Travels in the Interior of Africa
Mungo Park
(Wordsworth Classics of World Literature --- 2002
Original edition --- 1799)

Can a guy catch a break? No, not if his name is Mungo Park, age 24, who sets off through the Gambia in 1795 to trace the course of the Niger River. And how many fucks does Park give that he cannot catch said break? Exactly zero, that's how many. He just keeps going and going and going, on and on and on, day after sweaty, fevery, hungry, starcrossed day.

Is there a problem he doesn't have during his odyssey? None come to mind. Though to look on the bright side, Park doesn't lack for variety in his vexations. The challenges he and his men face range from life-threatening catastrophes (several bushels of them) to merely annoying delays, such as being taken prisoner by hostile, violent, thieving Moors for months, or being attacked by thousands of enraged bees, or being repeatedly robbed by most anyone they run into.

During one episode, the robbers take everything of any worth Park is carrying including the clothes off his back. Only after much buck-naked begging and imploring do the brutes show a little mercy and begrudgingly return to him his most filthy, shredded shirt and trousers; and he gets to keep his waistcoat once the brass buttons have been cut off one-by-one. As he stumbles away, they toss him his hat.

Then there's the broiling sun, the pounding rains (that bring malaria, dysentery, delirium, flooding, you name it), marauding lions, "wolves" (more likely hyenas, wild dogs or jackals), regular bouts of near-starvation, horses dropping dead, men dropping dead (in a single day he loses four of his comrades) and so on. Then things get worse.

On the other hand, thanks to the period in which he lived, Park was relieved of any worries about getting email in a timely manner. And he did no handwringing over where he was going to charge his smartphone. This grand, detailed, charmingly written tale of the preternaturally indefatigable man's endless travails, near-psychopathic optimism and insistence on proceeding no matter what almost reads like Bob and Ray or Goon Show satire.

Except it's not --- Park was the real deal: a young 18th Century explorer, a surgeon by profession, terminally Scottish, with the constitution and stamina of a cape buffalo. Not to mention his daily diligence at making journal entries, which enables members of the corpulent, shiftless, cowardly species I hail from to lounge around on a soft bed before an electric fan on a warm day, sipping iced scotch and trying to imagine just how a creature like Mungo Park could --- even in the vaguest, most distant way --- be a relative. I'm sure that I do not have the titanium-shielded DNA that Park did, nor does anyone I've met over the last half century or so. We rich westerners are now so addicted to comfort, anesthetized by ease, and physically wanting 99.999999% of us simply could not consider a journey like Park's, the mere thought of it exhausts us. No croissants, no latte --- how could we possibly survive? Tell me.

His expedition was financed by the Royal Society, an association, as Park describes it, "for the purpose of prosecuting discoveries in the interior of Africa." He continues,

    I had a passionate desire 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. I knew that I was able to bear fatigue; and I relied on my youth and strength of my constitution to preserve me from the effects of the climate.

Park was sent to determine the Niger River's course. The overarching goal was to open the area to commerce by the British.

    We sailed from Portsmouth on the 22nd of May 1795. On the 4th of June we saw the mountains over Mogadore, on the coast of Africa . . . On the 21st of the same month, after a pleasant voyage of thirty days, we anchored at Jillifree, a town on the northern bank of the river Gambia.

So begins one of the great, and greatly harrowing, travel narratives. Lucky for us, Park was born for such a task. He is justifiably enchanted by Africa and Africans. Despite the astonishing number of reverses (and nasty characters) he endures, he finds goodness in the people (some of them are extraordinarily charitable and kind to him), admires them, stays open to the newness of everything he sees and experiences, gets it all down in exquisite detail. He is surprisingly, though not entirely, enlightened for a man of his time. He abhors the treatment of slaves, which he describes at length, yet at various times, he has several, and later trades them for supplies.

He was a novelty, of course, and as he moves inland, most of the people he encounters have never seen a person with white skin. Early on he tells of visiting the court of a monarch called Almami in Bondou who "observed that his women were very desirous to see me, and requested that I would favor them with a visit." Park meets the women: "They were ten or twelve in number, most of them young and handsome, and wearing on their heads ornaments of gold and amber." They're a lively bunch and curious.

    They rallied me with a good deal of gaiety on different subjects, particularly on the whiteness of my skin and the prominency of my nose. They insisted that both were artificial. The first, they said, was produced when I was an infant, by dipping me in milk; and they insisted that my nose had been pinched every day till it acquired its present unsightly and unnatural conformation.

For his part, Park charms his new friends.

    I paid them many compliments on African beauty. I praised the glossy jet of their skins, and the lovely depression of their noses; but they said that flattery, or (as they emphatically termed it) honeymouth, was not esteemed in Bondou. In return, however, for my compliments (to which, by the way, they seemed not so insensible as they affected to be), they presented me with a jar of honey.

Same as it ever was.

Park notes every singular phrase that comes his way --- giraffes are called "camel-leopards," he reports --- and any architectural element that catches his eye, such as "a mosque built of clay, with six turrets, on the pinnacles of which were placed six ostrich eggs." He also keeps us apprised of the soundtrack,

    Whilst we were employed in dressing for supper, evening prayers were announced; not by the call of the priest, as usual, but by beating on drums and blowing through large elephants' teeth hollowed out in such a manner as to resemble bugle-horns; the sound is melodious, and, in my opinion, comes nearer to the human voice than other artificial sound.

Park gives us the best sort of reportage: Four dimensional. And he somehow manages to keep at it even as the rigors of the trip begin taking a toll. "My horse became weaker and weaker every day, and was now of little service to me." Or, in one town, "I even begged some corn from one of the female slaves as she was washing it at the well, and had the mortification to be refused." Or,

    In the evening, I arrived at a small village called Song, the surly inhabitants of which would not receive me, nor so much as permit me to enter the gate . . . About ten o'clock [at night] I heard the hollow roar of a lion at no great distance.

Later in the story, as things continue spiralling downward, he writes

    Whichever way I turned, nothing appeared but danger and difficulty. I saw myself in the midst of a vast wilderness, in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone; surrounded by savage animals, and men still more savage . . . I was indeed a stranger in a strange land.

So he quits? Not a bit of it!

Park presses on --- for months. He sees many of his group die, he's often surviving on little more than a handful of corn or grain, goes for days without food, water is scarce. Finally --- and it must have taken an internal wrestling match of monumental proportions --- he has to admit to himself that he must turn back. Surprisingly (or, I suppose, not) he makes it home to the loving embrace of his wife and children.

You'll never guess what happens next --- okay, several years later. In 1803 he agrees to go back to the Gambia (yes!), departing for the new expedition in January 1805. He takes with him a party of more than 40 men. By the time they reach the Niger River the following August, 11 Europeans are still living. Park keeps going. He and his party sustain numerous attacks by hostile natives. Park and his crew --- well armed with multiple muskets --- prevail --- until they don't. The canoe carrying Park the Unstoppable is stopped by a rock. Stuck, he and the crew are attacked by natives standing above them. Park leaps into the river with his group. Except for one slave, they all drown.

In his penultimate letter (the last was to his wife) Park vowed that he would

    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.

--- Douglas Cruickshank
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