The Argument for Park

Though he did not find the mouth of the River Niger, Mungo Park achieved by far the most among the explorers sent out by the Africa Association

The documented history of the discovery of the Niger River is a long, winded tale of bravery, perseverance and fortitude. Though this history is no older than 300 years and locates itself mostly in Africa, it stars a multitude of Europeans, predominantly Englishmen, of considerable exertion. Starting in 1788 with an American explorer named Ledyard, punctuated at intervals by the daring Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, and ending after several convoluting episodes with the British Lander brothers in 1831, it is a huge tale, dotted with misery, illness and deaths, and spanning the breadth of western Africa from Timbuktu to Badagry. This tale, this history, is that for which we can tender incontrovertible evidence.

However, the world has evolved so dramatically in the last couple of decades to warrant the reassessment of many a supposition. The liberalism of the 20th century rightly brought with it tolerance for other peoples, for the other culture. Having wantonly trod on the rights, liberties and, should we suppose, the dear history of the other in their quest for empires in the preceding centuries, more advanced countries now have to rightly lend their ears to stories they have once considered to be of no consequence. What with the errors of judgement past, which unfortunately necessitated untoward actions against the interests of the other people? It is in this spirit that once unquestionable documentations must now be challenged, incontrovertible evidence contested and given history opposed by reasoned history.

One of such reasoned history is the claim that the supposed Father of the Niger, Mungo Park, could not have “discovered” the Niger. According to writers who advance this argument, those who lived around the river knew it long before Park and any other Englishman or European for that matter. Thus, it would be unjustifiable to attribute the discovery of the river to the Scotsman. A variation of the same claim goes further to tender that Park had as guides locals who knew the river better than he, asserting that without their help there is little Park could have done in successfully navigating this enormous African river. They often grant that, though he was the first European to see or discover this great property of West Africa, he simply couldn’t have been the first person to “discover” it. Not only were Africans fishing in the water years before Park, they also interacted in several other ways with this vast body of water as it makes its way through innumerable African cities.

These are reasonable arguments, even if arrogant. No doubt. When Park arrived in Africa in search of the Niger, he had little to go on besides the information fed him by locals who were well-acquainted with the river. In fact, he called it the Joliba, the name given the river by the very locals who lived in Segou, Park’s starting point during his first visit. Similarly, when he set out on his second trip, riding on a wave of acclaim from being the first European to set his eyes on the unyielding river, he had with him a handful of guides who joined in navigating through the several villages bordering the enormous river. And just before his fatal crash at Bussa, he was in company of a local guide called Amadi, to whom the world now owes the tales surrounding his death. So, Park did not just have help all the way, he was also not navigating uncharted waters. That the arguments which withdraw from him the attributed claim of discovering the Niger are quite grounded is therefore founded. But are these arguments really fair?

The Niger River stretches from the highlands of southeastern Guinea and run in a meandering path through several villages in modern Mali into Niger, emptying in a final stretch in the Nigerian delta. Before it began warranting intense European attention in the early years of the 18th century, written records held inconsistent and incorrect information about this major feature of the Sudan. Maps failed in their descriptions; historical accounts by learned scholars reported wrong information. On the home front, there was little centrally available to paint an informed picture. If there were records, none existed or survived into the 18th century. By then, local information about the river was so disjointed the river was known by several names along its length from Mali to its mouth in the Nun. Respective villages probably boasted of knowledge no farther than the limits of their kingdom. While Park was informed at Segou about the Joliba, the locals further down in the Yoruba country called it “Oya” [more here].

Perhaps the different countries along the river could have collected similar information and together arrived at a true finding, if there was substantial interaction among them. Indications point to none. In the territories around the Delta to the tail of the river, there was little or no association with the Fulanis who ruled the northern half. Many in these areas merely made remarks regarding their “Great Water” to visiting explorers, probably unaware of how farther north the Niger extended. In any case, the enmity engendered by the conquering Fulanis in the tribes further south could not have made room for friendly entreaties from these same people. Such was the situation in the latter years of the 18th century into which Park and his army of explorers descended in their search for the elusive river. There were no pointers, no records and no friends. Hostility, fever and death were instead rampant.

In spite of these challenges, the Africa Association garnered resources and sought, by all possible means, to explore the interior of the Dark Continent. Many an explorer went before Park; none came back with news about the river or the people. For those who made the arduous journey into the inner reaches of the continent, finding a way out became nearly impossible. Death was often the escape. When in 1795, the 24-year-old Park left the shipyard of Portsmouth for the Gambia on his journey to explore Africa, not a few thought he wouldn’t make it. Plagued by illness and surviving a 4-month imprisonment, Park eventually set his eyes on the Joliba the following year. He returned to Scotland in 1797 where the story of his survival sparked intense public enthusiasm in the exploration of Africa.

In the early years of the 19th century, Park returned on a second journey to Africa. While making ready for his final mount of the river at its bank in Sansandig and having lost several Europeans in his company to sickness, Park penned his last letter, writing, “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 still persevere, and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger.” For a man who had endured devastating sickness on his previous trip and who had barely survived months into a second trip, Park demonstrated profound love for truth and for exploration in his attempt to “discover” and chart the Niger. At this time, even though he thought the Niger emptied into the Congo, he demonstrated the most complete, practical knowledge than arguably any other person in the world. Could we then say he led the way in the understanding of the Niger?

Mungo Park Memorial next to Karantaba Tukulor and is located in Central River, Gambia (Photo by Richard Chapman)

Park never made it to the mouth of the River. He died on the river at the rapids in Bussa, killed by unfriendly locals who took him for an adversary. News of his death did not make it to England until several years later. When they arrived, it was with extreme poignancy they were received. The world could identify his love for exploration, his desire to create paths into the Dark Continent, exemplified in the charting of the river. And it was in this spirit they called him the “Father of the Niger.” Who should really contest this?

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