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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
December 2023
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In 1816 the British sent two large, ambitious expeditions to Africa, one to follow the Niger River to its outlet, the other to trace the Congo River to its source. Their shared goal was to complete the unfinished mission of Mungo Park, who had disappeared during a journey to determine whether the Niger and the Congo were the same river. Both quests ended disastrously and were soon forgotten. Telling the full story of these failed expeditions for the first time, Dane Kennedy argues that they provide fresh insight into British ambitions in Africa. He places them in the contexts of the imperial rivalry with France, the slave trade and the abolition campaign, and the independent power wielded by African states and peoples. He also shows that they were haunted by the same sense of hubris that would afflict many of the expeditions that followed. This hubris was Mungo Park's ghost.


‘Mungo Park’s Ghost is a brilliantly executed account of the most ambitious expeditionary bids ever made by the British government to explore the African continent - and almost certainly the most disastrous. Written with verve and rigour, Kennedy wonderfully documents geographical exploration as imperial hubris.’

Charles W. J. Withers - Professor Emeritus in University of Edinburgh and former Geographer Royal for Scotland

‘Dane Kennedy creatively and insightfully depicts the ignorance and ineptitude of Britain’s early, all-but-forgotten attempts to explore an African interior torn apart by the brutality of the slave trade. What initially appears comically misguided evolves into a tale of rapaciousness and aggression that set the tone for later British misadventures in Africa.’

Stephanie Barczewski - Carol K. Brown Scholar in the Humanities and Professor of History, Clemson University

‘Few historians can match Dane Kennedy's mastery of British imperial mythology. In this witty, gripping and often tragicomic history of failed expeditions in search of a confluence of the Congo and the Niger, Kennedy shows the intricacies and influence of British scientific societies, the complexities of imperial masculinity and the extent of British imperial ambitions in West Africa in the early nineteenth century. Attentive to the many ways that hired African labourers and local kings and chiefs held the lives of British military officers in their hands, and to how West African politics shaped the expeditions, Kennedy explores the gulf between imperial grandiosity, the colossal reputation and mysterious death of Mungo Park, and the fly-blown, shambolic reality of British imperialism in West Africa in the early nineteenth century. Mungo Park haunted the British empire in unexpected ways, and this excellent book makes an elegant case for the importance of close attention to 'heroic failure' in British imperial and colonial history.’

Padraic X. Scanlan - Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto

‘Dane Kennedy is the best historian of imperial exploration writing today. Mungo Park’s Ghost foregrounds African actors and states in the story of British intervention in West Africa, to deliver fresh insights into the dynamics of slavery and anti-slavery and an unvarnished exposé of the overweening power of imperial hubris.’

Maya Jasanoff - Coolidge Professor of History, Harvard University

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