Mungo Park discovers Mumbo Jumbo in 18th Century West Africa

Mungo Park, aged 26. Source: Princeton Univ.

Mungo Park was one of the most successful early explorers of West Africa.   Not only did he take careful note of flora, fauna and geophysical features throughout his travels, but – to my way of thinking – was the best of the early explorers in West Africa by way of ethnographic descriptions in that he does not disintegrate into Victorian moralizing regarding the culture and mores of groups that he travelled amongst.  In general, he just describes them.

Here is part of the introduction in his two volume book on explorations in West Africa:

Mungo Park was born on the 10th of September, 1771, the son of a farmer at Fowlshiels, near Selkirk (Scotland). After studying medicine in Edinburgh, he went out, at the age of twenty-one, assistant-surgeon in a ship bound for the East Indies.

When he came back the African Society was in want of an explorer, to take the place of Major Houghton, who had died. Mungo Park volunteered, was accepted, and in his twenty-fourth year, on the 22nd of May, 1795, he sailed for the coasts of Senegal, where he arrived in June.

Thence he proceeded on the travels of which this book is the record. He was absent from England for a little more than two years and a half; returned a few days before Christmas, 1797. He was then twenty-six years old.

The African Association published the first edition of his travels as “Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, 1795-7, by Mungo Park, with an Appendix containing Geographical Illustrations of Africa, by Major Rennell.”

Park married, and settled at Peebles in medical practice, but was persuaded by the Government to go out again. He sailed from Portsmouth on the 30th of January, 1805, resolved to trace the Niger (River)  to its source or perish in the attempt. He perished.

Below, sections of vol.1 of his Travels, describing Mumbo Jumbo.

P.S., I was inspired to put up this entry, by the recent entries on Karen Resta’s wonderful blog about mumbo jumbo /mombo jumbo.

Recorded by Mungo Park while in Mandingo country (Sengambia region):

On the 7th I departed from Konjour, and slept at a village called Malla (or Mallaing), and on the 8th about noon I arrived at Kolor, a considerable town, near the entrance into which I observed, hanging upon a tree, a sort of masquerade habit, made of the bark of trees, which I was told, on inquiry, belonged to Mumbo Jumbo (Diana says: Does not look like a tart; cf Karen’s blog…).

Mumbo Jumbo. Source: New York Public Library

This is a strange bugbear, common to all the Mandingo towns, and much employed by the pagan natives in keeping their women in subjection; for as the kafirs are not restricted in the number of their wives, every one marries as many as he can conveniently maintain — and as it frequently happens that the ladies disagree among themselves, family quarrels sometimes rise to such a height, that the authority of the husband can no longer preserve peace in his household.

In such cases, the interposition of Mumbo Jumbo is called in, and is always decisive. This strange minister of justice (who is supposed to be either the husband himself, or some person instructed by him), disguised in the dress that has been mentioned, and armed with the rod of public authority, announces his coming (whenever his services are required) by loud and dismal screams in the woods near the town.

He begins the pantomime at the approach of night; and as soon as it is dark he enters the town, and proceeds to the bentang, at which all the inhabitants immediately assemble.

Late-19th Century reconstruction of Mumbo Jumbo in a Mandingo village. Source: NYPL

… The negroes, as hath been frequently observed, whether Mohammedan or pagan, allow a plurality of wives. The Mohammedans alone are by their religion confined to four, and as the husband commonly pays a great price for each, he requires from all of them the utmost deference and submission, and treats them more like hired servants than companions.

They have. however, the management of domestic affairs, and each in rotation is mistress of the household, and has the care of dressing the victuals, overlooking the female slaves, etc.

But though the African husbands are possessed of great authority over their wives I did not observe that in general they treat them with cruelty, neither did I perceive that mean jealousy in their dispositions which is so prevalent among the Moors.

They permit their wives to partake of all public diversions, and this indulgence is seldom abused, for though the negro women are very cheerful and frank in their behaviour, they are by no means given to intrigue — I believe that instances of conjugal infidelity are not common.

When the wives quarrel among themselves — a circumstance which, from the nature of their situation, must frequently happen — the husband decides between them, and sometimes finds it necessary to administer a little corporal chastisement before tranquillity can be restored. But if any one of the ladies complains to the chief of the town that her husband has unjustly punished her, and shown an undue partiality to some other of his wives, the affair is brought to a public trial.

In these palavers, however, which are conducted chiefly by married men, I was informed that the complaint of the wife is not always considered in a very serious light, and the complainant herself is sometimes convicted of strife and contention and left without remedy.

If she murmurs at the decision of the court the magic rod of Mumbo Jumbo soon puts an end to the business.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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3 Responses to Mungo Park discovers Mumbo Jumbo in 18th Century West Africa

  1. Pingback: Wookies’ Cookies, Straight from Central Africa… « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. Karen says:

    The tart I made must have been inspired through divination, made with white chocolate like the bark of trees . . . and now I know the namesake of Mombogombo Tart. Thank you, Diana! 🙂


    • dianabuja says:

      Great, Karen – you’re recipies also inspired me to put up this entry – mutual inspirations! 🙂


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