Early September 1771 saw the birth, in Selkirkshire, of one of Scotland’s most famous explorers: Mungo Park. After being apprenticed to a surgeon in Selkirk, Park attended Edinburgh University between 1789-91, receiving a surgical diploma at the end. It was not, however, as a surgeon that Park would leave the most lasting mark, but as an explorer.
It was through his brother-in-law, botanist James Dickson, that Park first met a Sir James Banks – famous for having taken part in James Cook’s first Endeavour voyage. By the time he was introduced to Park, Banks was president of the Royal Society. It was from that position that Banks was able to secure a post as assistant-surgeon for Park aboard the Worcester East Indiaman, which brought Park to Sumatra. After his return to Britain, Park then approached the African Association to replace Major Daniel Houghton, who had been sent to Africa in 1790 to discover the course of the Niger, but had died in the Sahara. Park was given the post, having supported again by Banks, reaching the Gambia in late June 1795.
From there Park made his way through the African interior, crossing the upper Senegal basin. Conditions of travel were difficult, and Park faced many challenges – including imprisonment by Moorish chiefs – but Park eventually reached the Niger at Segu. He was the first European to set eyes on the river. The return journey was no less perilous, but Park eventually reached the British trading station of Pisania in early June 1797. He then made his way back to Britain via America, arriving home in late December 1797. Given that essentially no news from his journey had reached Britain, Parks had been assumed dead, with his return thus celebrated with great enthusiasm. Park’s account of his travels in Africa, Travels in the Interior of Africa, was published in 1799 and proved very popular.
After a brief stint home in Scotland, where he got married, Park accepted, in 1803, the invitation of the British government to lead a second expedition to the Niger. Park made his way back to Africa in early 1805, reaching the Niger in the middle of August. Many of the party accompanying Park died during the journey. As Park himself noted toward the end of the expedition:
“I shall set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination of the Niger or perish in the attempt… though all the Europeans who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I would stil [sic] persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger.”
Sadly, this was indeed what happened, with Park drowning in the river after an attack of natives near Bussa rapids.