As the Eighteenth Century drew to a close, European explorers turned their gaze toward one of the world's last great unexplored regions: the heart of Africa. Though colonizing Europeans had been visiting coastal villages and establishing forts in Africa for over 300 years, little was known of the interior of the Dark Continent. Prior exploration attempts had been undone by disease, hostile tribes and large swaths of dense, unmapped jungle. But these obstacles only whetted the appetites of European explorers hoping to become the first white men to ford the River Niger, look upon the legendary city of Timbuktu, or walk the streets of Tellem, a city on the Niger said to be built entirely of gold.
One such intrepid soul was Mungo Park, a Scottish physician who had been bitten by the exploring bug while in his twenties. In 1795, Park, with the support of England's Africa Society, set off in search of the Niger and the fabled city of Tellem. Park and his team of 30 men sailed down the east coast of Africa to the mouth of the River Gambia, where the English had established a fort. After a trip down the Gambia and an overland trek through dense jungle, the team reached the Niger. By then, however, Park had run out of money and was forced to return to England without finding Tellem.
Park spent the next decade raising funds and organizing a team for a second expedition to Tellem. Finally, in 1805, the Scotsmen embarked from England, fully confident in his mission's success. Park and his team returned to the Niger, where they piled into canoes and paddled south in search of Tellem. None of them were ever heard from again.
A 1795 map shows
Park's route up the
Gambia to the Niger
Park's disappearance was big news back in England, where the public had developed a fascination with explorations in Africa. A rescue mission was quickly put together under the direction of Africa Society director Joseph Langley. Langley and his team traced Park's route, sailing up the Gambia and crossing the jungle to get to the Niger. At the end of the second day on the river, the team paddled around a bend and laid eyes on the legendary city of Tellem.
The village of Tellem
in a 1930 photo
In his 1808 account of the mission, Dark River, Langley recalls his team's disappointment upon finding that, far from being a city of gold, Tellem was a small village constructed of mud. As the team drifted closer, they saw dozens of Africans emerging from their homes and walking towards them with a peculiar, stiff-legged gait. In his account of the trip, Langley remembers being initially heartened by the sight of the villagers: "They wore brightly-colored garments and the broadest of smiles." But as he got closer, Langley realized that what he had mistaken for smiles were actually the grimaces of flesh-hungry zombies: the entire village had been transformed. Langley ordered an immediate retreat, but the canoes became swamped in the rapids. As the voracious zombies waded into the river, Langley was swept into the current and carried several miles downriver. He eventually reached a friendly village; the villagers took him to the mouth of the Niger, where he was picked up by a British ship.
Sir Joseph Langley
Though Langley had gone further into Africa than any white man before him, he found himself the subject of scorn upon his return to London, where his zombie story was derided as a self-serving excuse for a failure in leadership. However, later accounts from the Asante tribes of East Africa lent support to Langley's account. Denkyira, the Asante king, informed the English garrison in Gambia that he had led a raid on Tellem and destroyed many zombies, including several white men. The king presented the garrison commander with the clothes and personal effects of these men. Among the items was Park's diary, with its ominous last entry: "Tomorrow, we should reach Tellem, a city that has haunted my dreams since I was a child. I cannot sleep for the excitement."