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ELIZABETH BOHLS Romantic Exploration and Atlantic Slavery: Mungo Park’s Coffle I N JUNE 1797, AT A VILLAGE NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE RIVER GAMBIA ON the Atlantic coast of West Africa, the Scottish explorer Mungo Park bid farewell to a group ofpeople with whom he hadjust made a five-hundredmile journey across western Africa. His book, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), describes their emotional parting: I could not part, for the last time, with my unfortunate fellowtravelers , doomed, as I knew most of them to be, to a life of captivity and slavery in a foreign land, without great emotion. During a weari­ some peregrination of more than five hundred British miles, exposed to the burning rays of a tropical sun, these poor slaves, amidst their own infinitely greater sufferings, would commiserate mine; and fre­ quently, of their own accord, bring water to quench my thirst, and at night collect branches and leaves to prepare me a bed in the Wilder­ ness. We parted with reciprocal expressions ofregret and benediction. My good wishes and prayers were all I could bestow upon them; and it afforded me some consolation to be told, that they were sensible I had no more to give.1 This group of 34 enslaved Africans, part of a caravan or coffle of 73 travel­ ers, had been marched from the interior to the coast to be sold to European slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic. Park traveled with the coffle by permission of its leader, the African slave trader Karfa Taura. The two had made a deal: on arrival at the coast, Park would pay Karfa “the value of one prime slave.” This “benevolent Negro,” as Park calls him, helped the explorer at the lowest point of his adventurous journey (Travels, 234). i. Park, Travels in the Interior Districts ofAfrica (1799), ed. Kate Marsters (Durham and Lon­ don: Duke University Press, 2000), 302, hereafter cited as Travels in the text. I am grateful to the Oregon Humanities Center for fellowship support and to Professor Lindsay Braun ofthe University of Oregon History Department. SiR., 55 (Fall 2016) 347 348 ELIZABETH BOHLS When he arrived at the slave trader’s village, he was wandering, hungry, sick, and alone, after achieving his goal ofseeing which direction the Niger River flowed (to the east). Karfa fed, clothed, and sheltered the bedraggled Park and let him join his traveling party to begin the journey home. But the explorer’s homeward journey was his fellow travelers’ journey away from their homes into New World slavery. This essay will call attention to Park’s dependence on the infrastructure and personnel put in place by the slave trade: both the Atlantic slave trade, still legal and active during his travels, and the internal African slave trade that supplied European ships with human cargo. I will consider Park’s book (most often read as an exploration narrative) as part of the archive of enslavement.2 Recent approaches to the epistemological and ethical chal­ lenges involved in recovering the history of slavery highlight the “genera­ tive tension between recovery as an imperative . . . and the impossibility of recovery when engaged with archives whose very assembly and organiza­ tion occlude certain historical subjects.”3 To what extent—if at all—does Park’s account of his travels through western Africa give us access to the history of enslavement? What are its limitations of “assembly and organiza­ tion,” when considered from this perspective? Park’s book is distinctive in its attention to the connection between the internal African slave trade—what the historian WalterJohnson has termed 2. Recent scholarly interest in Park has included historians of African slavery, as well as postcolonial critics and literary historians who assimilate Park’s book to Romanticism from various angles. See Maria Grosz-Ngate, “Power and Knowledge: The Representation of the Maude World in the Works of Park, Caillie, Monteil, and Delafosse,” Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 111-12, 28, no. 3-4 (1988): 485-511, and Mary Pratt’s influential Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992), 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008). Pratt presents Park as part of the “anti-conquest”—imperialism mystified as harmless. Ashton...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 347-368
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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