Mansfield Parkyns

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Mansfield Parkyns
Mansfield Parkyns photographed by Camille Silvy in 1861
Mansfield Parkyns photographed by Camille Silvy in 1861
Born(1823-02-16)16 February 1823
Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, England
Died12 January 1894(1894-01-12) (aged 70)
OccupationExplorer, travel writer
GenreTravel writing
Notable worksLife in Abyssinia

Mansfield Parkyns (16 February 1823 – 12 January 1894) was an English traveller, known for his travel book Life in Abyssinia: being notes collected during three years' residence and travels in that country (1853). In this book he described his experiences and observations during three years (1843–1846) travels in Abyssinia, the modern territories of Eritrea and Ethiopia.


Parkyns was born at Ruddington, Nottinghamshire, where his family was well known in local affairs. His mother Charlotte-Mary (née Smith) was from a rising commercial class, while his father Thomas Boultbee Parkyns was from the landed gentry, a younger son of Sir Thomas Parkyns, 3rd Baronet of Bunny Hall. In 1850, Mansfield's older brother Thomas inherited the Parkyns baronetcy from their first cousin, the childless 2nd Baron Rancliffe.[1][2]

As a young boy Parkyns loved wildlife. He also had a formal education to help him develop his talents drawing and painting. In 1833, when Parkyns was only ten years old, his father died. Six months later he was parted from Ruddington to the Leicestershire countryside, where he attended a grammar school at Uppingham in Rutland; however there he was not for a long time because after his mother remarried, he was sent to be educated at Woolwich and at Trinity College, Cambridge. At college Parkyns was very interested in mathematics and he also enjoyed learning Latin. In 1838,when Parkyns was at the age of fifteen, his mother died as well. Later Parkyns was obliged to leave the college for some unknown reasons. He did not finish his education but in 1842, when Parkyns was nineteenth years old, he decided to leave England and start travelling. Parkyns did not tell about his plans to anyone, hence for a long time people did not have any information about him and he was given up for lost.[3]

First travels[edit]

Parkyns spent nine years travelling. From England, he visited Switzerland and Italy; in Greece, he decided to go to the Levant. On Syra, the main island of the Cyclades, he met Richard Monckton Milnes, and they went on together to Istanbul, then to Egypt where they arrived in December 1842.[3]

On 5 March 1843 Parkyns left Cairo alone, bound for Abyssinia. He stayed for over three years, adopting local dress and customs. He abandoned plans to follow the White Nile, and instead travelled in parts of Nubia, Kordofa, and Egypt. He kept a journal which later became the basis of his book.[3]

Life in Abyssinia (1843–1846)[edit]

'An Abyssinian feeding', illustration from Life in Abyssinia

In Abyssinia Parkyns spent over three years which he described in his travel book Life in Abysssinia : being notes collected during three years' residence and travels in that country. The first edition of the book was published in two volumes by the English publisher John Murray in 1853. It was dedicated to Lord Palmerston and made many references and comments on the quite famous Scottish traveller James Bruce who travelled to Abyssinia between the years 1768 and 1773. The second edition of Parkyns' book was published in 1868. The author wrote a completely new introduction which had to do with Abyssinian history and methods of government at a time of the Abyssinian expedition commanded by Robert Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala. In short, Parkyns described the political changes which had occurred after he left the country. He was hoping to offer the Victorian reader "a tolerably accurate idea of Abyssinia and Abyssinians"[4]

Shield and sword, illustration from Life in Abyssinia

The book consists of 33 chapters which are divided in two volumes. Each of them covers different subjects – travel, manners and customs. The first volume describes the journey from the coast to the capital and Parkyns' visit to the northern provinces, encounters with others, learning local languages and gaining new experiences. The second volume describes Abyssinian manners and customs, natural history and Parkyns' route from Adoua to Abou Kharraz on the Blue Nile. In total there are 33 illustrations which Parkyns drew himself by using watercolors. A map at the end of his book shows a part of Abyssinia and a part of Nubia to illustrate the journey of Parkyns.

'Tattooed Lady', illustration from Life in Abyssinia

In the introduction of his book Parkyns stated that it is not a scientific work and neither an entertaining one. He wrote that in this book he has described what he witnessed and experienced during his stay in Abyssinia. Particularly, Parkyns was interested in learning more about the Abyssinian customs but he also very enjoyed exploring more about the natural history. Especially he liked to observe various birds that he had never seen before in Europe. He believed that the best results he can achieve by identifying himself with the natives. Hence as he left Massawa, he decided that he will not try to preserve any European comforts. Throughout his time in Abyssinia, Parkyns did wear only Abyssinian clothes, walked barefoot, even had an Abyssinian hairstyle, and ate whatever was offered to him. In the book he also described his experiences of working as a silversmith for a year in Abyssinia. However, some parts of Parkyns' private life in the book are not mentioned. For instance, Duncan Cumming in his book The Gentlemen Savage(1987) assumes that during Parkyns' stay in Abyssinia he married an Abyssinian woman and even had a son with her.[3] In his book Parkyns offered detailed descriptions of the Abyssinian manners and customs, habits, personal appearance, dress, births and marriages, deaths and funerals, religion, superstitions etc.

Return and later life (1846–1894)[edit]

Parkyns returned to Europe in 1846. Between 1850 and 1852 he was appointed an attaché to the embassy at Constantinople. He came back to England in 1852 and settled down in Nottinghamshire, where he purchased an estate, Woodborough Hall. In 1854 he married Emma Louisa, the daughter of advocate Sir Richard Bethell QC who became Lord Chancellor and was elevated to the peerage as Lord Westbury, by whom Parkyns had eight daughters.[5] Further Parkyns served in the Sherwood Foresters militia, and after a little while he became lieutenant-colonel of the Nottinghamshire Rifle Volunteers. In 1858 he started to work as official assignee in the Court of Bancrupcy at Exeter and later in London.

Parkyns' wife Emma died in 1877. In 1884 Parkyns retired from his job and spent his retirement years at Woodborough, where he enjoyed taking care of a farm and he also did some garden works. In addition, Parkyns was actively involved in the Royal Geographical Society. He was considered to be an excellent linguist as from his travels he had gained an uncommon knowledge in Europe of many of the less known dialects of the Nile Basin and of Western Asia.

Mansfield Parkyns died on 12 January 1894. Like his wife, he was buried in Woodborough church.[6]

Publications by Mansfield Parkyns[edit]


  1. ^ Youngs, T. (1994). Travelers in Africa : British Travelogues, 1850–1900. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  2. ^ Burke, John Bernard (1852). A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire (14th ed.). London: Henry Colburn & Co. p. 823. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d Cumming, D. (1987). The Gentleman Savage: The Life of Mansfield Parkyns, 1823–1894. London: Century Hutchinson
  4. ^ Parkyns, M. (1853). Life in Abyssinia: Being Notes collected during three years’ Residence and Travels in that country. 1st ed. London: John Murray, preface
  5. ^ “Mansfield Parkyns – Obituary 1823–1894”
  6. ^ Parkyns"