Thursday, January 19, 2012

Antecedents of Empire - The Search for the Nile

For those who love adventure and history. This one is for you.
Explorers of the Nile – The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure
By Tim Jeal , Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011

Although well over fifty books have been written about the European search for the source of the Nile River, beginning with the best selling accounts of the intrepid wanderers themselves in the 1800s, Tim Jeal has added a real treasure to that trove.  While it seems that nothing in the historical literary world is definitive, Explorers of the Nile, currently has the last word. And a different word it is. Neal has done a prodigious amount of research. He hunted down the papers, letters, first drafts of books, including the expunged passages having to do with sex,  and articles written by the explorers, their families, their patrons and publishers.    He found archives stashed in attics, backrooms, town halls and, of course, in collections owned by libraries, museums, the Royal Geographic Society and the government. He filtered through this enormous amount of verbiage aptly tagging prejudices and misinformation in order to arrive at some new understandings about the characters and actions of the key men involved.  Because of the self serving nature of earlier published material and the pettiness and back stabbing that characterized personal accounts, Jeal’s new look at these men and their times is especially illuminating.

The book focuses on the big names: Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant, Stanley and Baker (and Madame).  They were individuals of indomitable spirit. Men and a woman who refused to succumb to the travails of Africa. They suffered unimaginable physical stress – disease, infection, wounds, malnutrition – all compounded by isolation, mental fatigue and the constant threat of violence that morphed into real conflict time and again.  Yet they soldiered on. Only one of the great explorers, Dr. Livingstone, died in the field.  The others managed to survive, mostly attributed to brute force of will. Even so, Jeal points out their foibles as well as strengths. Consequently, these icons come across as real humans consumed, as we all are, with the big and the small. 

Jeal tracks their voyages in the book.  Although there are a few maps, I dug out a more detailed map of East Africa to better trace their footsteps. Jeal’s retelling of their travels uses extensive quotations from their journals.  No doubt he has this correct.  But the value of this new look goes beyond descriptions of the difficulties encountered to provide a solid overview of the region, of why the Arab slave trade was so disruptive, of why the explorers had to rely on these men whose slaving activities they deplored and importantly of why and how British patrons, politicians and the public viewed their exploits.    Jeal too gives long overdue credit to the African men – guides, headmen, interpreters, servants and porters who made the safaris reality. 

Jeal’s new look burnishes the soiled reputation of John Hanning Speke, the first European to see the source of the Nile where it exits Lake Victoria.  (As an aside, the British colonial era monument placed at the site stating that Speke was the “first man” to see the source of the Nile was dismantled shortly after independence accompanied by the thought that African men had seen the sight for centuries.)  Readers of previous explorer books will remember that Burton, who refused to accompany Speke on his northward trek to discover Lake Victoria, impugned Speke’s character and denied his claim.  Since Speke died in a hunting accident shortly after his return to England, he could never defend himself against Burton’s spurious allegations.  But Jeal does. His study of both Speke’s and Burton’s correspondence and journals prove that Speke was maligned. Similarly Jeal rehabilitates the reputation of Samuel and Florence Baker which had been tarnished by their criticism of John Petherick, the British agent in southern Sudan who failed to support them as ordered.   Petherick, however, was a connected aristocrat whereas the Bakers (not even married at the time) were lower class.  Indeed one of the values of Jeal’s book is that he deals forthrightly with class issues – something that was, of course, avoided in the nineteenth century.

After elucidating the discoveries of the various parts of the Nile basin, the book takes a hard look at what  that meant for subsequent developments in the region.  Jeal  notes that the British imperial necessity to secure the upper Nile played out to the detriment both of Uganda and Sudan with disastrous consequences for their peoples a hundred years later.  Arbitrary borders were the crux of the problem.  He posits that the inclusion of Nilotic tribes in a modern Ugandan state preordained the conflict under Obote and Amin that devastated the nation.  Similarly, the inclusion of Equatoria into a larger Sudan and then half measured development of the south under British suzerainty precipitated the chaos of the Sudanese civil war.  He suggests – and would be the first to admit that retrospect is a fine platform – that had more Afro centric policies been pursued that much of this conflict could have been avoided.    

In sum, this is an excellent book. It retells the stories in a new light and provides insight into the motives of all concerned. Importantly it portrays events in the light of their times, but with the benefit of retrospective from our era.  It’s strongly recommended. 

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