Nestling in the grounds of the Natural History Museum in Dublin, on a lawn in front of the much-loved Dead Zoo, is the statue of an Irish surgeon. On a bronze plaque on the pedestal is depicted the image of two men in what might appear to be an intimate moment. In fact one is a surgeon and he is in the act of sucking poison from an arrow wound in the chest of the other.
The man doing the sucking (one hesitates to describe him as a ‘sucker’) is an Irish physician named Thomas H.Parke. The ‘suckee’, who survived to tell the tale of how he might well have died from a native African arrow in August 1887, was one Captain William Stairs. Both men were, at the time, employed on an expedition by the notorious explorer, adventurer, colonizer and opportunist William Morton Stanley, the man reputed to have uttered the immortal words ‘Dr. Livingstone I presume’ and who then proceeded to rape much of central Africa at the behest of genocidal European monarchs like King Leopold of Belgium.
Thomas H. Parke was born in Clogher House in Kilmore, Co. Roscommon, in 1857 and brought up mostly in Carrick on Shannon in Co. Leitrim. He attended the College of Surgeons in Dublin and joined the British Army as a medical officer in 1881. Much of his military career was spent in Africa. He served in Egypt and was with the column that belatedly fought its way to the non-relief of the ill-fated and already deceased General Gordon in Khartoum in 1885.
But it was his association with Stanley that brought him fame and a modicum of fortune – though not from his boss. He enlisted as medical officer on one of Stanley’s infamous ventures – the so-called Relief of Emin Pasha Expedition. It was part of the fallout of the Gordon debacle and emanated from pressure on the British government not to repeat the delay in sending assistance to the beleaguered Gordon in Sudan.
When Parke offered his services they were, at first, rejected. But he was quickly taken on anyway under not very generous terms. He was to receive an allowance of £40 for the purchase of suitable clothing, £15 for medical supplies and no pay for three years. Stanley recorded at the time that Parke was ‘an extremely handsome young gentleman, diffident somewhat, but extremely prepossessing’. Parke also had to sign a non-disclosure clause. There was to be no best-selling memoir until six months after the official report of the expedition was published. In other words he was to remain silent until Stanley had taken all the credit for any successes and made a small fortune from publishing his account of the expedition.
Parke didn’t have an easy time of it. There was an early outbreak of smallpox which he had to deal with. Then there was the matter of his accommodation. This he shared with the twelve wives of an Arab expeditionary Tippu-Tib. He appears to have had difficulty in tactfully pointing out to their doubtless adoring husband that the standards of hygiene in his harem might have been higher. The expedition spent 33 months in the African interior, during which time Parke reckoned – in the memoir he was eventually permitted to write – that each of the Europeans experienced at least 150 attacks of malaria. So he was a busy man.
He must also have been conscious that, although he had the distinction of being the first Irishman to traverse the continent of Africa, he was also travelling through a region where the native population, in times of need, were prone to the practice known as ‘facultative anthropophagy’ – in other words, to you and me, they were cannibals. Attacks on the expedition were regular and many members were lost to disease and military action.
During his three years in the interior Parke purchased a pygmy girl – not the sort of thing they’re used to in Roscommon. She helped him through his own frequent bouts of malaria but the relationship, whatever its precise nature, ended when he was forced to leave her in the forest as her eyes were unable to adapt to the sunlight of the coastal regions.
Stanley thought very highly indeed of Parke – somewhat of a mixed blessing, as, no doubt, did the man whose life he saved in 1887, William Stairs. He did get to publish a memoir after returning home. The snappily titled My personal experiences in Equatorial Africa, was published in 1891. The more influential A Guide to Health in Africa followed shortly after.
They did, by the way, find Emin Pasha, a German physician, who apparently was getting on just fine thank you and didn’t need to be rescued. Stanley sold 150,000 copies of his memoirs before he came under fire for presiding over the deaths of hundreds of his men in yet another spurious ‘smash and grab’ effort in Africa.
Parke did not long outlive the end of the expedition. He died in 1893 and is buried in Drumsna in Co.Leitrim.
Thomas H.Parke, surgeon, soldier and naturalist was born 158 years ago, on this day.
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