Mansfield Parkyn’s View of Africa

Introduction

Prior to examining the actual writings of this extra ordinary British explorer, it is essential to acknowledge that travelers are not journalists; they do not simply observe and record. Instead, they write against the backdrop of their preconceived ideas. Most of them will judge a native country based on values that they already possess.

Sometimes these may be in the form of gender, class or any other prejudices. The interesting thing about what Mansfield Parkyns did in his book “Life in Abyssinia” is that he tried to look at things from the natives’ sociological lens. Whether he succeeded in doing this or not is beside the point; what counts is that a British explorer immersed himself in the ways of an African society who would have been brushed off by others as just another ‘uncivilized group’.

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Why travel literature is unique

Travel literature is really not a tale about strange lands which explorers visited and wrote about, it is really a tale of explorers and the societies they come from. An explorer is one who removes himself from the familiar and perceives strange and unknown people and places. Consequently, he must find a way of internalizing these differences and then narrating them back to his society[1]. Indeed, these expeditions provide an avenue to reexamine and reaffirm cultural identities.

Not only must one be in a position to record what one has seen but one must do so in a manner that reflects social expectations. An explorer will meet new faces, new representations and new worlds and he must allocate familiar meaning to them. Indeed most European explorers gave their accounts based on a Biblical, classical or scientific lens owing to the influences and books they had been exposed to. Furthermore, most explorers needed to think about audiences back home and the success of their work.

This was the reason why their work needed to reflect such cultural and sociological norms. Many British explorers had a superiority complex in the midst of native tribes and countries. They did not realize that in as much as they were analyzing and critiquing native tribes, those people were also scrutinizing them. Such domineering attitudes were derived from western societies and were very difficult to challenge[2].

Nonetheless, authors such Mansfield Parkyns still tried to separate themselves from these acquired values and attitudes by being as non judgmental and neutral as was reasonably possible. Sometimes Mansfield overstepped these lines and became overly romantic about the African race, but in certain instances, he still reverted back to his contemporary writer’s perspectives.

Irrespective of these occurrences, Parkyns was still one of the few authors who gave an account of how natives and westerners worked together to create a different world. He tried to give a balanced account of his explorations in Abyssinia. After reading the book, one immediately realizes that the volume was not simply about a man’s geographical journey; it was also about an exploration of self and a revelation of how the ‘other’ can be perceived in a different way.

Mansfield’s utopian account of the Abyssinian people

Parkyns’ contacts with the natives of Africa were characterized by a series of unpleasant and strange practices and experiences. At the beginning he witnessed the partial removal of flesh from the body of a cow and he also witnessed eating of raw beef. He was arrested and captured at some point, observed the butchering of another individual and remained half starved for a very long time. Despite all these challenges, Parkyns still maintained that the native ways were preferable to those of his fellow European explorers.

Indeed one can say that he possessed a romanticized view of the people of Africa. Parkyns was particularly impressed by the quiet and simple ways of the Abyssinians and firmly believed that they lived in harmony with nature. In certain instances, he had actually fantasized about living amongst the natives.

Africans were unconcerned about complicated social practices and had not yet been perverted by materialist lifestyles. In his interactions with the Abyssinians, Parkyns found that most of them were not as superficial and vain as westerners and this caused him to respect African cultures to a large extent. His immersion into their way of life caused him to rethink the notion of Africans as savages. They were happier and more fulfilled than the Englishmen of his community.

In an 1844 account of his stay in Rohabeita, Mansfield believed that the district was some sort of happy Valley. Life there was less than perfect (as witnessed from the bad climate and lack of food supplies) but he believed that these inadequacies in the external environment were more than compensated for in the internal environment[3].

To him, the peace and tranquility found here was unrivaled. The natives treated one another with deep affection and esteem. Most of them extended this same hospitality to him and he did the same to them. He admired the innocent life he lived there and even remarked that what the place lacked in terms of intellectual stimulation, it compensated for in happiness.

The love and respect that everyone accorded him caused him to be interested in living with them. Parkyns even contemplated abandoning his western ways and indulging in their ways (although this was a flight of the imagination). From these assertions, one can therefore say that Parkyns looked at life in Abyssinia quite ideally. He was not concerned with the faults found in those lands but was captivated by the mannerisms and the values of the native people.

Some critics have asserted that the reason why most Abyssinians were so good to Mansfield was because he was a foreigner. How could they be hostile to someone so unique and different from them? In fact, Parkyns remarks that at no place in his life was he more respected than in Abyssinia. “Women would sing songs about him and men would look after him; England would never do” [4].

These critics therefore read some mischief in the African’s reception of Parkyns. However, what those critics did not realize is that the Abyssinians extended the same respect towards one another so they were not simply putting on a facade. It was this kind of reception that made him so intrigued by the African ways.

Parkyns’ respect and interactions with the natives

Indeed one can perceive Parkyns’ respect for the African race from the tone of voice in this book. Also, the manner in which he describes them also shows that he didn’t think of them as uncivilized savages. He realized that they were quite intelligent and had their own culture which they were very proud of. Indeed, Parkyns ate, slept and behaved in the same manner that they did because he respected them. At some point, Parkyns went to live with the Ailet tribe and he did not cover his head or feet for a very long period of time.

He did not sleep on a mattress or any special kind of bed for he was content with sharing or doing what the Ailet and the Abyssinians did. These were clearly great discomforts for him but they did not derail him from his goal. At some point, Parkyns confessed that the food in Abyssinia was nothing to write home about; nonetheless, he continued to feed on what they fed on. This kind of behavior illustrated that Parkyns held the natives in high esteem and did not mind sharing their practices.

Parkyns’ behaved in a warm and sincere manner towards the natives. In fact, he genuinely wanted to help them during tough times. For the duration of his stay in Rohabeita district in 1844, Parkyns noted that the people were suffering from low food security. Consequently, he made a plan that would supposedly get them out of their predicament. He had some 300 pounds which he had received from his family back home.

His intention was to lend people of the village a small portion of that money so that they could get raw materials and equipment for agriculture. They could then pay him back with the money that they recovered from the proceeds of their harvests[5]. Although these were noble intentions, it was unlikely that they would have come to fruition because one could not be sure about the people he was getting into business with.

Nonetheless, one can still see how genuine and helpful this individual was. It is likely that he would have gained something from the transactions but the biggest beneficiary would be the communities he was trying to help. Parkyns was therefore quite peculiar in terms of his interactions because he wanted to ensure that the natives prospered.

Mansfield was very grateful for what he had and often made the most of his resources. He did not fret and fuss over the lack of material comfort; he preferred to use creative ways of creating it. For instance when he was describing his need to see a lion, Parkyns asserted that he used to sleep with his rifle between his legs.

He did this in order to combine the benefits of comfort and utility in one. He would put the end of the rifle on his arm and then place his head against it as a pillow. He explained that he liked this position because he would enjoy the advantages of a pillow and still save the butter from his hair from completely going to waste.

Mansfield affirmed that the butter was good for wood because it toughened it. If he had chosen a stone to serve the same purpose as the pillow then the butter would not have been very useful. Indeed, such scenarios demonstrate just how quick-witted Parkyns was when living with the Abyssinians. This was a place with minimal resources especially in the eyes of a European. Nonetheless, Mansfield chose not to focus on those inadequacies; he did the best he could to live harmoniously with the locals.

Parkyns’ distinction from peer explorers

Most writers in Parkyns’ genre tended to focus more on European adventures[6]. Africans were seen as an addition or an element on the side. “Life in Abyssinia” was a marked difference from this premise because although Mansfield’s exploits still represent a substantial portion of the book, he did manage to shed some light on African perspectives as well.

It should be noted that Europeans were not new to the Abyssinians. Other explorers and traders had come before Mansfield so there were numerous centuries of their interactions with westerners. Their religious practices; which were part Christian and part Abyssinian testified to these interactions.

Abyssinian’s history was widely debated because of their ‘mixed race’ appearance but most of them were already familiar with western society. Such previous interactions had created a series of expectations concerning foreigners. They knew that foreigners rarely came in large numbers and most of them wanted to trade with them.

However, they must have been puzzled by Mansfield and his colleagues because he did not seem particularly interested in trading. He appeared to be a trader who was not prepared to trade so some of them started looking at him as an accomplice of the Turks with whom they had horrible experiences with in the past. Indeed, Mansfield may have puzzled many natives by the fact that he was always moving around.

They were probably wondering what he was up to and what his intentions really were. With time, they got to understand what he was really about. Parkyns illustrated to them that although he was a westerner like many others, he was more interested in what they could share with one another rather than what he could take from them. The natives accepted him as one of their own when they realized that he was sincere.

Mansfield Parkyns showed that exploration was not a spectator sport; the most vivid and daring accounts were those ones which were practical in nature. He could explain how something felt like properly because he had experienced it.; he had tasted it, worn it and done it.

Mansfield was not judgmental about natives as his peers were. Many explorers dismissed deaths that occurred in Africa as barbaric killings[7]. However, Mansfield looked at these acts differently. He analogized their actions to those of European soldiers. If a soldier killed another in battle, then western society would perceive this act positively (if not heroically).

However, if the same was done by an African then that would be savagery. Mansfield witnessed a killing of a Barean enemy at Mareb Valley during his exploits. He was not quick to judge these people because he believed that the Africans had a right to protect themselves in much the same manner that the British did.

A number of explorers have been interested in exploring Africa for selfish reasons. Some of them were looking to set up frontiers in these nations and possibly become famous. They knew that getting administrative positions in their own cultures would be very difficult so Africa provided that new route towards achieving this goal.

Many of them had set targets for themselves and did not bother learning the culture or the way of life of the locals. Parkyns lacked these aspirations and even confessed in one of his journals that perhaps one of the reasons why he feels better suited to the lifestyle in Abyssinia was that he was not as ambitious as his peers.

European explorers would visit Africa and enter with a sense of entitlement. Most would feel as though they were special and would even get angry at locals for not treating them that way. One could not find such features in Mansfield’s mannerisms. For instance at some point he wanted to visit Kafta while still in Abyssinia.

He was captured by some Abyssinian soldiers a few days after he got into this location on suspicion of being a Turk. They had received orders from their leader Lij Hailu to arrest him and keep locked up. When he had been taken into captivity, Parkyns behavior was quite different from that of the typical explorer. The soldiers started dancing around him and make a mockery of him.

He would have gotten angry at them but that would only have made things worse so he decided to participate in the games. He took a piece of straw and gave it to the first dancer as a ‘mock’ sword. Luckily, the soldier had a sense of humor and laughed at the joke. They played pretend after he gave himself the title of a chief and enjoyed the entire afternoon with them. In the book, Mansfield comments that travelers should adopt such a strategy when they visit foreign lands because controlling one’s tempers can win many enemies over.

His behavior during this ordeal was quite unusual and distinct from his peers because he did something that other explorers wouldn’t have considered doing. Many would be angry at the fact that a local has arrested them. Parkyns lacked this sense of entitlement and it helped him get on with members of the African race.

Parkyns often took the pursuits of the locals very seriously even when this highly inconvenienced him. For example there was a point when they were chasing after some Bareans because they had attacked the Abyssinians. When running, he got pierced by a hanging piece of rock that he describes as razor sharp.

This took off a whole portion of his toe nail. Instead of complaining and abandoning the party, Mansfield simply removed a small portion that was still left and continue running barefoot in the hot sand underneath. He had obligations with the locals and honored his word by sticking by them despite his discomforts.

Mansfield’s attitude towards his own culture

At the time when Parkyns started his first expedition, he adopted mannerisms that reflected irreverence for the western way of life. He did not care much for European companionship during his expeditions. In fact, he explained that if he had come with many Europeans then he would have spent more time speaking to them in a language he already knew rather than learn a language he did not know.

Observers say that Parkyns was quite different from his peers because he felt that western culture was dispensable and could be abandoned for some time. He was sort of a rebel in his society because he did not seek the minor comforts that most Europeans had grown accustomed to.

In fact, Parkyns believed that it was imperative to sleep in natives’ houses so that he could be closer to them and understand them more. Parkyns did not build a tent like other British explorers because this would have distanced him from the people he wanted to know.

To Parkyns, items of civilization and all the importance attached to them were overrated. For six years, Parkyns stayed without wearing any western garment and instead chose to adorn himself with African clothing. He questioned many assumptions and preferences in his society and defied them as evidenced in his life with the Abyssinians and Ailetians.

When living in the latter community, he would sometimes have to hunt for wild game or else face starvation. In order to achieve this, he needed to go to the outdoors and search for them. According to British society, sportsmen often enjoyed outdoor hunting and other activities that Parkyns had engaged in. However, he quickly explained that what he was doing was not a sport but a means of survival. He despised the fact that his people were busy hunting harmless animals when they already had plenty to eat[8].

Parkyns hated the way Britons found joy in terminating a creature’s life. This explorer did not readily prescribe to the ways of life of his people to the African society without questioning it. His views on hunting and many other activities that western society held in high regard meant very little to him.

Parkyns felt that Englishmen were too soft and that life in Africa tends to harden one up. In one of his escapades, Mansfield was pierced by a wooden splinter that was the size of a typical giant nail. He did not stop his activities and only extracted it. The splinter slowed him down for two days and he was soon back on his feet.

Mansfield then remarks that this would have been impossible in his home country because he would have been bedridden for no less than two weeks. He therefore believed that people in England would cause uproar about minor things; an element that was absent in African culture.

Mansfield also despised the manner in which Europeans constantly feared the tropical conditions. These sentiments appeared to be precise because Mansfield was rarely sick. A number of explorers tried to avoid sunlight exposure believing that it would make them ill. Most asserted that it causes headaches and should be avoided at all costs. Parkyns affirmed that this was baseless and continued to stay in the sun without caring much about what would happen; nothing happened to him.

Also, he dared to visit a region that many westerners feared because of their predisposition to tropical diseases. Mansfield contradicted these beliefs by going to Africa and living in areas that had mosquitoes. Nonetheless, he shielded himself from the dangers of malaria by using a series of tactics. As one reads the book ‘Life in Abyssinia’ one realizes that Parkyns was a gallant man.

He did not passively accept beliefs held by his counterparts but was daring enough to discover for himself what really counted in the continent of Africa. He knew that no society should ever be seen in black-and-white and many people can be wrong about something. This was a rebellious man who wanted to show that western culture can be questioned and criticized either verbally or practically as he did.

How Parkyns was similar to his contemporaries

Mansfield wrote down his views on the lives and interactions with the natives but there were certain instances in which his behavior was somehow typical of his native country than the African locals that he was living with. This was because Mansfield was a man like any other. He did not live in a vacuum and he was indeed writing for an audience that took this kind of work seriously.

As one reads the books, one finds that Parkyns calls certain tribes savages. When he witnesses the killing of a Barean, he explains that these people are quite brave and strong but that no amount of civilization would improve such a savage race.

These are very strong sentiments coming from someone who claimed to see things as neutrally as possible. Also, when he lived in “Happy valley”, he harbored thoughts of living among the natives, organizing an army of soldiers, getting them to look for exploits and earning a tax from them. He would be given some sort of rank like that of chief and would improve the lives of those he was living with.

Although Mansfield said this at a time when he wanted to help the locals, there are still certain elements in his fantasies that exemplify imperialist values. Also, when explaining the concept of marriage in Abyssinia, he asserts that no such thing as marriage exists in this land since all it involves is mutual consent. He was describing their social practices against the lens of his own social practices[9].

Since western societies did not permit polygamy and required documentation as proof of marriage, he believed that because the same procedures were not followed in this society then their marriage institutions were not recognizable. All these issues show that he was a product of his society even though he was trying to reform it. Parkyns was very different from his peers but this does not imply that there were no similarities at all between him and other travelers of his time.

Mansfield did not completely loose himself in the culture of the Abyssinians

In as much as Mansfield wanted to get a closer experience of life in Abyssinia by dressing, eating and living like the locals, he still stayed true to his identity as an explorer. For example, when describing the customs of the Abyssinians concerning spirits, omens and spells, Parkyns tries as much as possible to explain the rituals explicitly but he does not loose himself in them. He is clearly skeptical about the practices but he owed it to the Abyssinians to be as fair as possible to them so he gave an explicit account of the practice.

In the book, Parkyns describes the process of demonic possession of a servant girl. In this description, he gives his take on what could have caused the girl to behave in such a peculiar manner. He believed that she was playacting or genuinely wanted to experience the feelings that she was expected to have by members of her society. In order to confirm that the girl had really not participated in some sort of conspiracy or scheme, Mansfield did a series of experiments to test her.

He first tried to pinch her but she did not respond. He brought some ammonia close to her nose such that she would react but she stayed motionless. Furthermore, Mansfield went on to bring some ornaments that would supposedly awaken the spirits in the girl but they did not contain a vital ingredient. Consequently, he would expose her as a cheat if she reacted to them; she disappointed Parkyns by not waking up at all.

She eventually reacted when talisman was found and put near her mouth. The servant girl then commented that the talisman was insufficient and laughed. This laugh is what illustrated that the entire episode was nothing more than a display by the girl. On that same night, a hyena appeared at the end of the village, yet this was a rather unique occurrence.

The villagers were deeply troubled by this hyena claiming that it was the spirit that came out of the girl. Mansfield brushed these assertions aside despite the fact that this choice earned him heavy criticisms from the people around him. Some branded him as a senseless human being. What these accounts illustrated was that Parkyns tried to be as rational as possible in his observations and interactions with the Abyssinians.

In instances where the locals were stubborn in their beliefs about something, Parkyns would try as much as possible to play things down. In other words, he was careful not to be overly confrontational about the locals’ beliefs even when he did not agree with them.

For example, the same girl described in the latter episode still had the same ‘spiritual’ problems. Mansfield decided to humor the people of Abyssinia by making a concoction and exposing her to the smoke. He got some bamboo shoots, paper, a leaf and hair which he had cut off from his dog, although the villagers were not aware of this.

Parkyns won the respect of the natives through such kinds of tactics owing to the fact that he played along and acted in a way that was appropriate in their eyes. This was a man who kept his cool and stayed rational even in environments that were not that rational. Nonetheless, he was not arrogant about his knowledge and when he realized that he could not convince the natives about something, he often behaved in a manner that was expected from him.

Conclusion

“Life in Abyssinia” was a thought provoking and insightful examination of an explorer’s exploits in Africa. The things that make Parkyns different from his peers are his interactions with the locals, a non judgmental attitude towards the natives, his rebelliousness towards his own culture, a respect for the Abyssinians and an incredible ability to treat them like fellow human beings not savages.

These views and approaches caused a lot of excitement and uproar in his own community when he wrote about them in the book. There is no doubt that Mansfield contributions in history will be remembered for many years to come especially in British society since he tried to restore a balance in the European-African imperialist debate.

References

Cumming, Duncan. The Gentleman savage. Essex: Anchor Brendon ltd, 1987

Parkyns, Mansfield. Abyssinia and its people; life in the land of Prester John. 1853

Youngs, Tim. Travelers in Africa. Manchester: Manchester University press

Curtin, Philip. The image of Africa: British ideas and action1780-1850. London: Wisconsin press, 1964

Dalrymple, Alexander. An historical collection of the several voyages and discoveries in the south pacific ocean. London: McMillan, 1770

Winks, Robert. The oxford history of the British Empire. Oxford: OUP, 1999

Blackburn, David. Letters received by Richard Knight 19 March1791, British Museum

Quaife, Milo. The journals of Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant Ordway. Madison: Wisconsin, 1916

Ronda, James. The exploration of North America. Washington: American historical association, 1992

Jackson, Donald. Letters of the Lewis and Clark expedition. 1783-1854. Urbana: Illinois university press. 1978

Jackson, Donald. Letters of the Lewis and Clark expedition. 1783-1854. Urbana: Illinois university press. 1978
Quaife, Milo. The journals of Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant Ordway. Madison: Wisconsin, 1916

Ronda, James. The exploration of North America. Washington: American historical association, 1992

Parkyns, Mansfield. Abyssinia and its people; life in the land of Prester John. 1853
Cumming, Duncan. The Gentleman savage. Essex: Anchor Brendon ltd, 1987
Parkyns, Mansfield. Abyssinia and its people; life in the land of Prester John. 1853
Winks, Robert. The oxford history of the British Empire. Oxford: OUP, 1999
Dalrymple, Alexander. An historical collection of the several voyages and discoveries in the south pacific ocean. London: McMillan, 1770
Parkyns, Mansfield. Abyssinia and its people; life in the land of Prester John. 1853
Youngs, Tim. Travelers in Africa. Manchester: Manchester University press

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