Escapades into the heart of Africa

2012-02-15 00:00

THE search for the source of the Nile is a familiar-enough topic in books dealing with Victorian history but, as Tim Jeal points out, the last book devoted exclusively to the subject was Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile published in 1960.

As the biographer of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, Jeal is the ideal candidate for an update incorporating subsequent research, and here his two previous subjects team up with Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Grant, Samuel Baker and his lover, and later wife, Florence van Sass — the six men and one women who risked their lives to find the source of the Nile.

Subtitled The Triumph and the Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure , there is precious little of the former and much of the latter. Quite apart from disease, wounds and death, even the triumphs tended to diminish on return to England, where rivalries and feuds broke out over who found what.

But the real tragedy that casts a pall over the whole endeavour is the Arab-Swahili slave trade. Ironically, it was the Arab slavers and their African business partners who first forged paths into the African interior, and the explorers frequently found themselves reliant on men they otherwise despised.

Livingstone saw the publicity given to his travels as a way of exposing the evils of the trade he vehemently opposed. Speke was equally vocal in his opposition, while Stanley, travelling in the Congo in the 1880s, was horrified by what he witnessed.

According to Jeal: “At this time half a million people were being displaced or enslaved annually in central Africa.”

A key aspect of the book is Jeal’s rehabilitation of Speke. Speke’s sudden death on the eve of his much-publicised “debate” with Burton left the way open for Burton and his wife Isabel to manipulate the facts for posterity (and Burton’s many biographers), but Jeal’s examination of the primary source material (some of it for the first time) effectively rebuts Burton’s various calumnies and evasions.

Jeal also acknowledges the skills and bravery of the many Arab and African guides, veterans such as Sidi Mubarak Bombay who travelled with Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant and Stanley. But the book’s real coup is to continue the story up to the present day, thus demonstrating how the explorations of the past unwittingly led to the imperial interventions that sowed the seeds for tragedies of the future in the Congo, Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan.

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