The Niger River and the Dearth of History Deconstructing the Myths of Mungo Park

Challenging the narrative that Mungo Park ‘discovered’ the Niger River brings to the fore the complex legacy of European explorations in Africa. It underscores the urgent need for a shift towards comprehensive history education and cultural engineering to cultivate a well-informed society. 

At a recent online event in November 2023, scholars and opinion leaders from Nigeria discussed the role of misinformation and disinformation in fuelling the insurgency. Panellists discussed topics such as history education and collective memory. These discussions inevitably led me to reflect on how certain historical narratives have persisted. In West Africa, the Niger River is particularly significant. A longstanding narrative about this river is its ‘discovery’ by a Scottish explorer, Mungo Park. However, a closer examination of this narrative reveals a complex interplay of myths and realities. 


In the West African region, the Niger River is one of the most prominent rivers and has served as a navigation route for trade, exploration, and various other purposes for centuries. The Niger River, Africa’s third-longest river at approximately 4,200 km (2,600 miles), rises in Guinea’s Fouta Djallon and flows through Mali into the Sahara, forming lakes, streams, and marshes along its paths, then passing through Niger and the Benin border before entering Nigeria and eventually emptying through the coastal regions of Nigeria into the Gulf of Guinea or the Atlantic Ocean. The Niger River, known for a variety of names, including Kworra, Quorra, Joliba, Jaliba, Guin, and Jin, has been accurately charted for just over a century; before this, it was shrouded in mystery for many centuries, leading to diverse and often speculative representations on maps of Africa. 

The Niger River has been a vital route for ‘explorers’ for several centuries, serving as a gateway to the heart of West Africa. Among the notable explorers who navigated this river were the Scottish explorer, Hugh Clapperton, who journeyed along the Niger River in 1823, and the French explorer, René Caillié, who reached the Niger in May 1827. Additionally, the British Lander brothers, Richard and John, undertook a significant expedition in 1830. Similarly, the German geographer, Heinrich Barth, along with his companions, James Richardson and Adolf Overweg (both of whom died tragically during the trip), explored the Niger River and its surrounding areas in 1850. 

These individuals pursued multiple objectives, such as charting the course of the Niger River and collecting valuable information about the surrounding regions; their efforts were often driven by the geopolitical and commercial interests of those who funded their trips. In essence, those ‘explorers’ and their accounts could have paved the way for the subsequent colonialism of the West African regions. While historically categorized as explorers, these individuals’ endeavours, in today’s context, might be likened to espionage, given that their journeys were often funded by governments and organisations with specific agendas. Among these ‘explorers’, Mungo Park stands out as one of the first Europeans to travel along the Niger River. 


Mungo Park’s journey is notable for several reasons: he was the first documented European to traverse the Niger River, and he is still commemorated in school curricula within Nigeria as the man who ‘discovered’ the Niger River. However, who was Mungo Park, and can his journey truly be considered a ‘discovery’ of the river? 

Mungo Park was born on September 11, 1771, in Selkirk, Scotland, to parents who were tenants on farmland. At the age of 17, Park went to the University of Edinburgh, where he studied botany, medicine, and natural history, graduating in 1792; upon graduating, he joined an East India Company ship as a surgeon and travelled to Sumatra, Asia. 

Eager for adventure after his return, Park joined the African Association in 1794 and soon set sail on the ‘Endeavour’ to the Gambia in 1795. This voyage, spanning two years, saw him captured and imprisoned by a local chief, who viewed him as a stranger, for four months; he eventually escaped, returning to Scotland in December 1797, surprising everyone because he was presumed dead. The African Association, also known as the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, was founded in June 1788 by a group of London’s aristocracy to recruit explorers and fund expeditions into Western Africa. 

During this journey, he encountered numerous challenges, including disease, hostility from local chiefs, thefts, extreme heat, and various unforeseen difficulties. Despite these obstacles, he persevered and successfully reached and travelled on the Niger River before returning to England as ‘the first European to see the upper Niger’. Driven by a quest for fame, financial incentives, and a profound passion for exploration, Park ventured into territories rarely tread by European explorers at the time. 

Upon his return, Mungo Park published the ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa’ in 1799, a straightforward and detailed account of his experiences and observations of the landscape, wildlife, and diverse peoples he encountered. This work was well received, becoming a bestseller in its time, but it also remains in demand today, with original editions currently selling more than £1,000.  

Picture rights: Nicol (1956)

The solid line depicts his first journey, which commenced in 1795 and ended near Sego (Ségou) among the Bambaras in present-day Mali. The dashed line denotes his second journey, which ended in Bussa, present-day Nigeria, where he died in 1805. 

After his initial exploration, Park returned to his medical profession and married the daughter of his mentor, Dr. Anderson of Selkirk. In 1805, under the patronage of the UK government, he embarked on a second expedition to navigate the Niger River. Accompanied by his brother-in-law, 30 soldiers from the Fort at Goree (Gorée Island, Senegal) and Isaaco, a Mandingo, faced formidable challenges to the extent that by the time they reached the Niger near Bamako in August 1805, only ten Europeans, including Park, had survived the ravages of fever and dysentery. 

On 17 November, Park began his journey on the HM Schooner, composed in Sansanding (Mali); his last letter, sent from this point and later delivered to Gambia by Isaaco, expressed his unwavering commitment to his mission. In the letter, he wrote, among other things: 

But though all the soldiers who are with me should die, and though I were myself half dead, I should still persevere; and if I could not succeed in the object of my journey, I would at least die on the Niger. 

This statement highlights the depth of his resolve and willingness to face extreme hardships for his mission. In another letter to his wife, Park depicts his overwhelming commitment to his expedition and the goal of determining where the Niger River empties. 

Mungo Park was never seen alive again. It was later revealed that he and his companions drowned while trying to escape an attack by warriors near ‘Boussa’ in ‘Houssa’ or Hausa land, present-day Bussa in Niger State, Nigeria; a tragedy attributed to either a failure in delivering a tribute to the local monarch or a possible misidentification as Fulani. The plausible misidentification of Mungo Park and his group as Fulani during their arrival in Bussa around the time of the 1804 Jihad could have led to their attack by the local ‘Houssa’ people in ‘Boussa’, mistaking them for Fulani. 

About two decades after his disappearance, Mungo Park’s son, Thomas Park, embarked on a similar journey to reach ‘Boussa’ but tragically died before his goal was achieved in 1828. It was not until the Lander brothers’ expedition that the course of the Niger River was finally traced to its termination at the Bight of Benin. It was a personal tragedy for Mungo Park to lose his brother-in-law, his son, many others and ultimately his own life, all in the mission to trace the course of the Niger River; however, it serves as a collective tragedy when narratives suggest that Park ‘discovered’ the Niger River. However, did Mungo Park discover the Niger River? 

For decades, students in primary and secondary schools in Nigeria were taught that a man named Mungo Park discovered the Niger River many years ago. I was one of those students, and initially, we believedwhat choice did we have? However, it was not long before we also realised that Mungo Park never discovered the River Niger; in fact, no one did.


The widespread belief that Mungo Park ‘discovered’ the Niger River is synonymous with the narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus’ 1492 ‘discovery’ of the Americas. In a letter that was sold for $3.9 million in October 2023 at a Christie auction, Columbus stated, 

I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people. 

Columbus undertook this voyage under the commission of the Spanish monarch’s King Ferdinand II and Isabella I to find a new sea route to Asia, aiming to challenge Portugal’s monopoly on the spice trade, and ended up in the Americas while proclaiming that he had reached islands near Japan. This letter has been labelled ‘a 15th-century example of fake news’, and he is known as ‘the first of the exploiters rather than the first of the explorers’. 

Before Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, Abu Bakr II, ruler of the largest and wealthiest empire of his time and predecessor to King Mansa Musa, the wealthiest man in history, is said to have sent voyages to the Americas centuries before Columbus. Professor Molefi Asante and his fellow researcher, Professor Mark Mattson, have extensively researched Abu Bakr II’s era and suggested that his expeditions reached the Americas decades before Columbus. However, their findings and those of others have been dismissed as ‘purely speculative’. 

It is not uncommon for findings that challenge Eurocentric views to be dismissed merely as Afrocentric and speculative. Some critics, such as De Montellano and others, have scrutinized the works of Professors Molefi Asante and Mark Mattson; nonetheless, concede that: 

To some degree, the Afrocentrists have correctly criticized the traditional Eurocentric approach to history, anthropology, geography, and other fields for its racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and ‘hegemonism’. They also have correctly criticized Eurocentrism for its claims to ‘objectivity’ and ‘universality,’ and for its attempt to appropriate the cultural and historical legacy of non-European civilizations, such as ancient Egypt. 

The notion of ‘discovering’ lands already inhabited is a racist and hegemonic narrative that needs to be challenged. In April, the Zambian Observer published an article in 2023 about ‘Mazi Uba Acho, a native of the Igbo Nation in West Africa’, who ‘discovered’ a lake in Leicester, UK, naming it ‘Iyi Ojemba’. Indeed, it is amusing because it turns on its head who can be a ‘discoverer’. However, Acho’s proclamation functions to critique the racist and colonial mindsets attached to the ‘discovering’ lands and people. It further highlights the concerning reality that such dehumanizing narratives are still taught in African schools today. The so-called explorers often used the idea of ‘discovering’ places to lay claim to their ‘findings’; however, this practice is not only racist and ethnocentric but also strips the indigenous inhabitants of those places of their humanity. 


Neglecting world history and our collective history in Nigeria poses a significant problem, not only for those living within Nigeria’s borders but also for Africans in general. In our schools, history education has been largely overlooked. Specifically, the federal government of Nigeria removed history from its education curriculum in 2007, ‘even when it was scarcely taught as a core subject, but predominantly buried amongst social studies lessons’. History education, such as being offered as an elective across all departments, is not sufficiently encouraged at the university level. This situation has led to many graduates being unaware of significant historical events. 

Many African university graduates are unfamiliar with their country’s political history, let alone events such as the trans-Saharan slave trade of millions of Africans that lasted for more than 1300 years. This period saw individuals from African communities taken to the Arab world as enslaved people, with most men and boys castrated to serve alongside women as slaves. Additionally, there is a lack of awareness about the transatlantic slave trade, neocolonialism, and ongoing debates concerning Africa’s recolonization through debt.  

In a 1983 paper, Isebill Gruhn, Emerita Professor of Politics at the University of California, accused international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund of attempting to recolonize Africa through debts and subversive policies. This concern has now shifted to countries such as China, which is being accused of seeking to colonize many African nations using debt and loans secured against natural resources. Now, the discussion centres on the digital colonization of Africa and its ‘aerial colonialism’ by external forces. According to Seydina Moussa Ndiaye, a Senegalese AI expert with the UN, there is the potential to colonize Africa digitally and use the continent as a ‘guinea pig’ for new AI solutions in the absence of a pan-African strategy. 

One of the most detrimental aspects of neglecting history education is the limited knowledge of people’s experiences with colonizers. This includes a significant lack of awareness about prominent leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara, among others, and about great kingdoms such as the Songhai Empire and the Bini Kingdoms, along with the outcomes of their interactions with European colonisers. Additionally, there is a notable lack of knowledge about the lives and times of black pharaohs in Kemet (Egypt). 

Even among the political elite in Nigeria, there is a marked disregard for history education. This attitude was echoed in a message given to the 344 schoolboys of the Government Boys Science Secondary School in Kankara, whose abductors freed after six days in captivity on December 17, 2020. In his address, the then-president, Muhammadu Buhari, was quoted as saying: 

You children are very lucky. I am appealing to you to be very careful. Your success in future depends not on subjects like history or English but science and technology because those are the category of people that are likely to stand a better chance of being employed in future. Therefore, you should, as much as possible, try to put this incident behind you and face your studies to the best of your abilities. 

The speech could be assumed to reflect the government’s stance on history education and, by extension, highlights the neglect of their role in utilising history and crafting collective memories for nation-building, ensuring that past mistakes are known and not repeated. Science and technology benefit greatly from historical knowledge, it could be that President Buhari overlooked. However, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, highlighted this connection in an interview in 2022, stating, ‘… he is fascinated by warfare and history books because he can learn lessons from them’. 

This disregard for the significant importance of history by Buhari was rightly condemned by Dr. Samaila Suleiman, an Associate Professor of History at Bayero University Kano, Nigeria. In his riposte, Dr. Suleiman criticised Buhari for his lack of understanding of the role and importance of history education. He further stated, ‘What the country requires is a heavy investment in cultural engineering in order to create a shared narrative of unity that values and celebrates diversity as a national treasure’. 

He is correct; Nigeria needs ‘cultural engineering’, which involves employing specific strategies to deliberately shape and influence people’s behaviour and collective mindsets within Nigeria for the benefit of all. This could be achieved through various means, such as media, educational programmes, and policy changes, to disseminate new cultural values and norms. 

Many Nigerians are likely unaware of the etymology of the word ‘Nigeria’. Professor Farooq Kperogi, a professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University, provides a critical analysis on the origins of the name ‘Nigeria’. He states 

The name ‘Nigeria’ is a product of outmoded, nineteenth-century European obsession with race and skin color. Nigeria is derived from ‘niger,’ the Latin word for black, which has assumed deeply pejorative connotations in English over the years. River Niger, the longest and most important river in Nigeria from which our country’s name is derived, is named after our skin color. Why should we in the 21st century still be stuck with a name that has fallen into disrepute and that, in the first place, invidiously and needlessly calls attention to our skin color? 

Professor Kperogi illuminates the racial implications embedded in the origin of the word ‘Nigeria’ while asking Nigerians to reconsider its suitability in our contemporary time. This issue underscores the need for heightened historical awareness within contemporary Nigerian society. 

In my recent research paper, I argue that recrafting and sharing collective memories can effectively heal the wounds of Nigerians affected by decades of violence. This method, the cognitive reappraisal technique, involves deliberately sharing past violent episodes to create reconciliation and unity among aggrieved and opposing parties. These carefully crafted narratives and strategies can also educate our children to avoid repeating past mistakes. Collective memory has been described through several frames and perspectives. It is often represented as a particular community’s history whether factual or fabricated. 

Here, we can simply refer to collective memory as the shared memories of people within a community about themselves and others outside of their community encompassing narratives of victory, insecurity, indignity, and humiliation, and is passed down through experiences, families, or schools. We must remember that people’s orientations and experiences, as well as the context in which they find themselves, influence the narratives they give about past events, which to them is ‘history’. 

Nevertheless, the state can genuinely and concertedly craft historical narratives that shape collective memories for nation-building purposes and prevent the repetition of history. However, there is an inherent risk of creating divisive collective narratives if the state or its apparatuses have been hijacked or captured. 

Scholars such as Dr Samaila Suleiman and others advocate for the federal government to establish a platform capable of carefully crafting or engineering collective memories of events for the common good. It must be emphasised that those involved in this process must be free from primordial sentiments, whether cultural, geopolitical, religious, or ethnic. 


Although the federal government of Nigeria reinstated history education into the curriculum in 2021, which was ‘removed’ in 2007 for reasons that undermine the importance of history education, there remains a lack of support for this field of study. Furthermore, more attention needs to be given to explicitly evaluating the role of collective memory in counterinsurgency efforts and addressing insecurity in the Sahel region, particularly in Nigeria, by conflict scholars. Exploring the intersections of collective memories with insurgencies, particularly in the context of misinformation and disinformationthe theme of the event in questionwould significantly contribute to providing insightful recommendations for informed policy actions.  

The importance of transferring into (in the case of Nigeria) and sustaining the power to create narratives for the collective good in the hands of state actors and their institutions cannot be overstated; this is crucial for nation-building, the creation of progressive narratives, and the support of cultural engineering. For now, in Nigeria, historical narratives and, by extension, collective memories are primarily created and shared through familial connections, political and religious leaders, and insurgents and militants. This situation is why ‘we are where we are’. 

Countries such as the US and the United Kingdom, among others, mandate the inclusion of historical accounts aimed at civic building and national cohesion as a fundamental criterion for obtaining citizenship, most often with a spin. In the US, debates are intensifying over the scope of historical narratives permitted in educational settings and public forums.  

A notable example of this contention is Florida’s ‘Stop Woke Act’, a law designed to ban workplaces, schools, and universities from teaching or discussing historical narratives such as slavery and lynchings that could cause individuals to feel guilt or shame about historical actions associated with their race or sex.  

However, a decision by a three-judge panel from the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit challenged the law’s constitutionality; they ruled that ‘the “Stop Woke Act” “exceeds the bounds” of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression’. The ‘Stop Woke Act’, which the court has ruled against, represents an effort by the political elites in Florida to shape historical narratives. This case highlights the lengths some will go to influence historical understanding and emphasises the value of historical knowledge. 

The horrific events of the Holocaust are not only included in many bachelor’s programmes at universities in Europe and the US but also offered as funded research degrees. For instance, Royal Holloway, University of London offers an MA in Holocaust Studies, and the University of Leicester provides an MA in History with a focus on Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The argument is not to replicate precisely what is done in these countries but to highlight the recognition that they accord to history education. Thus, highlighting the importance of history education.   

The federal government of Nigeria must actively promote history education as part of its efforts to foster a collective memory essential for nation-building. A comprehensive educational programme could be vital to this effort, including providing scholarships for university-level history students; offering support to both students and teachers through funding for educational resources; and organizing workshops, seminars, and conferences to enhance the quality of history education. While encouraging deeper engagement with history, these measures could contribute to a well-informed citizenry and foster a robust national identity. 

This Nigerian government should establish platforms and processes that support history education and cultural engineering. These efforts should aim to build a collective memory that benefits the common good and strengthens historical knowledge. Supporting the study of history education in Nigerian institutions will attract bright minds, offering more significant opportunities and a more conducive learning environment. Such initiatives will not only counteract false, racist, and hegemonic narratives, such as the myth of ‘Mungo Park discovering the Niger River’ but also offer insights that can inform policies addressing contemporary challenges with historical roots.  

Nigeria requires more than just legislation to foster a love for history education, reshape or retell hegemonic narratives, or, in essence, implement the ‘cultural engineering’ advocated by Dr. Suleiman. It necessitates a collective effort involving politicians, teachers, academics, conferences, forums, and others, not solely the government, to reinforce the importance of history education. This is important because ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it’. Educating well-informed citizens today lays the foundation for countering the misinformation and disinformation that fuel insurgency, thereby building a brighter future for everyone tomorrow

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