Mr. Mungo Park of Scotland was tall, fair, handsome, hard-working, undemanding, and immensely curious. When, in 1792, he turned up at the Royal Society of London, seeking his fortune, Joseph Banks quickly hired him to go as surgeon on the next trip to Sumatra, in order to see how he would do. When he came back with a top recommendation, Banks offered to send him to Africa, hoping he might find two things: the fabled city of Timbuctu and the source of the Niger River.
Timbuctu had become a fable around 1324, when its Moslem king, Mansa Musa went on pilgrimage to Mecca with such a rich entourage, and scattering such an abundance of gold wherever he traveled, that it was assumed he must live in a city with gilded roofs. Not so, of course; his wealth was the consequence of determined and back-breaking taxation, but the fable took hold.
The Niger River, meantime, has to be one of the strangest river courses in the world. It begins in the highlands Guinea, in the southwestern section of West Africa, only 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, yet it travels 2,600 miles to enter that same ocean. It sets out to the north at first, and comes close enough to the Sahara to lose great quantities of water as it bends eastwards around the lower and less steep lands just south of Timbuctu. As it finally turns south, it is joined by the Benue River and heads to the sea, still a long way off. Because the Benue flows in from the east, this confluence is the natural trading post between East and West Africa, and Timbuctu is a relatively important city.
Setting out for Africa
Be that is it may, Mungo wanted to see Africa more than anything, and eagerly set out in 1794, with a good heart and the equipment which seemed important to an English expedition, including: two guns, two compasses, a sextant, a thermometer, a wide-brimmed hat, and an umbrella. He got as far as Pisania before the rains set in, and was cared for by a Dr. Laidley while he dealt with malaria, probably a great good fortune, because else he would have contracted the disease later and, facing it without care, might not have survived.
Survive he did, and ultimately returned with good information, wrote a book, and married his sweetheart. He had stopped short of Timbuctu, however, (he found it next time) and only saw that the river flowed east, as Herodotus had supposed it must. Herodotus, a Greek of the 5th century BC, thought the Niger flowed into the Nile. It does not, as Park learned on a later trip; it continues to curve around to the southeast and then it flows south so that Park thought perhaps it might join the Congo. (It doesn’t do that either.)
It is hard to imagine that people of the 18th century had not improved their understanding of Africa over the information of ancient Greece, but it is a continent of extreme climate barriers, both desert and jungle, and it was culturally dominated by Moslems who were quite hostile to Christian entry. Park’s reports were of inestimable value and interest.
Capsula in the wilderness
But I would like to tell you one charming story which took Europe by storm when his book came out, and which expresses something that lies deep within the heart and the experience of many natural scientists.
Not long after Mungo turned home, he met with Moorish bandits who took everything he had including his horse and his compass, and left him to die. He was half-naked and hungry, 500 miles from the nearest Englishman, wet with the rainy season, and doubtless not far from any number of wild animals… What could he do but lie down and die?
He prayed; nothing happened.
His tired eyes wandered over the ground between his boots, too tattered to be stolen. A tiny moss grew there, with perfectly formed roots, leaves, and capsula, the rarely seen fruiting part of the moss – and his whole attention was captivated. He studied it for a time, full of admiration, and finding such consolation in its beauty, he could not but think that the God who would bring a tiny moss to fruition in the midst of a drizzling wilderness would also care for one made in his own image. He got up and went on, found some shepherds who gave him companionship, and gradually made his way home.
It’s a little like the story of Elijah and the broom tree, really, (1Kings 19:4) but the consolation is in the word of God within creation itself, and that is what makes it so characteristically the story of a believing scientist. Park lived at a time when skepticism was growing in western Europe, when the modern idea of hostility between faith and science was gaining traction year by year and philosopher by philosopher. Yet his story represents such a deep and genuine cry of faith that I think it must outlive all that armchair philosophy to refresh a new generation of scientists. Creation is truly the “other” Word of God.
The Age of Wonder
I owe much of this story to Richard Holmes’ fascinating history of science in the Romantic generation, The Age of Wonder. I don’t think it made Holmes a believer, but it’s an interesting read.