The first Irish man to cross Africa

During the late nineteenth century, the powerful and wealthy nations of Europe made a feverish assault on the continent of Africa, the tribal interior of which was largely unknown. It was in this era of fresh and precarious colonisation, that an Irish man set off with a relief expedition for the lost Emin Pasha, Governor of a British Protectorate. Malachy Harty tells the story of his great great grand uncle, Tom Parke, the first Irish man to cross the continent of Africa.

Thomas Parke was born in Drumsna, Co. Roscommon. He studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and was soon ready for adventure. He joined the British Army Medical Department and left for Egypt in 1882, a land of Ancient Civilisation that had fascinated European explorers since the time of Herodotus in 470 BC. In his journal, Experiences in Equatorial Africa, Parke describes Egypt as an ideal destination for tourism and recuperation. In point of fact, he himself arrived to a rebellion, soon followed by a catastrophic outbreak of cholera. He displayed an untiring capacity for humanitarianism in his role as senior medical officer at a cholera camp near Cairo and received the Queen’s Medal and the Khedive’s Star for his services.

Back in England, the publicly funded Emin Pasha Relief Expedition was becoming a national quest, with large public enthusiasm for the idea of rescuing a lost governor. James Sligo Jameson, of the whiskey distilling family made a large donation and James Jameson, a naturalist, was on the expedition.

Within days of hearing of the expedition, Parke was on the Suez Canal, travelling south to Zanzibar, with the famous Welshman, Henry Morton Stanley. After collecting supplies in Zanzibar, they made an epic sea voyage around the Cape of South Africa and up the West coast of Africa to the Congo. The expedition party consisted of seven white men and 800 Sudanese, Somalis and Zanzibaris. They travelled up the Congo by boat and then through the forest on foot, with many adventures and dreadful hardship along the way. Often they befriended native tribes but occasionally they were not so well received, and an unequal exchange of force was not uncommon.

Parke’s diary entry for October 16, 1887 reads: “We ate most of our donkey meat, and marched early; but there were not enough men to carry the loads, as the poor creatures were dying along the road, and we had to leave them, taking their rifles with us. Forest fruits are but poor feeding at best; we now make a sort of porridge from the scrapings of the beans. Our Philanthropic pilgrimage for the Relief of Emin Pasha is certainly being carried out with many of the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual self denial, which cannot, I venture to think, be very far surpassed in history. I wonder whether the Crusaders had so rough a time of it?”

Stanley’s account is equally vivid. “The forest continued week after week, month after month, the same unbroken mass of trees and undergrowth and we traversed the same ill-lit shades subject to the same unvarying troubles with swamps, creeks, mudflats and black oozy river deposits. The sick list of each company increased each day, and all naturally looked to Parke as though the salvation of the poor victims depended upon him alone…and yet presenting to each and all of us [was] a face whereon one read naught but pleasantness and benevolence.”

Parke was noted for more than his medical skills. Parke and Jephson, who also had Irish connections, were the first two white men to see the Mountains of the Moon which were documented by Claudius Ptolemy 1700 years earlier, but had become something of a myth. Such mountains were suspected of feeding the Nile with their melting glaciers. Pakenham tells us that Stanley “…characteristically claimed that he had been the first to make [the discovery]”.

The expedition finally reached Emin Pasha in the Equatorial Province, where Uganda is today. As Stanley found with his previous rescue mission for Dr. Livingstone, the Emin Pasha was quite content in Africa and didn’t want to return to Europe. Despite this, when the rescue party emerged after their three year ordeal crossing from the Congo to Zanzibar, they were hailed as heroes and the mission was publicly received as a success.

Parke was feted on his return to England and Ireland in 1890. He received honorary doctorates and gold medals from all sorts of societies. He wrote two books on his adventures in Africa, Personal Experiences in Equatorial Africa and Guide to Health in Africa with notes on Country and Inhabitants. Surgeon Major Parke died suddenly while visiting his fiancée in Scotland. Thomas Pakenham summed up the cause, “At thirty five, he had paid the price for his years of adventure, struck down by a parasitic worm he had picked up in Africa”.

Stanley’s previous and far more famous relief expedition was to rescue Dr. David Livingstone. The Scottish explorer remained and died in central Africa, trying to find the source of the Nile. During his travels he was disgusted by a revived Swahili orchestrated slave trade; well organised and cruel. To heal this “open sore of the world” he advocated commerce, Christianity and civilisation, with the Nile serving as a highway from Europe into the heart of the continent. Later, his countrymen added ‘conquest’ to Livingston’s three ‘c’s.

Until the 1870s, European powers had established only small trading posts around Africa, with a varying degree of control over some coastal provinces. Within thirty years, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal had divided up the continent of Africa, with scraps going to Spain. The self styled philanthropist, Belgian’s King Leopold II, exploited the rivalry of these nations and controlled the heart of Africa, The Congo. Thomas Pakenham tells us in ‘Scramble for Africa’ that although the intentions of explorers such as Dr. Livingstone were remarkable, ‘Europe had imposed it’s will on Africa at the point of a gun.’

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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