Thomas Heazle Parke (1857-93)

Few of those involved in the expansion of Europe into Africa were Irish-born, but one who achieved celebrity for his exploits was Thomas Parke (1857-93), whose family were well-to-do farmers in Co. Roscommon. After a medical training in Dublin and a short civil medical career, Parke entered the British army as a surgeon-captain in 1881.  For the next five years he was based in Egypt and the Sudan and had a colourful career there. 
Then in 1887 he volunteered to accompany a large private expedition into central Africa intended to rescue an embattled Swiss doctor and naturalist (‘Emin Pasha’), who was nominally the governor of the far south-west of Sudan.  The area was beyond the military control of the European powers, and the expedition was mounted as by Henry Stanley, at that stage the most famous explorer of inner Africa. It was funded by wealthy Scottish backers. 
The motives for the expedition were mixed and murky, but Parke was a young, resourceful and observant traveller who survived the grueling three years in the forests of the far north-east of what later became the Belgian Congo, and across the uplands of Rwanda and the Rwenzori mountains (Parke and his colleague Arthur Jephson were the first Europeans to see this alpine massif at the heart of Africa). Parke showed exceptional leadership qualities during the expedition and he saved the lives of many of the Europeans and some of the Zanzibari and Congolese porters by his inventive treatments.
The expedition was the last of the private ventures probing inland Africa.  It was overtaken by state-directed initiatives by Germany, Britain and France. But at the time it was deemed a heroic success despite chaotic errors and the heavy loss of life, and the story of Emin Pasha’s ‘rescue’ attracted huge publicity in Europe and America.  Initially this was entirely thanks to Stanley and his best-seller Into darkest Africa in 1890, but Parke gained celebrity when his journal (My personal experiences of Equatorial Africa) was published in 1891, followed by his more prosaic Guide to health in Africa in 1893.  His journal, while echoing much of the Social Darwinism of the time, is often more precise in detail than Stanley’s account and documents the close human bond that Parke had built up with a Pygmy woman of the forest. However we now know that both these works were drafted and edited by his Dublin friend and former tutor John Knott.
Parke died suddenly in 1893, possibly a result of the lingering effects of his travels.  A statue was erected three years later outside the Natural History Museum to honour his exploits and his medical prowess.  His expedition had helped settle the terms of the scramble for central Africa, and it may also have unintentionally spread a devastating cattle disease into the region.


Further information:  Parke’s journals can be read online here

See also The diary of A. J. Mounteney Jephson: Emin Pasha relief expedition, 1887–1889, ed. D. Middleton, Hakluyt Society, extra ser., 40 (1969); ODNB; DIB. The standard biography is:  ·J. B. Lyons, Surgeon-Major Parke's African journey, 1887–89 (Dublin, 1994)