More on the intrepid 19th century Irish adventurer and his discovery of the ‘Mountains of The Moon’…
In a previous piece we had explored how Parke had come to find himself embarking out on one of the most infamous exploratory journeys of the last century, through Africa. The end result of the journey was a calamity of huge proportions both in human and financial terms. And one cracking great story.
“Dr. Parke I Presume?”
The expedition, led by the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley, (he of the “Dr. Livingstone I presume”? fame) departed in February of 1887, from Banana Point on the Western coast of Africa, and would make its way through the Congo.
From there it wound its way through the then uncharted Ituri rainforest, and finally to Lake Albert where the beleaguered Emin Pasha was to be found, covering an extraordinary 3000 miles. It was an enormous undertaking, with a convoy of over 800 men.
Into the Heart of Darkness
The mortality rate was farcical, due to woeful provisions, filthy water, rampant disease and extreme heat. The financial cost was huge, (somewhere around £20,000) but not as large as the cost of human life. It is believed that at least two hundred perished on the three-year journey, some even being summarily executed.
It must also be borne in mind that the expeditions? arrival in previously undisturbed areas of the land wreaked havoc, leaving damaged villages and communities flailing in the wake of chaos and destruction behind it. When they eventually arrived at their destination, they did not find the scenes of desolation and apocalyptic horror that they must have expected but rather a jovial Emin, who was only being mildly hassled by Dervishes to the North.
On the arrival of the decimated expedition, a banquet was thrown to greet them in which Emin became so hammered drunk that he fell through the roof of a hut landing squarely on his head. Parke was instrumental in saving his life. Then, almost as if to reiterate the futility of the expedition, nay, almost to add insult to injury, shortly afterwards, Emin defected to the Germans.
An Incredible Discovery
Along the path of the expedition, Parke made a remarkable (re) discovery, when in April of 1888 he was the first European in almost 1600 years, to set eyes upon the legendary ?Mountains of the Moon? (the Ruwenzori Range), although Stanley would later attempt to claim that it was he who had done so.
However we know from drawings in Parkes? journals that he saw the range on a date earlier than that claimed by Stanley. He was also the first Irishman to traverse the entire African Continent.
The journey brought out the best in Parke, who excelled himself in his duties, such as in the famous incident when a member of the party, William Grant Stairs, was struck near the heart by a poisoned arrow. Parke saved his life by dramatically sucking the poison out.
This scene is illustrated on the base of the statue outside the museum. It was precisely this type of selfless bravery and basic guts that later led Stanley to say that ” without Parke, the expedition would have been a failure” and that he was “…the cleverest of his profession that has ever been in Equatorial Africa”.
The Victorian Age, much like our own, loved a good yarn and when Parke returned home, harrowed and haunted by the ordeal of the previous years he immediately set paper to pen. Or at least that is what had always been though until recent times. Parke?s account of his journey, Experiences in Equatorial Africa was an instant best seller, and remains one of the great pieces of Victorian travel literature.
However, recent work by Prof. J.B. Lyons has proven that it was almost certainly ghostwritten. Nonetheless, it remains a influential work, shaping popular fiction and legend for some time to come, as can be seen, for example, in Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness.
However, the strain of the journey took its toll. Parke?s health was badly affected, and he died suddenly from a heart attack, on the 10th of September 1893, aged only 35. He was buried in Drumsna, near his home. A memorial hall, named the Parke Memorial Hall, was built in Carrick-on-Shannon. A fund was also begun which led to the erection of the statue at the front of the Natural History Museum.
More info can be found here:
Experiences in Equatorial Africa. Thomas Heazle Parke.
In Darkest Africa. Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
Surgeon Major Parke?s African Journey 1887-89. J.B. Lyons. Liliput Press, 1994. (available from the National Museum of Ireland)
The Scramble for Africa. Thomas Pakenham
Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad