Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure 
by Tim Jeal.
Faber, 510 pp., £25, September 2011, 978 0 571 24975 6
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In the final episode of the TV series Joanna Lumley’s Nile, Joanna Lumley stretches out next to the muddy dribble that is apparently the furthest source of the White Nile, deep in the mountains of Rwanda, and muses on the fact that this unimpressive wet patch gives rise to such a mighty river. Indeed, it is surprising. Determining the ‘source’ of a river is, it turns out, not a simple matter. There may be many plausible contenders. You can argue that it is the joining together and accumulation of the water from a number of tributaries that constitutes the ‘source’, not any one of them in particular. This issue gave pause even to Victorian explorers, not usually prone to doubts. ‘What should be called the source of a river?’ Henry Morton Stanley asked. ‘A lake which receives the insignificant rivers flowing into it and discharges all by one great outlet, or the tributaries which the lake collects?’ Stanley favoured the former theory, pointing out that otherwise it would be difficult to know where to stop – perhaps with clouds, and the vapours that composed them?

In the course of twenty years in the mid-19th century a group of British explorers – Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Samuel Baker (with his wife, Florence), Henry Morton Stanley and James Grant – slogged out on their respective expeditions through East and Central Africa, and engaged in an intense and bitter battle over who exactly could claim to have solved the ‘mystery of the Nile’, a mystery that had first gripped Ptolemy. Ancient Egyptian prosperity was built on the annual summer flooding of the river and the fertility produced by its silt. To be so heavily dependent on this miraculous annual event without knowing its ultimate source was a cause of unease for successive generations of rulers. Both the Greeks and the Romans sent expeditions southwards in attempts to locate the river’s origins, but they were halted by the vast swamp of the Sudd in what is now Southern Sudan. The Nile has two main tributaries, which join at Khartoum. The Blue Nile rises in the mountains of Ethiopia and the first European to reach its source was a Spanish Jesuit, Pedro Paez, in 1613. But the White Nile proved more resistant. By the mid-19th century the desire to locate its source was becoming a compulsion.

In 1857 the unhappy couple of Burton and Speke set off inland from Zanzibar. First they tested (and dismissed) the theory that the river originated in Lake Tanganyika. Burton fell desperately sick, leaving Speke to set off north, where there was rumoured to be an even larger lake. In July 1858 he caught his first sight of Nyanza (later renamed Lake Victoria), which he rightly assumed must be the real source of the river. But he did not circumnavigate the lake, and so could not claim to have established beyond doubt that the river emerged from it. In 1860 he returned, accompanied on an expedition by James Grant, to determine that there was, indeed, a major outlet from the northern edge of the lake. But the matter was far from settled, and in 1864 Speke killed himself accidentally during a partridge shoot before he could battle it out with Burton, who had accused him of treachery, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Burton then engaged in a campaign to slander Speke and the mud stuck. Livingstone, meanwhile, obstinately pursued an alternative theory that the river rose further to the west, and died in the process.

The story is well known, and it’s a very British story of class, above everything else. Alan Moorehead told it in his 1960 bestseller, The White Nile; Tim Jeal himself has written hefty biographies of Livingstone and Stanley; and countless others have followed the rich documentary paths of the great white explorers. But Jeal claims that he has made some new discoveries, the most important of which aid in the rehabilitation of Speke. He argues that Speke was not the unscrupulous betrayer that Burton made him out to be, and this can be shown through a careful reading of recently uncovered sources. In fact, W.B. Carnochan argued this in The Sad Story of Burton, Speke and the Nile, or Was John Hanning Speke a Cad? (2006), the existence of which Jeal grudgingly acknowledges (‘a slim volume by a retired American professor’). More interesting is Jeal’s examination of the manuscript of Speke’s journals, the most revealing bits of which were expurgated in the published version.

It turns out that Speke (who had a reputation for being buttoned up and sexually repressed) spent a very pleasant interlude at the court of Kabaka Mutesa of Buganda, flirting with the Queen Mother and giving sex advice to the son of a chief. Eventually he was ‘offered’ two girls. He chose Meri, an 18-year-old who formed part of the Queen Mother’s entourage. Speke found her attractive and pursued her, thereby demonstrating, in Jeal’s eyes at least, that he was not your normal 19th-century racist. But Meri declined his very English request that she accompany him on walks. Like most teenagers she had a habit of ‘lounging in the most indolent manner’. Speke could stand it no longer and spent a night ‘taming the silent shrew’. Jeal acknowledges that this sounds ‘suspiciously like rape’, but we are to remember that Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew, did ultimately go to bed willingly with Petruchio – so not to worry. In the end Speke falls for Meri quite badly and moons around hopelessly trying to get her to reciprocate his feelings. Jeal wants us to feel sorry for him, but women like Meri in the Kabaka’s court were in a vulnerable situation, and it must have been obvious to her that Speke had no intention of marrying her.

In the mid-19th century this region of Africa was being devastated by the East African slave trade, the consequences of which included an almost permanent state of low-level warfare, starvation and the murder of untold numbers of men, women and children. Slaves were exchanged for imported American cloth, but also for the latest in arms technology. When Speke presented himself at the impressive court of the king of Buganda, the Kabaka showed little interest in the silk, the beads, the cutlery and gold chronometer, and went straight for Speke’s offering of firearms instead. The slave trade was conducted largely by Arab-Swahili traders and their African intermediaries. Conveniently forgetting the recent past and adopting a position of righteousness common among the newly converted, the British explorers wrote home describing the horrors of this ‘Arab’ trade in graphic detail. They weren’t insincere, but they weren’t devoid of self-interest either. Then, as today, the humanitarian campaigns to ‘save Africa’ became entwined with strategic political interests and big egos. As Jeal shows, even the ‘saintly’ Livingstone was vulnerable to the attractions of stardom, despite protesting that his purpose in drawing attention to himself was to enable his anti-slavery message to be heard by men in power. Others in this story were less mealy-mouthed. Celebrity culture thrived in mid 19th-century Britain and fed on the exploits of those who penetrated the ‘dark continent’, subjecting themselves to the horrors of tropical disease and tribal warfare. This was a real-life version of I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! Astonishingly large amounts of money were invested by often duplicitous sponsors, unscrupulous newspaper editors vied for the best stories, sex scandals abounded, and sober political judgment was swept away by public hysteria.

Jeal dwells at length on what he calls ‘death-defying quests’, and graphically describes the physical sufferings of the 19th-century explorer. Illness and the vulnerability of the male body are at the heart of this story. Bodies are so wracked by malaria, parasites, dysentery and tropical ulcers that it is truly remarkable that Livingstone was the only one of this group to die on African soil. Jeal wants us to appreciate the suffering but also to set aside our ‘modern penchant’ for calling such men perverse or self-destructive, and to acknowledge that they were driven by Victorian notions of medieval chivalry and the Christian idea of redemption through suffering. He is quite harsh on those who allow their physical frailty to get in the way of the task at hand. Of Burton, who spent several months sick and bedridden near Lake Tanganyika and chose not to travel further, he writes: ‘When the moment of choice had come he had lacked the self-destructive courage and obsessive determination of a true explorer.’

Burton was not the only explorer to have spent long periods being carried by Africans through Africa on a stretcher, and though Jeal makes the usual acknowledgment of the ‘remarkable African porters, guides, translators and servants’, he doesn’t quite capture the complete dependency of the white explorers on African labour and knowledge, and on the Arab-Swahili traders. As the social anthropologist Johannes Fabian argued in Out of Our Minds (2000), the most salient experience of these emissaries of a supposedly superior civilisation (aside from illness and the effects of drink and drugs) was utter helplessness, which sat uncomfortably with their expectation of dominance and self-control, and sometimes drove them to distraction. The explorers’ expeditions were huge convoys of two or three hundred (more if you include the women and children), not unlike the slave caravans of the Arab-Swahili traders but marching in the opposite direction. Although they were technically free rather than enslaved, it isn’t plausible that all the African participants took part willingly and, much to the frustration of the explorers, many absconded. We don’t know how many Africans died in the search for the source of the Nile, either through illness or in the frequent armed conflicts that erupted along the way, but many expeditions returned with half their original number missing. The convoys largely followed the paths forged by the slave traders and depended on their networks of communication. They marched, therefore, through the heart of a conflict zone. Coastal Arab-Swahili and Indian traders had found a lucrative sideline in ‘off the beaten track’ tourism, supplying the venturesome tourists with men, supplies and information, and providing them with refuges along the way. When the British explorers stood and gazed at Lake Tanganyika or Lake Victoria and marvelled at the fact that they were the first white men to see these sights, they knew full well that Arab traders (Africans didn’t count, needless to say) had been there before them. The Orientalist Burton was perfectly at home in the company of Arab traders, but it was painful for Livingstone in particular to acknowledge the need to sleep with the enemy. He often depended entirely on the ministrations of the slave traders or his African servants to feed him, nurse him and carry him. His reluctant conclusion was that not all Arabs were the same.

At various points along the way African chiefs inevitably asked why the source of the river mattered so much. Chief Kazembe clearly didn’t ‘get it’ when he told Livingstone that ‘we let the streams run on, and do not inquire whence they rise or whither they flow.’ ‘What will you do with it? What will be the good of it?’ Chief Commoro asked Baker. Good question. They couldn’t have known that within a couple of decades the dribble of European explorers would turn into a torrent with the Scramble for Africa and that the geopolitical significance of water supplies would play a critical role in the consequent colonial boundary drawing. Jeal is desperate to persuade his readers that the mid 19th-century explorers should not be lumped together with the cut-throat imperialists and greedy capitalists who followed hard on their heels. Disabused of that mistaken idea, and released from our misplaced postcolonial guilt, we are free to follow our natural instincts and admire them. Of course he has a point: Livingstone is not to be confused with Rhodes. But as Jeal himself goes on to show, by the 1870s the blurred lines between exploration and political and economic interests were fast being erased, and some of his heroes were key actors in this process. Baker was back in Africa working for the Khedive of Egypt to extend his political control; Stanley was heavily involved in advancing King Leopold II’s enterprise in the Congo. In his later, rather sober chapters, Jeal undermines his initial argument still further by arguing (somewhat reductively) that the explorers’ role in the campaign against the slave trade and consequent interventions to ‘protect’ Africans ultimately led to the drawing of the border between Sudan and Uganda, which in turn led to disastrous civil wars in both countries.

Judging by the cover of the book and its fulsome endorsements, the ‘great white explorer’ genre has as much of a mass market now as it had in the 19th century, reflecting the continuing grip of empire on the British imagination. Jeal excels at the storytelling, writing in short sharp chapters with suspenseful endings. There are some wonderful moments of madness of the kind that would have made for a Carry On film. In an effort to get Speke on her husband’s side, the wife of John Petherick, the honorary British consul in the Sudan, produces a whole ham for dinner, which she has had brought all the way from England (you can’t get a ham for love or money on the Upper Nile); a Frenchman in Buganda gives Stanley a supper of foie gras and sardines in his tent; tweed jackets and Union Jacks are whipped out in attempts to impress African monarchs. The assumed readership is white and Anglo-Saxon, and quite possibly male. But perhaps I am wrong. Joanna Lumley seems to have had no difficulty in identifying with these chaps and their quest. In the last episode of her series she spends some jolly time in the company of a member of the 2006 Ascend the Nile expedition, which, at vast expense and with the aid of some nifty amphibian vehicles, GPS and some Fortnum and Mason hampers, extended the length of the Nile by some 107 kilometres. Though she doesn’t say so, it wasn’t always plain sailing for this 21st-century version of the great white explorer story. An ambush in Uganda by members of the Lord’s Resistance Army left one man dead.

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