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Mungo Park (not a place–he was named after a Scottish saint), was born this day in 1771, near Selkirk, Scotland, and was an early explorer of Africa, generally credited with being the first European to find the Niger River. He’s a fascinating character who deserves more than one post, but I was particularly pleased to find it was his birthday today as I’m currently reading a wonderful book by Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. It’s currently on sale at half price at and you can read a far more coherent account than mine of the book at

It seems like every couple of years I come across a nonfiction book that moves and inspires me and this is one of them. The last history book I raved about was Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild (if you’ve ever had a conversation with me invariably I tell you to read it). Like Hochschild, Holmes has a vivid grasp of the age and his writing is beautiful.

Now my problem is that I haven’t got to the Mungo Park chapter yet (I’ve been reading about William Herschel, the balloonists of the age, and another explorer, botanist Joseph Banks who visited Tahiti, but I skipped ahead and browsed around).

Parks was a Calvinist, born in humble circumstances, eventually becoming a doctor with a severe case of wanderlust. His first expedition was as Assistant Surgeon on a naval expedition to Sumatra.

He was recruited by Joseph Banks on behalf of the Africa Assocation which sponsored expeditions, and as relations became hostile between France and England, moved from scientific and commercial interests to political ones. Similarly, it was proposed, and feared, that the French might invade England with balloons (something I’m strongly tempted to include in the WIP, but resisting). So the Africa Association wanted to find the legendary city of Timbuctoo (where buildings were reputedly roofed with gold) and discover a trade route via the Niger before the Frogs got there.

Here’s an excerpt about one of Parks’ experiences in 1796 shortly after he’d caught his first sight of the Niger. He’d been approached by an African woman and was a bit nervous of what he might encounter, following an embarrassing episode where a group of Moorish women had examined him to see if Christians were circumcized. “I thought it best to treat the business jocularly.”

But the woman took him home to her family where they sat around him spinning cotton and singing him to sleep.

Park suddenly realized 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 wa 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 trees. 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 travel 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.

When his Travels were published in Britain, this incident had a strong impact on its readers who included Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. She rewrote the song and had it set to music by Italian composer Giorgio Ferrari. But you’ll see she also restored the current thinking, of the European “discovering” Africa.

Apologies for the lateness of this post and I hope you enjoyed the snippet about Mungo Park and the excerpt.

What have you read lately that’s inspired you?

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This is a follow-up to Cara’s post the other day about the movie Amazing Grace. Why, you may ask, did the movie industry glom onto what is still (and unjustly) a rather obscure bit of history? Because this year is the two-hundredth anniversary of the Slave Trade Act that came into law on March 25, 1807 (and we’re nearly there and it’s my turn to blog). This, by the way is Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of William Wilberforce.

I first became interested in this topic by reading Adam Hochschild’s wonderful book Bury The Chains, which made me aware of what a burning issue abolition was for late Georgian society (and inspired me to write my October 2007 release, Forbidden Shores). Hochschild points out that it was possibly the first time that people cared passionately enough about a cause–something that would benefit strangers thousands of miles away who they would never meet–to make sacrifices themselves. Ropemakers in Bristol, one of the cities that thrived on the trade, petitioned to end the slave trade, knowing full well that their own livelihood would be threatened.

It was also a movement that cut through divisions of class and gender; ordinary housewives boycotted sugar. Wedgwood produced this plaque (it reads Am I not a man and a brother?) that appeared on many artefacts.

The abolitionists introduced the tactics of the modern political campaign–slogans, investigative journalism, slogans, and powerful visuals like this depiction of a slave ship.

Of course, the major question is why did this happen? What made ordinary–and not so ordinary people–care so passionately about this cause? Hochschild’s answer is rather interesting, and one that made me think entirely differently about the Gerogian and Regency periods. Georgian England was seen, and saw itself, surprisingly, as a fairminded and democratic sort of place–the monarchy was mostly benign, and the concept of Magna Carta operated as a sort of unofficial constitution. Few could vote, but ordinary men had the power of the petition. The country had a great infrastructure, because of the Royal Mail, a high level of literacy, and dozens of newspapers. The dealbreaker of the 1807 act was a new petition bearing several thousand signatures, collected in the north of England and delivered to Westminster in a matter of hours. Hochschild suggests, too, that people in England felt an affinity with the Africans whose communities were devastated by slaver raids, because something similar happened in their own ports–the press gang, which enforced men to serve in the Navy.

As I said, Hochschild’s book made me rethink the Regency, and I’m wondering if you have come across something, a book or movie, that revealed an unusual facet or layer to your understanding of the period.

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