"Majestic River: Mungo Park and the Exploration of the Niger" by Charles W. J. Withers is a book which itself attracts the description "majestic". It's always thrilling to stumble across a book that is so well researched and written that as a reader you get the sense it will be the definitive account of the subject it covers for quite some time to come. "Majestic River" is one of those books.
Mungo Park was born at Foulshiels near Selkirk, where his father was a successful farmer. The seventh of a family of thirteen he was well educated. After leaving school he took up an apprenticeship with a surgeon in Selkirk. In 1794 Park applied to the Africa Association to mount an expedition to build on the work of Major Daniel Houghton, who had gone to Africa in 1790 to try to trace the route of the River Niger, but had died in the Sahara. The Niger is an odd river. Though 2,500 miles long, it rises just 150 miles from the sea before heading north-east into the Sahara desert where it passes Timbuktu before taking a sharp right turn and flowing south-east to the sea.
The front flap of the dust jacket picks up the story: "By the late eighteenth century, the River Niger was a 2,000-year-old two-part geographical problem. Solving it would advance European knowledge of Africa, provide a route to commercial opportunity and help eradicate the evil of slavery. Mungo Park achieved lasting fame in 1796 by solving the first part of the Niger problem – which way did the river run? Park died in 1806, in circumstances which are still uncertain, in failing to solve the second – where did the Niger end? Numerous expeditions explored the river in the decades following Park’s death, but not until 1830 was its final course revealed following in-the-field exploration. By then, however, the Niger problem had been solved by ‘armchair geographers’ who had never even visited Africa. Majestic River celebrates Mungo Park's achievements and illuminates his rich afterlife – how and why he was commemorated long after his death. It is also the thrilling story of the many expeditions that sought to determine the Niger’s course and the facts of Park’s disappearance, as well as a biography of the Niger itself as the river slowly took shape in the European imagination."
This is a book that can be highly recommended to anyone who has ever wanted to know how the blanks in the map were filled in.