In the late 18th Century, Mungo Park set out on an expedition to Africa, the story of which is detailed in the book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, a version of which I will examine in this post. The account of his journey that follows does not exist in isolation, but is part of a larger context. For Park’s journey was not to a brave new world of which Britain had no interest or to an allied or economically-equal country, but instead it was to Africa. The fact that this journey was to a continent steeped in a history of slavery and colonization, for which Britain played a key role, adds another layer not only to Park’s journey, but also to the reader’s experience of it. Many industries in Britain had economic interests for the continuation of the slave trade, yet at the time there was also a growing abolitionist movement as well. This would have meant that the contemporary reader of Park’s explorations was not entirely removed from the context of his journey. In some ways, even Park’s exploration of Africa, as told in the form of his journals, is a re-colonization of Africa. The British explorer has returned, once again with his own interests in the land, and removed parts of it for his countrymen back home. Although I would not argue that Park was oppressive in his dealings with the locals, as he seems to have been respectful and appreciative of the African tribes, this is certainly not a light-hearted journey to a neighbouring state. This is Africa – a place to which no journey was innocent.
Within this voyage, there are many layers to unearth. In reading of Park’s exploration, the reader explores the interior of Africa themselves, at least through Park’s representation of it. To gain a better understanding, we must first examine the publication history and the format of the text in order to analyze its impact on the content and our understanding of the dual-exploration that it creates.
The History of Publication
Four Versions: 1799, 1815, 1816 Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (Also, originally as an Abstract)
Mungo Park first published the journal of his travels upon his return from the continent in 1799 with the publication of Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. Until this time, there was very little known about the area and Park’s journey was commissioned by the African Association to explore the Gambia, Senegal and Niger Rivers. This was followed by many successful editions of the text and the book was even published in Philadelphia in 1800 by James Humphreys (Ogborn 194).Park was paid handsomely for his work, receiving “one thousand guineas (£1,050) for the first edition” and by 1800 “the profits from three further editions amounted to about two thousand pounds” (Ogborn 192). We can infer from these figures, and no less from the multiple editions, that the book enjoyed a successful reception.
The 1815 edition by John Murray was published after Mungo Park’s death in Bussa in 1806. In 1805, Park is said to have tired of his predictable, pedestrian life in Britain and elected to return to Africa. Sadly, he would never return home and instead paid for the mission with his life. Fortunately for the reader and for Park’s legacy, the story of his journey was not lost. In November of 1805, while Park was still alive and exploring Africa, he sent back his journals to England which were later reproduced in the 1815 and 1816 Editions. These editions are edited by John Wilshaw, who indicates in the opening Advertisement that Park’s travel journals were the property of the Director of the African Institute who was free to publish them as he saw fit (Park iii). It is thought that Wilshaw endeavored for the book to be published for the benefit of Park’s widow, while Murray may have been financially motivated and instead regarded it as an “opportunity to cash in on a hazardous geographical exploration” (Ogborn 194). There was likely much public interest after Park’s death and perhaps a morbid curiosity on behalf of the reader to ascertain what had happened to him. This edition includes an account of Park’s life, an Addendum, Park’s own raw journals (with many of his own accounts, figures, and drawings) from his 1805 fateful journey, and lastly the journals of Isaaco and Amadi Fatouma.
After the popular reception of the 1815 edition, Murray seized the opportunity to publish a new, enlarged edition, this time in two volumes. The first volume is a reprint of Park’s 1799 travel journal (with a few minor edits) and the second volume is an updated edition of the 1815 publication. There is a second advertisement in this edition, indicating that there had been a favourable reception to the 1815 version and that this edition had been revised to include anecdotes of Park himself (including from his friend Sir Walter Scott) and remarks on the question of authorship. My assignment focuses on the 1816 publication, Vol. 1., as this was the only physical book available at SFU Special Collections.
Bibliographical Account of Travel in the Interior Districts of Africa
In examining the book, there is much evidence to suggest that it was highly valued which gives further credence to its content. Through an overview of the text, I hope to highlight how its multi-media dimensions provide the reader with a re-exploration of Africa.
- Format: The format of the book appears to be Octavo, although this says nothing of its size, which is actually quite large in its dimensions. This would have made it an unlikely item for a reader to carry with them and instead may have served as a reference book.
- Publication Process: The printing and publication process would have been quite complicated as the text not only includes engravings but full maps that fold out from the book. As we learned, the engravings and printing would have required separate production processes and were then bound together in the final format. There is even a guide included in the text instructing where the pictures were to be placed.
- Materials: The extensive amount of paper used, engravings included and the impressive maps tell us that this was an expensive undertaking. I would suggest that this indicates the text held considerable value. The format of the book and the publication of new editions are both indicative of its previous success.
- Title page: The title page presents a very long title and the first indication of the book’s content. The reader immediately discerns that the content is not just about Africa but also about the explorer himself, Mungo Park.
- Contents: Over several pages, the chapters of the book are listed with an accompanying synopsis of each one. A cursory overview would have highlighted for the reader what a demanding journey this was for Park. He details the physical journey itself, the particulars of his reception by different groups and his interaction with Africans. In reading the outline, there are several details which may have garnered the reader’s attention immediately, such as the period in which Park is taken prisoner and held for an extended period of time before his escape.
- Maps: There are 3 large maps in the book, each which fold out to be several pages in width and height. These pull-out maps offer an over-sized rendering of the geographical outline of the areas Park traveled. It is important to note that these maps are not simply geographical facts, but are specifically informed by Park’s journey and discoveries. They are imbued with deeper meaning. The sheer time and resources needed to construct the maps, including any necessary corrections made by the Geographical Illustrator Major Rennell, and to have them prepared through an entirely separate printing process, indicates that these maps are very significant.
- Language: Park provides a vocabulary of the Mandingo language and its English translations. This shows that Park took the effort and time to learn the language. This is followed by a section titled “The following Questions and Answers may be Useful” which paints a picture of the explorer’s interactions with the local people. These include such questions and instructions as “Point them out,” “Show me your tongue,” “Drink this medicine” etc, which suggest a colonial or at least unequal relationship between the European explorers and the Africans. This section receives dedicated pages, its own chart, and extensive white space. I believe this is reflective of its value, as it is not lost among other script.
- The Postscript Song: At the end of the book, we find the unexpected inclusion of sheet music and lyrics to a song. Looking back in the text, we find in Park’s journals the story of this song (see below). When he returns home and shares this with the Duchess, she finds herself so affected by it that she makes a version of it and has it set down by an eminent composer.
The Textual Experience Informs the Content
o Exploring the book is akin to exploring Africa in all it’s multi-media components: Park provides the reader with the sights (pictures), sounds (music), words (language) and geographical area (maps) of Africa. The travel was Park’s experience, but now the reader experiences it through reading the book. It is a unique idea of re-experiencing a real journey.
o The book is a representation: It is a representation of the era (as seen in its publishing methods), of Africa (from the perspective of a Scottish/Western Explorer) and of Park himself (as told in part by others after his death). All are representations, each susceptible to the reader’s interpretation. None are the living, breathing person or place in the flesh.
The Multi-Media Experience and Material Analysis
Experience within an experience
The reader holds the book in their hands, with all of its textual layers and multi-media, and explores its contents. Within that content, is Mungo Park’s exploration of Africa. This is a place although geographically unfamiliar to the British people, not entirely unknown due to the British colonization of many areas and the subsequent slave trade that followed. During this period, there was an increased desire to travel and this book would have provided a window into a mysterious land in which many had a vested interest to discover.
Through his writing, Park takes the reader on a journey as he depicts his physical expedition through the interior of Africa. At the forefront of his descriptions is his account and depiction of the lives of the African people. The narrative of their lives figures prominently in this book – the bibliographical account of which I have already suggested conveys its importance – which tells us that this was a significant part of Park’s experience and now the reader’s as well.
The details of Park’s interactions serve as a constant reminder that this is real life, not a fictional story. He provides an account of the very distressing problems resulting from slavery and tyrannical oppression. For example, he describes a row of slaves walking together, bound by the necks (187) and of a woman begging to obtain news of her son who had been kidnapped by King Mansong three years prior (182). Given the economically-profitable slave trade at the time, and the industries in Britain that benefited from it, it is unlikely that the reader was entirely removed from the context of his journey, as I have suggested.
Beyond the hardships, Park provides an extensive depiction of daily life, of the people themselves and of many accounts of the warm hospitality he receives (and also when he receives quite the opposite). Park also constantly refers to himself in his writing, reminding the reader that this is not a textbook full of cold facts and figures, but an account of his emotional and physical journey. There is also humour and levity in his story. On one occasion, he recounts that the landlord with whom he had been staying requested a piece of Park’s hair. This request stemmed from a popular myth in which people believed that through the hair of a white man comes a transfer of all of his knowledge. Park obliges the man, but has to put his hat back on before he takes it all. Park explains to the man that he “wished to reserve some of this precious merchandize for a future occasion” (183).
Throughout the book, the reader has the experience of exploring the text as one might explore Africa, with all the sights, sounds, words and geographical area. This experience is best captured in the story of the sheet music and song included in the book. Park describes an evening he spent in a village outside of Sego as he awaited admission to the city by the King. On this occasion, no villagers would take him in and he was forced to climb a tree in order to safeguard against the wind and rain. A woman returning from the fields finds him there, brings him in to her home, feeds him and allows him to rest. Then, she and her female family members begin to spin cotton and sing a song to lighten the burden of their work. One young woman sings, with the rest joining in on the chorus, and she makes Park the subject of her song (194). The words of the closing chorus echo in the pages as they sing, “Go, White Man, go; – but with thee bear / The Negro’s wish, the Negro’s prayer; / Remembrance of the Negro’s care” (Park PS). Park describes this as “affecting in the highest degree” and that he is “oppressed by such unexpected kindness” (194). When he departs the next morning, he gives the woman who took him in 2 of his 4 brass buttons as recompense. It is all he has to give. When he returns home and recounts this story to the Duchess, she has it set down to music. The sheet music and lyrics of this song are included at the back of the book. This meant that any reader with musical ability and access to a piano could recreate the song that was sung to Park. The reader is thereby re-experiencing Park’s real journey of Africa, although in a re-imagined Western version.
A journey within a journey. A re-experiencing of an exploration. A re-colonization of African land. A multi-layered, multi-media representation of a time, a place, and a man. There is so much to discover, examine and analyze in the text itself and its rich content. Of one thing we can be certain – the reading of this text, and all of its subtext, would not have been possible without having seen the physical book as it appeared in 1816 and to have considered it within its place in that era.
To view all the photographs from the text please visit my Mungo Park Flickr Page
Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa is also now a play:
Park, Mungo. Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa: Performed in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 with an Account of a Subsequent Mission to that Country in 1805. By Mungo Park, Surgeon. To Which is Added an Account of the Life of Mr. Park. A New Edition in Two Volumes. Vol. I. Travels in 1795, 1796, 1797. With an Appendix Containing Geographical Illustrations of Africa. By Major Rennell. Vol. I, John Murray, London, 1816.
Withers, Charles W.J. “Geography, Englightenment, and the Book: Authorship and Audience in Mungo Park’s African Text.” Geographies of the Book, Edited by Miles Ogborn and Charles W.J. Withers, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, 2010.