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Book review: Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and the Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, by Tim Jeal

Though Tim Jeal follows a well-trodden path, his book on the African river includes new insights

By Bernard Porter  /  The Guardian, London

Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and the Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure, by Tim Jeal

It started with a quest to solve the “greatest geographical mystery” of the age. It ended, more than a century later — and if you follow the rather narrow logic of this book — with ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The “mystery” was the source of the Nile, which had exercised Europeans and Egyptians ever since Ptolemy in the second century.

It was this that drew Tim Jeal’s protagonists — Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, Samuel Baker, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley — to central Africa in the 1850s and 1860s; together, of course, with the allure of the fame that being the first to crack the riddle would bring. On their way they were shocked by the atrocious slave raiding they found there, provoking a campaign against it that came to bear some of the attributes of a literal crusade — the slave traders were mostly Muslim Arabs — and later colonialism, ostensibly to protect the Africans but with exploiters and “great power” ambitions also muscling in. It was this that gave rise to the drawing of Sudan’s present artificial border with Uganda, which has caused such an “incalculable amount of suffering” in all these countries in modern times. That’s the final link to Darfur.

The first part of the story has been told often before: hagiographically in contemporary books and memoirs; classically in Alan Moorhead’s The White Nile (1960); and more recently in Jeal’s own biographies of Livingstone (1973) and Stanley (2007), which he draws on heavily here. These two books offered revisionist assessments of both their subjects, the first pulling the missionary Livingstone down a little, the second making some interesting excuses for the usually excoriated Stanley, one of which was that he deliberately exaggerated his own bloodthirstiness in order to satisfy his American newspaper readership. This book does much the same for Burton and Speke, originally travel companions who came to loathe each other as a result of various imagined slights and betrayals. They also disagreed on the question of the “source.”

The battle between them should have come to a head at a meeting of the British Association in September 1864, had not Speke killed himself the day before on a partridge shoot. It was almost certainly accidental, but Burton hinted that Speke had taken his own life, scared of the confrontation. In fact Speke had been right about the source of the Nile, and was the one who should have been awarded the palm for discovering it; but his reputation never recovered from Burton’s slanders. Jeal puts this right, puffing Speke and demolishing Burton — not an echt explorer, he thinks. Baker also comes out of this account badly, being mainly responsible, in Jeal’s view, for the switch from humanitarian protection to a more formal and brutal kind of imperialism in the 1880s and 1990s.

Jeal is right to insist that this stage should not be confused with the earlier, more “innocent,” one, when most of Africa’s explorers were motivated not by greed or the urge to control, but by simple curiosity, competitiveness, and the desire to pit their bodies and minds against the appalling hardships that African travel at that time involved.

Most European explorers suffered terribly, and many died horrible deaths. At least one had his genitals cut off first. But this only spurred the others on. Jeal wonders whether the Christian doctrine of “redemption through suffering” might have had something to do with it. Others might suspect an over-developed machismo, were it not for the several women who went out there too. Jeal restores these to the picture — Baker’s wife Florence, for example; and also the contributions of their hundreds of African and Arab guides, translators and porters, without whom the Europeans would have got nowhere at all. Often they were carried by them. (Isn’t that cheating?).

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