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.
Charles W.J. Withers is Professor Emeritus and former Ogilvie Chair of Geography at the University of Edinburgh. Between 2015 and 2022, he was Geographer Royal for Scotland, the first in 118 years. His books include Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian (2017) and, as co-author, the prize-winning Scotland: Mapping the Nation (2011).
"Punchy, eloquent, and infused with forensic research [...] This book is in all senses a geographical epic"
– Nicholas Crane, writer and presenter, BBC Two's Coast and author of The Making of the British Landscape
"This deeply researched and sumptuously illustrated book is at once an exciting new biography of Mungo Park, a wide-ranging history of the decades-long efforts by the British to explore the Niger, and an illuminating study of the evolution of geography and cartography as fields of scientific knowledge"
– Dane Kennedy, author of The Last Blank Spaces: Exploring Africa and Australia
"A fascinating and illuminating read"
– Megan Amato, Scottish Field
"'Both an admirable biography of the explorer Mungo Park and also a thoughtful meditation on early British involvement in West Africa"
– Allan Massie, The Scotsman
"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"
– Ken Lussey, Undiscovered Scotland