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February 4, 2010

3

Age of Wonder gems: 2. Mungo Park in Africa

by quaesitor

The next gem from Richard Holmes’ epic Age of Wonder (after post on Tuesday).

Mungo Park was an unusual figure who was sponsored by Joseph Banks and the Royal Society to explore the unknown parts of central Africa – a scottish doctor, a Christian believer, a driven explorer. Above all, Banks clearly saw in Park a reflection of his younger self in his now long-past exploration of Tahiti.

But I was very struck by this description of how he had his assumptions completely overturned after ending up in dire circumstances.

At dusk Park was greeted by a Negro woman who had been labouring in the fields near the river. She invited him back to her hut, lit a lamp, spread a mat and made him supper of fish baked over a charcoal fire. Evidently Park half-expected some kind of sexual overture. But instead the woman invited into the hut various female members of her family, and they all quietly sat round him in the firelight, spinning cotton and singing him to sleep. Park suddenly realised the song was extempore, and the subject was himself. He was amazed when he began to understand the words: ‘It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words literally translated, were these: – ‘The winds roared, and the rain fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he…’

The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realised that it was he – the heroic white man – who was in reality the lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift. (p217)

It brilliantly illustrates why, despite its challenges and unexpected outcomes, we should relish the opportunity to relate cross-culturally.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Feb 4 2010

    Mark (and anyone else), since you’re hooked on Mungo Park and the others, you might like to know there’s an OU course dealing with exactly the period Holmes addresses in his book. In fact Holmes may have written the book in the knowledge that the course is successful and that people find the period very interesting. I attach a link to the website. Like all OU courses it’s hard work, but engaging, well organised, and VERY informative (and yes, I do teach with the OU, so I feel I should plug their stuff when I can – but as anyone knows who’s studied with them, their courses are really very good indeed).

    Reply
  2. Feb 4 2010

    Here’s the website (it didn’t display as I expected): http://www3.open.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/course/a207.htm. The course code is A207, ‘Enlightenment to Romanticism’.

    Reply
  3. Feb 4 2010

    thanks nick

    Reply

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