Mungo Park, an 18th Century Ethnologist Explores West Africa

Mungo Park is the first explorer/writer of the 18th century who attempted to interpret local people and places from a local point of view   He was influenced by principles and practices of the Enlightenment.

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picture source –

In this entry we find him as a short-time prisoner in the western Sahel, but continuing to interact with local people in line with their own thoughts and behavior:

March 28.—This morning a large herd of cattle arrived from the eastward, and one of the drivers, to whom Ali had lent my horse, came into my hut with the leg of an antelope as a present, and told me that my horse was standing before Ali’s tent.  In a little time Ali sent one of his slaves to inform me that in the afternoon I must be in readiness to ride out with him, as he intended to show me to some of his women.

Cattle crossing the Niger River.  Source - philintheblank-net

Cattle crossing the Niger River. Source – philintheblank-net

About four o’clock, Ali, with six of his courtiers, came riding to my hut, and told me to follow them.  I readily complied.  But here a new difficulty occurred.  The Moors, accustomed to a loose and easy dress, could not reconcile themselves to the appearance of my nankeen breeches, which they said were not only inelegant, but, on account of their tightness, very indecent; and as this was a visit to ladies, Ali ordered my boy to bring out the loose cloak which I had always worn since my arrival at Benowm, and told me to wrap it close round me.

Park in his britches.  Source - www-heatons-of-tisbury-co-uk

Park in his nankeen britches. Source – www-heatons-of-tisbury-co-uk

We visited the tents of four different ladies, at every one of which I was presented with a bowl of milk and water.  All these ladies were remarkably corpulent, which is considered here as the highest mark of beauty.  They were very inquisitive, and examined my hair and skin with great attention, but affected to consider me as a sort of inferior being to themselves, and would knit their brows, and seem to shudder when they looked at the whiteness of my skin…


The camp of Benowm, source – index-digitalcollections-npl

The Moors are certainly very good horsemen.  They ride without fear—their saddles being high before and behind, afford them a very secure seat; and if they chance to fall, the whole country is so soft and sandy that they are very seldom hurt.  Their greatest pride, and one of their principal amusements, is to put the horse to its full speed, and then stop him with a sudden jerk, so as frequently to bring him down upon his haunches.

Imported from North Africa many hundreds of years before, horses were then locally raised and widely used in developing mounted cavalry and in war.  Ashantee horseman equipped for war, Ashanti, Africa, 1824. From: Joseph Dupuis,Journal of a Residence in Ashantee 1824.

Imported from North Africa many hundreds of years before, horses were then locally raised and widely used in developing mounted cavalry and in war. Ashantee horseman equipped for war, Ashanti, Africa, 1824. From: Joseph Dupuis,Journal of a Residence in Ashantee 1824.

Ali always rode upon a milk-white horse, with its tail dyed red.  He never walked, unless when he went to say his prayers; and even in the night two or three horses were always kept ready saddled at a little distance from his own tent.

The Moors set a very high value upon their horses; for it is by their superior fleetness that they are enabled to make so many predatory excursions into the negro countries.  They feed them three or four times a day, and generally give them a large quantity of sweet milk in the evening, which the horses appear to relish very much.

Source – Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa, vol.1 of 2. 1795 – first publishing.

Park frames his descriptions and analyses against a backdrop of 18th century travel and exploration .  His texts aim to ‘scientifically ‘ present social facts that will inform Mercantile interests, general readers,  and colonials or would-be colonials.  He attempts to present social facts objectively, whereby moralizing is not a central focus – such as  the inappropriateness of his nankeen britches, slavery, and the fatness of Ali’s wife’s.  Treatment of horses is similarly described without judgement.

However, as we will see, this was not an easy task and he has been criticized for not reporting negatively on, e.g., slavery, many wives, etc.

To be continued …


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!
This entry was posted in Africa-West, Agriculture, Arab traders, Colonial, Cuisine, Ethnography, Food, Mungo Park and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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