Explorers of the Nile – Tim Jeal (Part 1)

[Note. This covers Part 1 of the book, which deals with the explorers who had some success in mapping the upper reaches of the Nile. It doesn’t cover Part 2 (roughly a quarter of the book) for reasons I go into in the last entry.]

25 September 2012
Introduction and Chapters 1-7…
… which cover just over a quarter of the book. In the Introduction Tim Jeal’s main point is to put paid to the misconception that the exploration of central Africa was one big land-grab. That came later, once the maps had been drawn. The explorers in this book were interested, he says, in exploration for its own sake. Quotations from their letters and books describe a kind of obsession to be in Africa, and of a sense of pointlessness and depression on their return. ‘Out in the forests you are the man among your surroundings.’ Or ‘I ask myself “Why?” and the only echo is, “Damned fool!… The Devil drives.”’ Ok, up to a point. But what we soon learn about these men is how unreliable they are. They might be scrupulous in their mapping and reporting of ethnography (or whatever), but when it comes to motivation – their own and that of others – they seem neither to know nor care. It strikes me that for many of them the main motivation is competitive: if you can make big enough claims of success you get not only fame but the funding for another expedition. And the funding comes from a desire to achieve the Holy Grail of African exploration: discovering the source of the Nile.

This was an aspiration going back to the time of the Roman Empire: an exploratory party had been sent in Classical times, and Ptolemy had created a famous map. In the early 19th Century attempts to sail up the Nile had always failed near Sudu, where the river is entirely marsh-land and papyrus reed-beds. But Arab traders – with the main commodity being slaves – reported lakes and rivers far south of this point which could well be the head-waters of the Nile. These traders approached from East Africa, and this is where the British explorations of the 1850s began. The process eventually took something like 20 years, from 1856-1876 and involved a lot of different men.

Chapter 1 is really a continuation of the Introduction, a stand-alone example from right in the middle of this 20-year period. An expedition by David Livingstone between 1866 and 1870 illustrates some of the unimaginable things that these men put themselves through and some of the implications of what they were doing. Amongst the appalling conditions and thigh-deep mud there is a passage in which Livingstone describes, in the most matter-of-fact terms, how he would use twine and a pistol-butt in place of a hammer to extract his own molars. But at the heart of this chapter is the moral dimension. Livingstone is described as a highly principled man – he will not have any dealings with slave-traders – but this expedition seems to prove to him that it is impossible to keep to the moral high ground in Africa. He has to acquire more porters and a canoe from one particular trader, whose men he later sees perpetrating a massacre of Africans, mainly women at a market. ‘Who could accompany [these] people… and be free from blood-guiltiness?… The open murder of hundreds of women fills me with unspeakable horror.’ Four years into the expedition, and tantalisingly close to his objective, he has to give up. Jeal leaves him dodging spears on his way through ‘a dense and impenetrable forest….’

Chapters 2-7 are another stand-alone story, covering an expedition led by Richard Burton, assisted by ‘Jack’ Speke. It’s a disaster. Jeal’s main motive appears to be to put the record straight about these two men. He refers, among other books, to five biographies of Burton and one of Speke, all of which perpetuate the myth that Speke did the dirty on Burton, taking credit for many of the expedition’s achievements and ensuring that he could lead his own expedition with a partner of his choosing. In Jeal’s presentation of the two men Burton is a womaniser, a chancer and determined to undermine Speke’s achievements at every opportunity. In fact they have complementary skills, and the expedition should have been a success. Burton is the linguist and ethnographer – albeit one who detests all Africans as lazy, feckless savages – whereas Speke is practical, and skilled in navigation by astronomical observation. When all three of their chronometers are ruined through lack of care – which, presumably, is Burton’s fault – only Speke’s detailed plotting of the positions of the moon and stars allows them to chart their discoveries accurately.

They don’t make many discoveries in the two years of exploration. Both men are often ill, especially Burton, who spends three-quarters of it having to be carried. Burton has almost decided at the beginning that the source is probably the river running north from Lake Tanganyika, so that’s the way they head. But when they get there they are given reliable information that the river is running into the lake, not out of it; and its elevation at around 2,000 feet is too low. It’s been a wild goose chase. On the way back Burton continues to be ill, so Speke volunteers to check out the lake about 200 miles north of a town where they stop. This is Lake Nyanza (later to be named Victoria), and Speke’s short expedition is promising enough for him to want to return soon: The lake is vast, although he only reaches the edge of it, and there are reliable accounts of a river flowing from it to the north. And, at 4,000 feet, it could plausibly be the source.

From the success of this detour comes all their subsequent woe. In England before Burton, Speke presents a report to the Royal Geographical Society (the RGA). But Burton later alleges that Speke had promised not to report to them before he could recover sufficiently to sail home too. Jeal presents this as an outright lie, while also showing that Speke made no attempt to take credit for any work but his own. But by the time Burton arrives in London the RGA has decided that the most useful lead was discovered by Speke and has promised funding for the expedition he wants. Burton, mortified, decides to present this as a betrayal and begins the process of vilifying his former subordinate. He goes back on admissions he made previously – about, for instance, the value of Speke’s astronomical calculations – and, if we are to believe Jeal, the smears have blighted Speke’s reputation ever since.

But sometimes it’s possible for a writer to protest too much, and I wonder who Jeal is writing for. This is a popular history, and most of his readers – like me – will know nothing of these disputed allegations… and yet it seems that on every page Jeal has to show us Burton falling short in some way or belittling Speke’s achievements. I tested this by opening the book on two random pages. On page 67 we see Speke’s disgust at the way ‘licentious’ men look at a near-naked woman; Burton, in Jeal’s loaded phrase, ‘gazed with detachment’ as, in Burton’s words, the line of slaves ‘stood like beasts.’ On page 79 we have Burton wilfully not offering to help Speke by noting down his lunar observations for him – which would have saved a great deal of time and effort – because, in Jeal’s words, he ‘seems to have been scared to place himself in any situation in which Speke might show superior aptitude.’ Further down the same page we get Burton pretending that this ‘celestial observation’ was less important than his own ethnographical work anyway. So, yes: two random pages, and Burton being second-rate three times. Special pleading on Jeal’s part? I couldn’t possibly comment.

26 September
Chapters 8-14
These chapters cover Speke’s second and final expedition, and I’m finding it hard to read. It’s partly to do with the fact that short periods of feverish activity are separated by a lot of waiting: in the 90 or so pages I’ve read since I last wrote only a few sections are genuinely interesting or offer anything new. But I’m also getting tired of the company, and I don’t only mean the explorers. I mean Jeal himself. While he’s never politically incorrect – he’s keen to praise his white men for any fair-minded treatment of Africans – he forgives the occasional lapse. We are invited to be understanding of Speke’s momentary failure when, driven to distraction by the stress of weeks of waiting, he punches his most faithful factotum three times for refusing to carry out a stupid order; Grant orders an African boy to be given 20 lashes for a minor infringement, but he was tired, poor thing. And in pursuing his own theories Jeal carries on being as determined to score points and belittle the views of his rivals as any of the men he describes.

He carries on redressing the balance that has left Speke with such a bad reputation – and we discover that the Burton-Speke expedition was only the beginning of Speke’s troubles. After we’ve followed him and Grant for months, as they have to deal with tricky slave-traders and recalcitrant tribal chiefs, we get this: ‘Speke’s ability to negotiate calmly, often for weeks at a time, with a succession of chiefs who clearly wanted to rob him of everything, was remarkable. This, coupled with his unceasing efforts – in the face of serious illness – to keep his caravan together and find new porters (walking many hundreds of miles in the process) marked him out as a great explorer.’ There you have it. Aside from the serial inelegancies of Jeal’s style, this is a paragraph that could have been written by an apologist in the 19th Century. (Later, when Speke behaves badly and starts handing out unfair criticism, Jeal lays a lot of the blame on someone else. I’ll come back to that.)

Chapter 8 takes Speke and his new partner Grant close to the Nyanza lake. They skirt around it so that they don’t have to encounter the tribes – or, more significantly, the chiefs of the tribes – who live near it. They’ve been travelling for over a year now, and it’s become clear what African exploration is all about. We know about the sort of hardships they have to undergo: Speke has made himself deaf in one ear while trying to remove a beetle that seems to be eating his eardrum; Grant is suffering from a painful and debilitating infection in his leg and, ‘although he did not know it, months of suffering lay ahead’. But the biggest problem – and, really, this is exactly how it’s presented in the book – is the indigenous population. There are appalling stories of how other men have been murdered, the most recent having had his genitals set on fire before being stabbed to death. (Don’t we armchair explorers love these little details?) But what really slows our boys, sometimes to a standstill lasting months, is the greed of the tribal chiefs. Jeal is happy to describe as ‘extortion’ the so-called taxes the chiefs charge for having these white men cross their lands. This, combined with threats of violence that lead to successive mass desertions by the guides and bearers, makes forward progress almost impossible.

And so it goes on. Tribal wars, often provoked or complicated by the activities of the traders in slaves or ivory, make the going endlessly tortuous. One chief delays them for three months, insisting on having the precious clothing Speke had intended for the African prince who would soon be in his way. But, finally, Speke is given permission to enter this territory of the best-organised tribal society in the whole region, the Baganda tribe. (Grant is incapacitated by his leg infection and can’t accompany him.) It becomes the most lurid of Jeal’s traveller’s tales, complete with tight hierarchical society with its own torturers and executioners, the arbitrary justice meted out by its prince, Mutesa, and Speke’s discovery of – can it be? – true love. Well, can it be? Jeal decides it is, and cites it as evidence that Speke is not the cold fish his enemies present him as. He certainly found the African woman attractive, probably had sex with her, fantasised (supposedly) about a life with her. Case proven, obviously.

The visit extends, through a combination of the comfortableness of the existence and Mutesa’s stubborn refusal to let him go to the outlet from the lake, to over four months. Grant arrives, still not fully recovered – hang on to that fact for a moment – and, at last, they move on. But Jeal keeps dropping hints of future problems. Speke, by skirting the lake so far, has no actual proof of its being a single stretch of water and not several smaller ones. (The testimony of many Arab traders will count for nothing at home.) People will allege that he deliberately excluded Grant from the expedition to the falls which, he thinks are the source of the Nile. (He didn’t: Grant was too incapacitated.) And we know, because Jeal dropped a broad hint about it at the beginning of the expedition, that his planned meeting with a man called Petherick, sailing up the Nile, is going to be fraught with problems. He keeps reminding us as they press on, missing out crucial points of observation in their hurry to meet him.

The man they meet at the agreed station is Baker. He turns out, in Jeal’s presentation of him, to have his own agenda – and to have no qualms about squeezing Petherick out of the scheme. He has plenty of money, can offer boats and equipment for a final short expedition to tie up a loose end – and Petherick hasn’t arrived yet. Baker – Jeal is determined to present him as the man who manoeuvred Speke into a mistaken course of action – does not explain the difficulties Petherick has faced, and Jeal begins to let us know that this is all going to cause another big row in England. Speke chooses Baker and, when they do arrive only five days later, both Petherick and his wife are mortified by Speke’s treatment of them. And so on.

Once he’s back in England Speke gets more things wrong. He decides – based, Jeal insists, on advice he received after his first expedition – to write and publish a book before he presents his findings to the RGA. This takes months, and the president of the RGA becomes more and more exasperated, especially when the final paper is so brief as to feel like an insult. Meanwhile, Burton is back in town, and the only thing Jeal wants to tell us about him is his determination to cast doubt on all Speke’s findings. He enlists the help not only of the armchair explorers – the ones Speke hates so much – but of Livingstone himself. What’s a man to do? If the RGA aren’t going to recommend him to the British government for funds – it’s looking doubtful – he’ll go to France to see if he can raise money there. He’s always liked the French. Could it get any worse?

What do you think? Jeal has already let us know that Speke isn’t long for this world, and the title of the last chapter about him confirms it: ‘Death in the Afternoon’. But we’re not there yet, and Burton has been doing his best to trample Speke’s reputation for weeks before it happens, in exactly the ways Jeal has led us to expect. He magnifies any gaps or inconsistencies in Speke’s book, while ignoring any difficulties there are in his own Tanganyika theory – and it’s in support of this that he enlists the help of Livingstone. There’s to be a debate between Speke and Burton in Bath, and they attend a preliminary on-stage event the day before, scrupulously ignoring each other. Speke goes for some shooting – and accidentally kills himself. Jeal is careful to lay before us all the evidence that it must have been accidental, and it’s convincing enough for me.

Which leaves Burton, who really does seem as awful as Jeal has been telling us. He almost gloats over Speke’s death and pretends Speke had killed himself because he didn’t want to face him in debate. Burton spends the next few months further trashing the dead man’s reputation, as when he and a co-writer present Speke’s account of his time with the Baganda women as a kind of prurience verging on perversion. Meanwhile he puts forward theories of his own that he knows to be highly suspect. He seems willing to do anything to gain publicity and a book contract.

I’m half-way through the book, and so far the discoveries have been thin. I’m left wondering why anybody would be interested in these people and their second-rate squabbles. There are wonderful little nuggets here and there, but as I said, it isn’t easy to read.

I think my problem with the book comes down to the way Tim Jeal invites us to judge these explorers on the men’s own terms, and in terms of a mid-Victorian mind-set. That’s the problem I was having with that paragraph I quoted, the one ending in Jeal’s pronouncement that Speke was a ‘great explorer’. He was brave, enterprising, more humane than many others at the time, and had a genuine belief that Africans needed to be brought out of their violent and self-destructive tribalism through contact with Christianity. (At the time of his death he was attempting to fund projects combining exploration with the education of Africans.) All Jeal’s efforts so far have been to prove just this: that in 19th Century terms, Speke was a success, not the failure he has been presented as.

But what about the Africans? And, for that matter, what about the ‘Arabs’, presented as an undifferentiated band of violent and devious slavers treating Africans as cattle? Throughout the first half of the book it’s a given that the white men are better than this, and it’s easy to go along with Jeal’s presentation of the ‘Arabs’ as the evil face of the interfering, exploitative outsider. Compared to them, the British at this time – Jeal has warned us in his Introduction not to confuse their project with the land-grab that came later – were idealistic, seeking no more than personal glory.

However…. Jeal is writing in the 21st Century, not the 19th. Despite this, he seems not to want to engage with the longer historical perspective so his presentation of the adventure, with the ‘Arabs’ as the bad guys and the Africans merely an obstacle with their incessant wars and greedy chieftains, is highly problematic. The political correctness of his presentation of Africans doesn’t free his narrative of the tacit message that the white men were right: these black men needed to be civilised for their own sakes. The justice dispensed in Mutesa’s court is arbitrary and cruel, and Jeal makes sure we know all about it by detailing the atrocities. So Speke seeks to educate him to bring him out of the darkness, yes? Don’t be ridiculous. He needs to bargain with him, and offers what he knows will impress this conceited and power-conscious man: guns and ammunition.

The combination of arrogance and thoughtlessness is mind-boggling, but Jeal makes nothing of the way it proves the explorer’s missionary zeal to be a long way behind his main aim. Speke will do anything, including putting powerful weapons in the hands of a tyrant, to get what he wants from him. Jeal tells us Speke is distressed when Mutesa orders a boy to go out and shoot somebody. What did he expect? He hadn’t thought it through because he didn’t care enough – and, once he’s left the settlement, neither he nor Jeal cares to draw attention to the havoc Mutesa will be able to wreak with the weapons. These explores left a big footprint that Jeal chooses not to write about. If any of them are killed by Africans, it’s the fault of those pesky Arab traders, spoiling it for everyone. He doesn’t ask whose fault it might be that a man in Mutesa’s court is randomly shot by a boy because, in Jeal’s presentation of them, the white men were the good guys.

In the 21st Century we recognise that it’s the essence of the colonial mind-set to see any indigenous peoples as obstacles to progress. In other countries, where population densities were thinner or the going was easier, this is exactly how it had been seen for generations, and the aboriginal peoples were swept aside. Our explorers didn’t do this, of course, and while they might treat their porters like children they were often scrupulous in their avoidance of bloodshed. But seeing the source of the Nile as no more than a conundrum to be solved in spite of local tribesmen and the delicate politics of their interrelationships – a subject Jeal never touches on – is the arrogance of the white man. In Jeal’s eyes, it’s just unlucky for the Africans that they get in the way of the more developed societies – ‘ Arab’ and European – who trample on their territory.

I’m beginning to think I should give up reading this book and seek out an African version of what was going on. It might be as partial as Jeal’s book, but at least its partiality might be in a different direction, and presented from a less archaic viewpoint.

29 September 2012
Chapters 15-17
Chapter 15 covers the efforts of Murchison, the RGA president, to persuade Livingstone to join in the search for the Nile. Livingstone had always previously had other aims in view, including a genuine desire to help and educate Africans, and do something about the slave trade. (Livingstone, despite having been recruited by Burton as a critic of Speke’s findings, hated almost everything about Burton, including his imperious racism.) In the end Murchison persuades him by pretending he’s about to offer the chance to someone else, and to couch it in terms of an opportunity to make a stand against the slave trade. Jeal reminds us – he first let us know in Chapter 1 – that Livingstone is on his way to ‘endure great suffering and a tragic fate’. On his way to Suez he just misses another man on his return journey, ‘to receive a nation’s acclaim and a knighthood.’

This is Samuel Baker, and the two-chapter account of his expedition is a catalogue of the worst aspects of African exploration. Speke and Grant had given Baker his big clue as to where to look next after he had persuaded them to stick with him rather than Petherick. Grant regrets this bitterly after Baker’s triumphant return – and after Baker, making absurdly extravagant claims for his project, does all he can to diminish Speke and Grant’s achievement. (Murchison suspects this is what Baker is doing, but Baker is charismatic, uses his recent marriage to the woman who has been his mistress on the expedition to his own triumphant advantage, and is just what the RGA needs in order to raise both its public profile and a lot more cash.)

Baker is serially unscrupulous. His behaviour on his return is what you’d expect from someone who had been willing to fall in with whichever slave-traders could offer him protection, and say whatever is necessary to tribal chiefs to get his way. If the slave-trader needs to stop and commit a few atrocities for a few months, well, Baker will settle down and plant some food crops with the woman he will later pretend was his wife all along. Both Baker and his mistress really do come very close to death from malaria and other fevers, and a 21st Century reader can only wonder at their resilience. But… my God, this man was a shit.

As I was reading, one particular half-page seemed to sum it up. ‘The arrival of “the Turks”… – largely thanks to Baker – had been a harmful development. But without Ibrahim’s help, Baker knew he would not have been able to make his great discovery. And… Ibrahim was again about to be indispensable.’ Ibrahim is one of the so-called Turks, the slave-trader who is so useful to Baker. Later on the same page we hear of how Baker describes one chief, quite falsely, as ‘cruel, cowardly and devious; and this caricature would stick to him and his successor, with the disastrous consequence that they would be mistrusted and disliked by the British Colonial Office.’ The chief had outmanoeuvred him, and Baker didn’t like it. So he ruined any chances he might ever have with Britain.

I’ve had enough of Baker, except for one last thing: in order to toady his way into Murchison’s favour he names a spectacular waterfall after him – a piece of transparent flattery that works like a charm. Give me strength.

7 February 2013
Chapters 18-22
It’s four months or more since I last opened this book, and reading these chapters reminded me why. We have Livingstone’s last expedition, which includes the experiences that Jeal used in Chapter 1 to give a flavour of the horrors these men put themselves through. His death is as hideous as you could hope for, bleeding anally from a blood-clot in his intestine and suffering pain that must have been – how does Jeal put it? – ‘excruciating’. We also have our introduction to another one of these extraordinary men, John Rowlands – aka Henry Morton Stanley. That ‘aka’ is worth a chapter in itself, but not just this minute. First we need to get Livingstone out there again, convinced that this time, this time….

Livingstone is the best of them. He’s a self-made man, a former cotton-worker who saved enough money to put himself through medical school. He hates slavery, but can see that Christian missionaries are never going to change the majority of Africans. What is needed is an opening up of trade, so that they will see that the white men will be able to offer a lifestyle which will put an end to the need for strings of wives and huge numbers of children. He hated to have to rely on the Arab traders, although he did when all else failed, and treated his African men far better than most. Ok.

He was convinced that he knew where the source was eventually going to be found, concentrated in an area further south than most others thought, and… was not having any success. He was let down by those who were supposed to be sending supplies – one John Kirk seems to have got it particularly wrong, but there were probably others – and he hit what Jeal calls his annus horribilis (see Chapter 1). What he could really do with seeing, after three years of this, would be a white face bearing good news….

Jeal puts him on hold while he tells us about Stanley. Born of uncaring parents in Wales, he eventually got himself to the USA, still in his teens, and began his reinvention of himself: new name and, eventually, fighting on the wrong side in the Civil War, capture, fighting on the right side, desertion, brief return to Britain, re-enlistment in the US Navy…. None of this made the biographies later, of course. Instead he invented a history for himself, in which he had been adopted in the US. At one stage it became useful to pretend to be American, and this stuck, making it very difficult later when his family in Wales wanted to claim him. When a biography was being prepared he wrote to The Times that nothing that certain people said was to be believed. He often regretted being regarded as an American for other reasons… but I’m jumping the gun.

He was always fascinated by the stories of the African explorers. He tried leading an expedition to India and China, but got no further than Turkey. It was in England on the way back to the States that he first spoke of his wish to search for Livingstone, who had not been heard of for months. This sounded like fantasy. He did eventually get to Africa through becoming a writer for the New York Herald, and a lot of pushing. Jeal tells us that all he craved was fame but, to stay in the big man’s good books, he later pretended the Herald’s rich owner, James Gordon Bennett, suggested the Livingstone idea. (Stanley’s climb to fame involved a lot of pretending.) Re

In fact, back in the US, he used some early journalistic experience to become a reporter on the Indian Wars in Nebraska, then suggested he report on a punitive British expedition to Ethiopia. He bribed a telegraph man to file his report so far ahead of the competition it’s like something from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. From this he managed to persuade Bennett that even Americans – not usually interested in African exploration – would buy into the idea of a search for Livingstone. Bennett delayed things a year, so that Livingstone hadn’t been heard of for eighteen months by the time Stanley got his wish. From workhouse child – that’s where his parents allowed him to be in Wales – to… what?

He found Livingstone mainly through sheer luck. Stanley had to borrow £1000 from the consul in Zanzibar to pay for enough supplies and bearers, because Bennett’s promised money didn’t appear. He wouldn’t get any of this back if he didn’t find the great man, so failure would mean ruin. (It’s typical of Stanley that he pretended he had £4000, to build up the status of his own project. This meant that later his achievement seemed less impressive than it really was.) Jeal writes of Stanley’s ‘slender’ chance of finding Livingstone. Nobody really knew which direction he had gone in – there were various possibilities for sources of the Nile to the south and east of Lake Tanganyika – and he had planned to be somewhere else entirely. Maybe so – but, contrary to his own plans, he had turned back to Ujiji and that’s where he was as Stanley approached. He feared that the dour Scot, famously dismissive of other explorers, would reject his offer of help. He dressed carefully for the meeting and, afterwards, invented the famous line, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume,’ because he thought its understatement would impress the English. In fact he was mocked for his lack of warmth. But that came later.

In Ujiji things couldn’t have gone better for Stanley. Livingstone was recovering from the many diseases he’d contracted on his recent expedition, and he had time to become, as Stanley saw it, like a father to him. They went on a month-long expedition together, discovering that a particular river ran into Lake Tanganyika rather than out of it, ruling out that lake as a source of the Nile. (Burton, back in England, refused to retract his own theory. But Burton is the villain of this book whenever he appears.) They made other discoveries about relative altitudes of different bodies of water, but I can never follow the explanations, and Jeal deliberately keeps his maps sketchy, as they were at the time.

Livingstone’s next long expedition was to be to the swamp-ridden Lake Bangweulu, further south than any other explorer had ventured – I mention the swamps because they are what killed Livingstone in the end, and I’ll come back to that – while Stanley was to make his way back to the coast. His journey was less fraught by hostile Africans and tribal wars than his journey to the interior – Stanley turned out to be vary capable at this sort of thing, and gained a high reputation amongst the Africans working for him – and soon he’d be back in England and, he thought, the fame he’d been seeking.

Hah. His story was rubbished, the RGA wanted nothing to do with him, the armchair explorers weren’t interested in – spit – an American. A lot of it was down to individuals – for instance, Stanley was rude about someone who was an intimate of the new head of the RGA – so at first he wasn’t given the necessary platform. But he had Livingstone’s journals with him and, eventually, Livingstone’s high opinion of him started to come out…. So Stanley was able to write his book and became as famous as anyone could wish. This is when his awkward self-reinvention came back to haunt him, but he managed to get through all that.

Jeal needs to get back to Livingstone’s final journey, and it only takes a single miserable chapter. One of his chronometers, unknown to him, was damaged and unreliable. It’s what killed him in the end, because he began to doubt his other instruments and never had an accurate picture of where he was. He spent – how long? Weeks? Months? – in the swamps around Lake Bangweulu, and those who knew him also knew that swamp country always had the worst effect on his health. At this point in the book we don’t even know if he was on the right track anyway, because Jeal never tells us. Is Bangweulu the source of the Nile? How should I know? Anyway, he soldiered on, having to resort, eventually, to being carried in a sort of cot. He was sure that God would not allow him to fail in his final push – for the four years since he left Britain he was in daily contact with his Maker – and right up to the day before his death he was still making plans for the next section of the journey. When they found his body he was in a praying position.

Is that enough of Livingstone? He was the fairest of all the explorers, genuinely wanted to see an end to the slave trade, and thought he was doing God’s work in opening up the interior of the continent. His report on the massacre in the slave market covered in Chapter 1 was the single most important piece of evidence to bring about a British ban on the export of slaves from Africa. It was the threat of a British bombardment on Zanzibar that closed it as a centre of the trade in 1873, the year of Livingstone’s death.

9 February
Chapters 23-24 – to the end of Part 1
This is as far as I’m going with this book for now. It isn’t all Jeal’s fault, although some of it is… I just find it all too distressing to read. It’s bad enough when we’re getting the unnecessary deaths caused by well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) adventurers. But Part 1 ends with an agonisingly ominous meeting on a railway station, brought about by Leopold I of Belgium, in which Stanley is going to be offered financing for a project to open up the Congo. It was to become possibly the worst instance of European colonialism in Africa – Jeal quotes a letter in which Leopold refers to getting a slice of the ‘African pie’ – and it’s the only one I’ve read anything about recently, in Tim Butcher’s Blood River. Part 2 of this book consists of 100-odd pages of ‘Consequences’ and I don’t think I can bear it.

However, there’s Part 1 to finish off. It’s about the two aspects of Stanley that have been slugging it out for over a century to gain prominence in the collective memory. Jeal does that thing where he takes a reputation and does his best to put the record straight. On the one hand, Stanley is the man who, according to Jeal, solved the enigma in a journey that can only be described as epic. Speke had been right – the source of the Nile is the outflow from the Victoria Nyanza, and you can fight over the lengths of rivers flowing into that lake if you want to – and Livingstone’s fervent hope that the source was around Lake Bangweulu was unfounded. The river flowing out of that lake eventually becomes the Lualaba, which feeds – wait for it – the Congo. So Stanley had proved Speke right about something else: he’d gauged, correctly, that the watershed is in the mountainous region west of Lake Tanganyika.

Along with a journey down the Congo – the one commemorated by Tim Butcher in Blood River –which also made Stanley the first white man to cross the continent from east to west, his achievements stand far above almost everyone who came before. But… there’s that other aspect of Stanley, reducing it forever in the estimation of the public. Stanley reluctantly had to fight his way past some pretty hostile tribes. He didn’t want to, but if he and his men were to survive they sometimes had to shoot it out. That’s not unusual at all in the sorry tale of African exploration – but Stanley, as so often before, gauged it wrong. Instead of doing what other explorers did – Jeal quotes Gordon, later of Khartoum, on this – that is to keep quiet about it, Stanley made his skirmishes into part of the adventure he wrote about. In one instance the regrettable shooting of a single African became the deaths of ten men who could only defend themselves with spears. A later battle, in which Stanley’s party could only save themselves by killing over thirty Africans, would have been left unreported by any other writer.

This is Jeal, doing his best to judge one of these men not by our own standards, but by the standards that applied at the time. It’s what I’ve found slippery about this book all along: Stanley, in the terms Jeal wants to apply, is a great explorer. End of story. Any qualms a modern reader might have about the ethics of what he was doing – all these explorations, including those by the almost saintly Livingstone, always resulted in the deaths of dozens of Africans – have to be put on hold. Jeal never simply glosses over the numbers, but they are covered in a sentence here or there, while the main business of the explorers’ heroism (or internecine squabbles, or lust for fame or whatever) form the real substance of the narrative. It’s the single thing I find most difficult to deal with while reading the book.

Anyway, Stanley. He was good at what he did – who’d have thought it of the gung-ho self-publicist of a decade or so previously? – and the Africans and others in his parties were willing to sign up for further expeditions with him. But it was that pesky ‘lifelong insecurity’ of his – that’s Jeal’s phrase – that always made him try to big up his own achievement with tales of the battles he’d had to fight. If only he’d known how to spin it right, he wouldn’t be saddled with the reputation of being trigger-happy and careless with regard to the lives of Africans who got in his way. In fact, according to Jeal, he cared for them far more than most….

Talking of spin. There’s a coda to that early internecine squabble between Burton and his more competent subordinate, Speke. Instead of coming out and admitting that Speke had got it right about the Victoria Nyanza as soon as Stanley had established it as the source, he said nothing. Six years later, in an aside in a book dealing with something else, he refers to an old pet theory of his that hadn’t been right. He never, ever, admitted that he had been wrong and had been unjust to Speke. Boo, hiss. (The last chapter, at the end of Part 2, deals with the surprising fact that before this book, there had been no re-evaluation of the explorers’ achievements since a seminal text of 1960, Alan Moorehead’s The White Nile. That’s why Jeal feels he has to keep putting the record straight.)

What else? I’ve given no details of Stanley’s extraordinary journey down the Congo, including one horrific moment when one of his most trusted African helpers, the former slave Kalulu, was swept by fast-flowing water into the maelstrom below in a boat full of men. Or that in order to do what he did, Stanley had no choice but to deal with Tippu Tip, one of the Arab traders. It’s a given in this book that these men were the bad guys in this story, and that the white men hated doing business with them. While the white men were doing their best to – to do what? You decide – the Arabs, as presented here, had no motive but the most cynical exploitation imaginable.

Jeal is probably right (although how would I know?) but that isn’t the point. It’s another aspect of that slippery relativism you get in this book. Richard Burton was self-serving and ungenerous towards an admirable colleague, Samuel Baker was serially unscrupulous, even Stanley’s early motive was only fame – but at least they weren’t slave traders. That’s all right, then. If they trampled over some delicate tribal ecosystems and warped the dynamics of inter-tribal relations with gifts of guns, well, they didn’t have the benefit of our kind of knowledge. Come on, guys, it was ‘the last flowering of the spirit of adventure’ before the governments got involved, as Jeal asserts in the Introduction. Let’s not worry too much that the mind-set of the explorers might not have been as different from that of the governments who followed them into central Africa as Jeal likes to imply.


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