MUNGO PARK: FIRST EUROPEAN TO SEE THE NIGER

 

In 1788, five guineas was a huge amount of money. Then, a guinea equaled 21 shillings, and five guineas were about 105 shillings, but would run into millions now.  Yet, this was the same amount some philanthropists taxed themselves, to be able to raise enough money to send adventurous young men to an area now called Africa on yearly basis, or as at when they were ready to come. They were about 30 influential persons in England of those days. But a man was the leader of this, he was Joseph Banks.

Joseph was a naturalist, a man of nature. He loved to be with leaves and animals, and studied botany. Most   of the names of some leaves and plants in England today were given by this man, and to crown this, he had inherited large sum of money and properties from both parents.  For this, he was so comfortable that all needed for him was to throw money here and there, and many slaves and other businesses of the period would have been his. But he loved nature.

Because of this love, he travelled far and wide, just to study plants and their behaviour. He was away in the Americas when Lord Mansfield gave his judgment; he returned in 1773. On his return, he joined others who extolled Mansfield, and who believed no one should be made a slave, either White or Black.  And there they began the silent campaign for emancipation of the slaves. But he was too busy, still going on one voyage to the other.

MUNGO PARK

 

There was an area that continued to give him problem, it was the continent called Africa. There had been several maps of Africa, but it ended at Egypt; after Egypt, nothing was known again about the area. And because they travelled largely on rivers, the Niger was their problem. Where did it lead to? Were there people living around the area of the Niger? Could it be navigated? And so many other questions of the same nature: just the mystery of the Niger.

Now, the slave traders were bringing in blacks from the Bight of Biafra, through the sea, and the more they went, the more slaves they brought.  So, there was no doubt about it, the slaves were coming from somewhere around the Niger, and if truly the trade must be stopped, then the people must be searched for, give them legitimate trade to do, and discourage them from selling themselves.

If you want to save a race you have to know where they live; that was the link, the Niger must be searched for and the people around it must be helped to help themselves. It was for this reason that Banks and some of his friends started to dine and discuss the issue of the Niger. Just one day, on 9 June 1788, they simply decided to form an association to solely tackle the problems of Africa. They called it Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, but people shortened it to African Association.

The money being contributed by the members looked so huge, but it could hardly cater for the trip of one person, and that meant the association could not send more than one explorer to the interior of Africa in a year. This, Banks could not accept, he would want more money, and he would personally send an explorer all by himself.This was how he discovered Mungo Park.

MUNGO PARK’S HOUSE, ASABA

 

Having sent explorers in 1788, 1789, 1791, 1792, and all were dying, or running back with sad tales and stories of failure, some members were no longer all enthusiastic about throwing money away. But when Mungo Park approached the association and some members were still trying to dodge the responsibility, Joseph Banks took it over, and was halfway before few others joined him.

Mungo Park remained the hero and founder of the Niger, but it should not be forgotten that he was sent here by someone. Joseph Banks was the man; he sponsored Mungo Park to the Niger.

He was a medical doctor. Yes, Mungo Park was a medical doctor, and he qualified less than two years before he ventured into the field of exploration. One would not have thought him fit for such a dangerous task, most especially when he was just about set for his career that could also bring him some fame and money, if he put the same energy he was about to expend on exploration into it. But not the man! He had a different mission, and his vista of life seemed not to tally with his certificates.

He was a Scottish doctor who had travelled to the East as a young surgeon in the employ of the East India Company. If the truth be told, he had more patients waiting for him in the city than being a surgeon in the bush, but his love for adventure knew no bound. This was what led him, sometime in 1794, to offer his service to the African Association that he was prepared to go to the Niger, though he had just completed his medical education in January 1793 ,at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London.

He was born 11 September 1771, and was just 23 when he was offering himself. All the same, Joseph Banks was too glad to have him, and they immediately concluded paper works on behalf of the African Association. He left England on a trade ship named Endeavour and  was in the African coast of Gambia in June 1795. He stayed in British Trading Station, where he remained for about six months to learn the terrain, language and culture of the people.

MUNGO PARK’S MONUMENT IN JEBBA

 

Early December however, Park began his journey towards the unknown. But the journey was such a difficult one. People of the area were not used to a white man walking, or riding horse all alone, searching for what they could not understand. For this, he was ill-treated and robbed of his effects by the negro chiefs, for they were envious of his belongings. He was plundered and insulted, and was once captured by a Moorish chief who ordered his detention. Too bad for Mungo Park.

Somehow, he managed to escape from the man, just with only his horse which was soon useless and had to be discarded. Now, he had only his dress on him, nothing more. There could be no need for shaving or brushing of teeth, or change of dress, it was that bad. But the intrepid explorer never loses heart, and, escaping from one difficulty after another, insisted on pressing forward. He was now trekking alone, after being abandoned by his native servants.

After about a month of trekking, he reached a place called Segou, now in Mali, where he saw the Niger for the first time, on 20 July 1796. It was a reward, and he knelt down there to pray. He wrote there afterwards, “Looking forward, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission, the long-sought-for, the majestic Niger…. I hastened to the brink, and having drunk of the water, lifted up my personal thanks in prayer to the Great Ruler of all things for having thus far crowned my endeavour with success.”

He saw the Niger and learnt that it flowed eastward, not westward as had earlier been speculated. Then he returned home, safely in December 1797, spending two years on the voyage.Then the image and personality of Park rose, he was now of the highest class on the land. Besides, the African Association became an instant success, people of money were falling on one another to become a member, and Banks was the happiest.

Now, in 1805, the government sent Mungo Park out to complete the job he had started. He was given money now, and 40 Europeans with him. They were going to the Niger again to know its source and mouth.

Unfortunately, this journey became problematic, and within few weeks on getting to the Niger area, the Europeans began to die one after the other and by the last count, only eleven remained. Yet, Mungo Park was not to be stopped.

He and just about four others got to the Niger, and here he built another schooner that could take them on the Niger, so that their mission could be completed, for there would be no justification for all the dead, if they were unable to find the source or the mouth of the Niger. He wrote home, stating that he was on the last lap, and would get to the root of it all.

But that was not to be, for Mungo Park never wrote another letter, and it was years later that it was learnt he perished with his other voyagers somewhere near Bussa immediately after his last letter. That was the end of Park, and his prediction that if his voyage led to death, he was ready for it came to pass.

But even at that, Mungo Park remains in the minds of the people; as there would have been no history of Niger and Nigeria, if not for the propelling effort, dismantling courage, and highest degree of perseverance exemplified by Mungo Park.

 

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