805 by sailing from Portsmouth for Gambia. Commissioned a captain by the government, he led a party of around 40 men.
This expedition proved to be a highly challenging one as several men died enroute because of dysentery and fever, and the survivors were weakened by disease. The expedition reached Niger in mid-August with just 11 Europeans left alive. Later on the news reached Scotland that the few survivors too had succumbed in the expedition.
Mungo Park is best remembered for his exploration of the central portion of the Niger River in Africa. His journey was fraught with difficulties yet he made several important observations about Africa and its inhabitants. He gave a detailed account of his experiences in his book ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa’ which became a success and made him popular.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1799, he married Allison, the daughter of Thomas Anderson, under whom he once apprenticed. He was good friends with his brother-in-law Alexander Anderson who accompanied him on his second exploration of Africa.
Mungo Park embarked on his second expedition to explore the course of the Niger River, in January 1805, with around 40 men. The expedition however proved to be a disaster and over the ensuing months he lost several men to disease and other causes.
He did not give up in spite of the hardships and continued the journey even when his party of men dwindled drastically. It was later learned that in 1806, all the remaining members on the expedition, including Park himself, were attacked by local inhabitants at Bussa and drowned.
The Royal Scottish Geographical Society founded the Mungo Park Medal in his honor in recognition of his outstanding contributions to geographical knowledge through exploration.