At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to Ali Ibn Haj’ Fatoudi, emir of Ludamar. The year was 1795. George III was dabbing the walls of Buckingham Palace with his own excrement, the Notables were botching things in France, Goya was deaf, DeQuincey a depraved pre-adolescent. George Bryan “Beau” Brummell was smoothing down his first starched collar, young Ludwig van Beethoven, beetle-browed and twenty-four, was wowing them in Vienna with his Piano Concerto No. 2, and Ned Rise was drinking Strip-Me-Naked with Nan Punt and Sally Sebum at the Pig & Pox Tavern in Maiden Lane.

Ali was a Moor. He sat cross-legged on a damask pillow and scrutinized the pale puckered nates with the air of an epicure examining a fly in his vichyssoise. His voice was like sand. “Turn over,” he said. Mungo was a Scotsman. He knelt on a reed mat, trousers around his knees, and glanced over his shoulder at Ali. He was looking for the Niger River. “Turn over,” Ali repeated. While Mungo was congenial and quick-to-please, his Arabic was somewhat sketchy. When he failed to respond a second time, Dassoud—Ali’s henchman and human jackal—stepped forward with a lash comprised of the caudal appendages of half a dozen wildebeests. The tufted tails cut the air, beating on high like the wings of angels. The temperature outside Ali’s tent was 127° Fahrenheit. The tent was a warp and woof affair, constructed of thread spun from the hair of goats. Inside it was 112°. The lash fell. Mungo turned over.

Here he was white too: white as sheets and blizzards. Ali and his circle were astonished all over again. “His mother dipped him in milk,” someone said. “Count his fingers and toes!” shouted another. Women and children crowded the tent’s entrance, goats bleated, camels coughed and coupled, someone was hawking figs. A hundred voices intertwined like a congeries of footpaths, walks, lowroads and highroads— which one to take?—and all in Arabic, mystifying, rapid, harsh, the language of the Prophet. “La-la-la-la-la!” a woman shrieked. The others took it up, an excoriating falsetto. “La-la-la-la-la!” Mungo’s penis, also white, shrank into his body.

Beyond the blank wall of the tent was the camp at Benowm, Ali’s winter residence. Three hundred parched and blistered miles beyond that lay the north bank of the River Niger, a river no European had ever laid eyes upon. Not that Europeans weren’t interested. Herodotus was exercised about its course five centuries Before Christ. Big, he concluded. But tributary to the Nile. El Edrisi populated its banks with strange and mythical creatures—the vermicular Strapfeet, who crawled rather than walked and spoke the language of serpents, the sphinx and harpy, the mantichore with its lion’s torso and scorpion’s tail and its nasty predilection for human flesh. Pliny the Elder painted it gold and christened it black, and Alexander’s scouts inflamed him with tales of the river of rivers where lords and ladies sat in gardens of lotus and drank from cups of hammered gold. And now, at the end of the Age of Enlightenment and the beginning of the Age of Imbursement, France wanted the Niger, Britain wanted it, Holland, Portugal, and Denmark. According to the most recent and reliable information—Ptolemy’s Geography—the Niger lay between Nigritia, land of the blacks, and the Great Desert. As it turned out, Ptolemy was right on target. But no one had yet been able to survive the sear blast of the Sahara or the rank fever-belt of the Gambia to bear him out.

Then, in 1788, a group of distinguished geographers, botanists, philanderers and other seekers after the truth, met at the St. Alban’s Tavern, Pall Mall, to form the African Association. Their purpose was to open up Africa to exploration. North Africa was a piece of cake. They had it staked out, mapped, labeled, dissected and distributed by 1790. But West Africa remained a mystery. At the heart of the mystery was the Niger. In its inaugural year the Association commissioned an expedition headed up by John Ledyard. He was to begin in Egypt, traverse the Sahara, and discover the course of the Niger. Ledyard was an American. He played the violin and suffered from strabismus. He’d been across the Pacific with Cook, into the Andes, through Siberia to Yakutsk on foot. I’ve tramped the world under my feet, he said, laughed at fear, derided danger. Through hordes of savages, over parching deserts, the freezing north, the everlasting ice and stormy seas have I passed without harm. How good is my God! Two weeks after landing at Cairo he died of dysentery. Simon Lucas, Oriental interpreter for the Court of St. James, was next. He landed at Tripoli, hiked 100 miles into the desert, developed blisters, thirst and anxiety, and returned without accomplishing anything other than the expenditure of £ 1250. And then there was Major Daniel Houghton. He was an Irishman, bankrupt, fifty-two years of age. He knew nothing of Africa whatever, but he came cheap. I’ll do it for three-hunnert pund, he said. And a case o’ Scots whisky. Houghton sallied up the Gambia in a dugout canoe, drank from fetid puddles and ate monkey meat, and through sheer grit and force of intoxication survived typhus, malaria, loiasis, leprosy and spotted fever. Unfortunately, the Moors of Ludamar stripped him naked and staked him out on the crest of a dune. Where he died.

Mungo stood to hitch up his pants. Dassoud knocked him down. The ululations of the women were fanning the crowd to a frenzy. “Eat pig, Christian,” they shouted. “Eat pig.” Mungo didn’t like their attitude. Nor did he like exposing his prat in mixed company. But there was nothing to be done about it: they’d cut his throat and bleach his bones at the least show of resistance.

Suddenly Dassoud had a dirk in his hand: narrow as an icepick, dark as blood. “Infidel dog!” he shrieked, veins tessellating his throat. Ali watched from behind the folds of his burnoose, dark and impassive. The temperature inside the tent rose to 120°. The crowd held its breath. Then Dassoud leveled the blade at the explorer, gibbering all the while, like some rabid anatomist lecturing on the eccentricities of the human form. The point of the blade drew closer, Ali spat in the sand, Dassoud exhorted the crowd, Mungo froze. Then the blade pricked him — ever so lightly — down below, where he was softest, and whitest. Dassoud laughed like a brook gone dry. The crowd whistled and shrieked. It was then that a grizzled Bushreen with spittle in his beard and an empty eye-socket burst through the press to push Dassoud aside. “The eyes!” he howled.

“Look at the devil’s eyes!”

Dassoud looked. The sadistic gloat gave way to a look of horror and indignation. “The eyes of a cat,” he hissed. “We must put them out.”