I am teaching African history this semester, which is always a great opportunity to get students thinking internationally and comparatively (of course, I think U.S. history should do the same, but that’s a post for a different day). One of our core texts is Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. First published in London in 1799, Park’s narrative is a classic of world literature and the subject of an equally classic book chapter by Mary Pratt. The archetypical solo European explorer in the African wilderness, or what Pratt calls “the sentimental unhero,” Park was part of a group of international entrepreneurs. Mostly men, they tended to share the same fantasies about “penetrating” the virgin soil of the continental interior. More often than not, they were killed in the attempt (and this forms part of their mystique). In April 1796, Park traveled from the Niger River to the Gambia with a group of 73 merchants, servants, and slaves, and his narrative sheds significant light on the tension between slavery and abolition in this part of the world. He describes the tremendous violence that suffused every aspect of the trade: slaves were whipped, roped, chained, and swapped on a whim. He describes the chaotic scene as the entire coffle itself is nearly captured and enslaved by a rival group. He describes slaves running away and returning, refusing to eat or drink, and forced to march until they collapse. These same slaves give Park water and tend to him when he is sick. It is a truly remarkable, and sometimes downright bizarre snapshot of a particular place and moment.
Doing some research on Park for my class, I was intrigued to learn that he was also a zombie. Returning to Africa in 1805, Park mysteriously disappeared, and the lack of a body or any of his personal effects has fueled speculation ever since. According to this (highly credible) website, locals and other travelers reported zombie-like creatures in the area where he was last seen, “including several white men.” I could not substantiate even a small bit of this story, but it is fun to think about. It tickles me to imagine Mungo Park’s reanimated corpse lurching aimlessly across the African countryside, on a relentless march to nowhere.
However bogus this story, there is a kind of poetic verisimilitude to it. The history of slavery, especially, is rife with zombies. Throughout four centuries of the slave trade, just as European explorers assumed Africans were cannibals, Africans assumed Europeans were terrifying barbarians intent on eating them. Park described the “looks of horror” on West Africans’ faces, as they “repeatedly asked” if he was a devourer of human flesh. The idea was deeply rooted, he observed, “that the whites purchase Negroes for the purpose of devouring them.” Although he doesn’t deal with the undead as such, Vincent Brown argues that the experience of death and rituals of remembrance were central to the lives of enslaved Africans across time and space. The Vodou religion – perhaps the most important influence on the modern zombie myth – was developed by enslaved Africans. The word “Zombi” itself is of African origin. By the end of the eighteenth-century, in the slave society of Saint-Domingue (what is now the Republic of Haiti), zombi was a creole word that evoked fear and trembling, whose meaning implied a “spirit, returning.” By 1872, according to one observer, the word was “not unfrequently heard in the Southern [United] States in nurseries and among the servants.” (I’m sure I’m not the only one on the edge of my seat waiting for Professor Brown to write an article or a monograph on Zombies and Slavery – or a film – the material is out there and this one is ripe for the plucking.)
Zombies seem to be in vogue these days – just add the word to your title and you have the makings of an international bestseller. Fashionably late as usual, even academics are jumping on the zombie bandwagon. Does this say something about our society at this particular moment in time? Anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff point to a growing epidemic of the undead in modern South Africa as one symptom of the seemingly arbitrary disruptions and uncertainties of the global economy. “Zombie tales,” they argue, “dramatize the strangeness” of reality in a rapidly changing world. They are a surreal response to the surreal nature of the modern market, in which wealth seems to be conjured out of thin air and the dispossessed are stripped of any semblance of autonomy or stability. The protagonists of George Romero’s iconic 1978 film Dawn of the Dead literally imprison themselves in a shopping mall. Romero’s 2005 sequel Land of the Dead, in which the undead achieve a rudimentary form of consciousness, is an even more explicit parable about the dangers of inequality, consumerism, and greed.
Is there a connection between the Africans who rendered the slave trader’s effort to commodify them as a form of cannibalism, consuming their flesh and transforming them into a disembodied spirit, and the moviegoer who fears being bitten and transformed into a mindless consumer? Is there something about the digital revolution – the constant recycling, repurposing, mashing up, crowd-sourcing, and homogenizing – that helps us identify with the zombie? Is there something zombie-like in the reanimation of static books and newspapers as interactive, digital editions? Are the homicidal hordes of Black Friday shoppers, stampeding into a store to grab the latest Xbox 360, analogous to the zombie “herds” from The Walking Dead?
Interestingly, Mungo Park was among the first historical subjects to be resurrected from the analog to the digital realm. Way back in 1996, Microsoft established MungoPark.com as a site for “virtual expeditions on the World Wide Web.” The project included a modern retracing, and digital mapping, of Park’s journey through West Africa – a sort of precursor to the much more complex and sophisticated GIS projects of today. The Microsoft explorers did not encounter any reanimated corpses on their quest, but I like to think that Zombie Mungo Park is out there somewhere, relentlessly on the march.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Cory Smoot.