Book review: Majestic River, by Charles WJ Withers

This is both an admirable biography of the explorer Mungo Park and also a thoughtful meditation on early British involvement in West Africa, writes Allan Massie

Professor Charles Withers, Geographer Royal for Scotland, has written what must surely be the definitive biography of Mungo Park and the fullest account of his exploration of the River Niger, even though the circumstances of his death may never be fully established. Note, however, the word “Exploration” which appears in his sub-title: exploration, not discovery. Africans already knew the river, or at least those who lived near its banks did.

Park was a Borderer, his father a farmer at Foulshiels in the Yarrow Valley. He belonged to a remarkable generation: Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Leyden. Like these others he wrote well. His 1799 account of his first African journey remains enjoyable and illuminating. He was a man of many parts – medical doctor, explorer, scientist, botanist, collector, author. Like his enlightened contemporaries, he deplored the slave trade. (The British Parliament would outlaw the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, the year after Park’s death.)

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He had solved the first question about the Niger: which way did the river run? In his second expedition he hoped to answer the second: where did the Niger end? He would have had to go a long way to find the answer. As to his death, the statue in Selkirk merely says “killed at Boussa on the Niger.” He may have fallen out with a local chief and been killed by his men, or, as is perhaps more likely, it was an accident, his boat being swept away over rapids. Withers suggest that this second expedition was mismanaged, departure on it being delayed, and that, if he had as originally intended set out two months earlier, the river would have been less dangerous. It was partly in the hope of finding out how he had died that his younger brother Thomas also led an expedition to the Niger.

Professor Charles Withers PIC: Sarah Guilar / Blue Sky Photograph

The question of where the Niger ended – though it should surely have been where it started – was described as the “most doubtful and obscure question in modern geography. ”It certainly presented a formidable challenge for European scientists and geographers, inviting the same sort of public attention later given to the search for the source of the Nile. It required a dangerous and arduous journey into the heart of the African continent. Park himself guessed that “the Niger terminated in the River Congo”, a wild theory since, as Withers remarks, the two are separated by several hundred miles at their nearest point. Yet any theory could only be conjectural. What was certain was that, as the formidable Sir Joseph Banks, the celebrated natural historian, a veteran of Captain Cook’s voyages to the South Sees, told the African Association, “we have already by Mr Park’s means opened a gate into the interior of Africa.”

This is an admirable, full and sympathetic biography of Park and offers a vivid and compelling account of his two expeditions, but it is much more than that. It is also a deeply enjoyable history of the British penetration of West Africa and the mapping of the long-mysterious “majestic river.” It is also a philosophical history, the product not only of many years of research, but as importantly and unusually of reflection on the morality and consequences of the enterprise. Geography often seemed a strangely dull subject in my distant schooldays and indeed on entering the sixth form one had to make a choice between it and history. This has long seemed bizarre to me, so much history being inescapably entwined with geography. This book makes that required choice not only bizarre but absurd.

Yet the book does begin and end with Park. We get a full account of what the author calls his “after life”, that is to say, his reputation and how he was remembered and judged, not always generously. He was a man formed in the intellectually eager and argumentative Borders, and then, as Withers put it, “Late Enlightenment Edinburgh introduced him to the power of the mind, to critical thinking, to formal instruction in a range of subjects, and to altogether broader intellectual and social horizons. Park’s Scotland was a truly remarkable country.”

Majestic River, by Charles WJ Withers, Birlinn, 368pp, £30

Majestic River, by Charles WJ Withers