Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

by Tim Jeal
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Yale University Press


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Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

Nothing obsessed explorers of the mid-nineteenth century more than the quest to discover the source of the White Nile. It was the planet's most elusive secret, the prize coveted above all others. Between 1856 and 1876, six larger-than-life men and one extraordinary woman accepted the challenge. Showing extreme courage and resilience, Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Samuel Baker, Florence von Sass, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley risked their lives and reputations in the fierce competition. Award-winning author Tim Jeal deploys fascinating new research to provide a vivid tableau of the unmapped "Dark Continent," its jungle deprivations, and the courage—as well as malicious tactics—of the explorers.

On multiple forays launched into east and central Africa, the travelers passed through almost impenetrable terrain and suffered the ravages of flesh-eating ulcers, paralysis, malaria, deep spear wounds, and even death. They discovered Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria and became the first white people to encounter the kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro. Jeal weaves the story with authentic new detail and examines the tragic unintended legacy of the Nile search that still casts a long shadow over the people of Uganda and Sudan.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300149357
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2011
Pages: 528
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)

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Explorers of the Nile

The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure


Copyright © 2011 Tim Jeal
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17827-2

Chapter One

Blood in God's River

* * *

In March 1866, David Livingstone, wearing his trademark peaked cap, landed at Mikindani Bay on the East African coast and strode inland followed by thirty-five porters and a bizarre assortment of baggage animals, consisting of four buffaloes, six camels, four donkeys and six mules. The day was fiercely hot, and Dr Livingstone and his polyglot following of coastal Africans, Indian sepoys and mission-educated freed slaves were soon struggling along a valley choked with rank grass that towered above their heads and made them feel as if they were being smothered. By a characteristic piece of bad luck, the doctor had chanced to step ashore at one of the few points on the coast where dense jungle stretched far into the interior. Soon the undergrowth became thicker, and his men were obliged to use their axes to hack a path wide enough for the swaying camels to negotiate. Within hours the overloaded animals were being bitten by tsetse fly. As they weakened and slowed, the porters beat them to restore their energy. When Livingstone objected, the first mutinous voices were raised against him. His troubles were just beginning.

Just over a year earlier – despite being a decade or more older than his principal rivals – the 53-year-old medical missionary turned explorer had been commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society, the world's principal sponsor of exploration, to do nothing less extraordinary than solve the planet's greatest remaining geographical mystery by finding the River Nile's headwaters. In recent years, other explorers, notably John Speke, Richard Burton and Samuel Baker, had claimed to have reached the river's source, or at least one of its main reservoirs; but there was no consensus among geographers about whether any had proved his case. So Sir Roderick Murchison, the elderly President of the RGS, had decided in Livingstone's self-approving phrase, 'to take the true scientific way of settling the matter' by inviting him 'to ascertain the watershed'. Had Sir Roderick chosen anyone else, Dr Livingstone, who prided himself on travelling 'beyond every other man's line of things', would have thought it anything but 'the true scientific way'. In fairness to him, no other explorer had spent anything approaching his twenty-one years in Africa, nor come close to overhauling the vast mileage he had tramped.

But while he had never suffered from false modesty, Livingstone, who had started life as a child factory worker in a Scottish textile mill and had lived in a single tenement room with his parents and four siblings, had not taken his selection for granted. The affluent members of the RGS were a snobbish crowd, who thought former Nonconformist missionaries socially infra dig – even should one of them miraculously qualify as a medical doctor – so Dr Livingstone had been touched by Sir Roderick's loyalty. Although the two men had been friends for a decade, and Murchison had backed the doctor's epic trans-Africa journey – the first crossing of the continent by a European – Livingstone was painfully conscious that the fame and adulation he had enjoyed in the 1850s had not survived the deaths and disasters of his more recent Zambezi Expedition. His objective on that later occasion had been to prove that European traders and missionaries could navigate the Zambezi in steamships, and live and work safely near the Victoria Falls – 'discovered' by him in 1855. But despite an immense expenditure of money, time and effort, this ill-starred expedition had merely underlined the complete impracticability of its aims. The Zambezi – far from being, as he had promised it would be, 'God's Highway' into the interior 'for Christianity and commerce' – had turned out to be a malarial maze of shifting sandbanks leading to a chain of cataracts, whose local name 'Kebrabassa', meaning 'where the work ends', had proved to be cruelly apt. As disillusion had turned to anger, most of Livingstone's expedition colleagues had either resigned or quarrelled with him in public. Several died of malaria, as had his wife, Mary, along with five missionaries, two of their wives and three of their children. Even more disastrous in the eyes of the press, had been the death of the first Anglican bishop ever to make south central Africa his field of work, due entirely to Dr Livingstone's passionate appeal to him to come out there.

After his triumphant crossing of Africa, Livingstone had been lauded in the press not simply as a sublime explorer, but as a great missionary, 'a saintly and truly apostolic preacher of Christian truth'. In the aftermath of the Zambezi Expedition, 'saintly' was the last adjective likely to be applied to him by any journalist. But if anything could help the doctor to atone for past failures, it was going to be an enterprise demanding extremes of selflessness and courage, as the Nile search undoubtedly would. The fact that he might very well die in Africa, if he accepted Murchison's invitation, had not tempered his eagerness to say yes. In truth, finding the source meant more to him than the restoration of his reputation – desirable though that undoubtedly was. Despite possessing many human weaknesses – and vanity was not the least – David Livingstone loved Africa and Africans, and saw his geographical quest as offering an unrepeatable chance to serve the continent and its people.

'Men may think I covet fame,' he told a friend, '[but] the Nile sources are valuable only as a means of enabling me to open my mouth with power among men. It is this power which I hope to apply to remedy an enormous evil.' The 'evil' was the East African slave trade, which was then being energetically expanded by the coastal Arab-Swahili and by the Portuguese colonists of Mozambique. But if Livingstone could survive, and return as the discoverer of the Nile's source, he believed his agenda would be adopted by politicians with the consequence being a naval blockade of the East African coast and the closure of Zanzibar's slave market. Yet Livingstone's obsession with the Nile had other dimensions: such as its historical and scriptural significance.

'For more than sixteen hundred years,' he told his elder daughter, Agnes, 'Emperors, Kings, Philosophers – all the great men of antiquity – longed to know whence flowed the famous river and longed in vain.' But the Biblical resonance of the search impressed him even more than its antiquity: 'An eager desire to discover any evidence of the great Moses having visited these parts bound me, spell bound me, I may say, for if I can bring to light anything to confirm the Sacred Oracles, I shall not grudge one whit all the labour expended.' As he explained to Agnes, if success were finally to be his: '[I will have] shown myself a worthy servant of Him who has endowed me to be an explorer.' Such a confirmation of his usefulness to God would put worldly fame in the shade.

In June 1870, over four years after leaving the coast, Livingstone was at the very centre of Africa in the tiny village of Mamohela, which, as the crow flew, was about a thousand miles both from the east coast and from the west. Never had he felt so close to achieving his goal: 'I had a strong presentiment during the first three years that I should never live through the enterprise, but it weakened as I came near the end of the journey.' He made this astonishingly self-confident statement about nearing the completion of his work, despite just having taken a year to travel 250 miles to Mamohela from the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. But now, he believed, the delays and disappointments were over. Only fifty miles lay between him and the banks of a mighty river, which local people called the Lualaba. Its width, they said, was two miles or more, and it was studded with tree-covered islands. Livingstone was tantalised. Because of its size and its location at the heart of Africa, and because it was said to flow north for hundreds of miles, it had to be the Nile. The only alternative was the Congo. But this seemed most unlikely. The 200 miles of the Congo, which had to-date been navigated from the Atlantic, had taken explorers not south-east, but north-east, away from the river on which he hoped to embark. So unless the Congo changed course completely, it could have no connection with the Lualaba.

Two years before, Livingstone had been exploring in an area 500 miles to the south of his present position, and had investigated a hitherto 'undiscovered' lake (Bangweulu), from which he was sure the Lualaba rose. 'The discovery [of the Nile's source] is unquestionably mine,' he had informed Agnes at the time. Now, in order to prove that the Lualaba really was what he said it was, he needed to trace it downstream all the way to the Sudan and Egypt – a journey of more than 5,000 miles. But once he had bought canoes and was paddling down the river, the current would do much of the work. So what could stop him now, when he longed with every fibre of his being to finish his work? A lot as it happened.

In June 1870, just as he expected his problems to decline, they multiplied. All African explorers depended upon porters to carry the trade goods they needed in order to buy food and pay tolls to pass through the territories of individual chiefs. Indeed, without these goods, a traveller in Africa died, or, if he wished to go anywhere, was compelled to depend upon the charity of Arab-Swahili slave traders, who were most unlikely to be going just where he wanted. By mid-1870, most of Livingstone's original thirty-five porters, and all of the further twenty-four he had recruited in the interior, had died or deserted. So dependence on Arabs seemed inevitable.

On 26 June, he entered in his journal: 'With only three attendants, Susi, Chuma and Gardner, I started off to the northwest for the Lualaba.' He had been reduced to this pathetic number, because, on that same day, six of the nine men, who had been with him till then, had deserted, taking most of his trade goods with them. But fifty miles was not far, so perhaps he would be able to manage this distance with his three 'faithfuls', and without Arab help.

In the opening days of his journey, he was surprised to find local people friendly, although he was passing close to villages which Arab-Swahili slave traders had burned. It was the rainy season, and many streams flowed into the path he was travelling along, making it resemble a small river. A species of palm with long thick leaf-stalks had colonised the valley he now entered, obliging him to follow a track created by elephant and buffalo. In consequence, he and his men often fell into elephants' footprints up to their thighs. The going was so rough that Livingstone, a keen naturalist, was unable to write descriptions of the many birds and monkeys he was seeing for the first time.

Caught in the open, for hours on end, in drenching rain, he was obliged each evening to strip off his clothes, and dry them by a smoky fire in whatever hut he had managed to beg from villagers for himself and his men. Another bout of pneumonia, like one he had suffered eighteen months earlier, would very likely be the end of him. Malaria had prostrated him many times, but now he was more worried about his worsening bowel and digestive problems. Whenever his food was coarse, as it was at present, his piles bled heavily. His damaged teeth made so little impression on green maize and elephant meat that his stomach was left with too much to do. The result was constant heartburn. Many of his molars were so loose that he was obliged to perform extractions, employing 'a strong thread with what sailors call a clovehitch', and then 'striking the thread with a heavy pistol'.

After a few days of independent travel, he was struggling to progress at all, and fell in with some slave traders, who suspected that he was only in Manyema to spy on them. Livingstone parted with beads and cloth from his depleted store, and obtained the assistance of additional porters, as well as their leaders' grudging consent to his accompanying them. 'They hated me,' he admitted, 'and tried to get away ... I however kept up, and on the fourth day passed through nine villages destroyed by the worthies, who did not wish me to see more of their work.' One of these Arabs was stabbed to death in the night by a local African in revenge for the enslavement of his relatives. Fortunately, at this point, Livingstone met up with Muhammad Bogharib, a less brutal slave trader, with whom he had often travelled in the past. Bogharib warned him that he would never reach the Lualaba by heading north-west. Instead he should swing south-west to allow for a loop in the river.

Livingstone did his best to follow Bogharib westward, but thick mud made each step an ordeal. When he was not slipping and falling in the rain, he was fording small rivers, 'neck deep'. In many places 'trees had fallen across the path forming a breast-high wall, which had to be climbed over'. Ahead, the whole country was flooded. Livingstone pressed on for a few more days, but then, in mid-July, he wrote despairingly in his journal: 'For the first time in my life my feet failed me ... Instead of healing quietly as heretofore, when torn by hard travel, irritable eating ulcers fastened on both feet.' He blamed his inability ever to dry his shoes. Having only three attendants, Livingstone knew there was no question of his being carried. So he had no choice but to limp back to Bambarre (Kabambare), the nearest significant Manyema town, which was also an Arab-Swahili slave-trading depot. He arrived there on 22 July 1870, numb with misery at his failure to reach the river.

For weeks the pain of his ulcers kept him awake at night, as did 'the wailing of slaves tortured with these sores'. The ulcers, he noted, 'eat through everything – muscle, tendon and bone, and often lame permanently if they do not kill'. With good reason he feared he might never recover. When placing either foot on the ground, 'a discharge of bloody ichor [sic] flowed'. The Arabs used crushed malachite to treat ulcers, or a salve of beeswax and sulphate of copper. The malachite, though it did not cure him, after many applications seemed at least to contain the spread of the sores.

This was an Arab settlement. So, hating the slave trade as much as he did, it was cruelly ironic that Livingstone should have to remain on affable terms with slavers, who routinely murdered anyone resisting enslavement. Forty Manyema were killed one day, nine another, a hundred the day after that. And so it went on. Often Livingstone saw smoke curling above burning villages, and heard distant shots. His one consolation was the thought that his written descriptions of the mayhem might one day compel the British government to act against the trade. The heartlessness of it provoked some of his most haunting descriptions, written while he was immobilised in Bambarre, close to many recently captured men, women and children. 'The strangest disease I have seen in this country seems really to be broken-heartedness, and it attacks free men who have been captured and made slaves.' He questioned many captives who were wasting away, apparently without physical cause. 'They ascribed their only pain to the heart, and placed a hand correctly on the spot, though many think that organ stands high up under the breast bone.'

Livingstone's ability to be the friend of a man like Muhammad Bogharib owed a lot to his realisation that Arab treatment of domestic slaves was relatively mild. So, while the process by which Africans were torn from their homes was unspeakably brutal, and although they endured terrible suffering on their land and sea journeys to Zanzibar and the Gulf, Livingstone saw mitigation in the fact that their treatment on arrival was often better than that meted out to workers in British factories. His explanation of this paradox was that the Arabs were not yet thoroughly dominated by the profit motive – as were the plantation owners of the American Deep South. 'When society advances, wants multiply; and to supply these, the slaves' lot becomes harder. The distance between master and man increases as the lust of gain is developed.'


Excerpted from Explorers of the Nile by TIM JEAL Copyright © 2011 by Tim Jeal. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Plates xiii

Maps xvii

Introduction 1

Part I Solving the Mystery

1 Blood In God's River 13

2 A Great Misalliance 36

3 A Rush of Men Like a Stormy Wind 45

4 About a Rotten Person 56

5 Everything Was to be Risked for This Prize 65

6 Promises and Lies 95

7 A Blackguard Business 112

8 Our Adventurous Friend 122

9 As Refulgent as the Sun 145

10 An Arrow into the Heart 156

11 Nothing Could Surpass It! 166

12 The Nile is Settled 178

13 A Hero's Abberrations 190

14 Death in the Afternoon 199

15 The Doctor's Dilemma 209

16 The Glory of Our Prize 215

17 A Trumpet Blown Loudly 241

18 Almost in Sight of the End 246

19 Never to Give Up the Search Until I Find Livingstone 257

20 The Doctor's Obedient and Devoted Servitor 270

21 Threshing Out the Beaten Straw 279

22 Nothing Earthly Will Make Me Give Up My Work 285

23 Where Will You Be? Dead or Still Seeking the Nile? 294

24 The Unknown Half of Africa Lies Before Me 310

Part 2 The Consequences

25 Shepherds of the World? 329

26 Creating Equatoria 335

27 An Unheard of Deed of Blood 345

28 Pretensions on the Congo 352

29 An Arabian Princess and a German Battle Squadron 359

30 'Saving' Emin Pasha and Uganda 365

31 The Prime Minister's Protectorate 376

32 To Die for the Mahdi's Cause 385

33 Equatoria and the Tragedy of Southern Sudan 395

34 A Sin not Theirs: The Tragedy of Northern Uganda 406

CODA Lacking the Wand of an Enchanter 422

Appendix: Fifty Years of Books on the Search for the Nile's Source 438

Acknowledgements 443

Sources 445

Notes 457

Index 494

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Jeal recounts each perilous expedition to unlock the secrets of the Nile watershed with an astonishing clarity and depth that brings to life the hazardous environs of equatorial Africa." —-Booklist


Praise for Tim Jeal’s Stanley, winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

"A magnificent new life. . . . There have been many biographies of Stanley, but Jeal's is the most felicitous, the best informed, the most complete and readable and exhaustive, profiting from his access to an immense new trove of Stanley material."—Paul Theroux, front page, New York Times Book Review
"[An] impressive, revealing, and well written biography. . . . Tim Jeal has had both the good fortune to see [Stanley's] papers and the skill to construct a new interpretation around them. He recognizes Stanley's feats and views them in the context of his age rather than ours. Moreover, he adds new layers to his subject's character."—David Gilmour, New York Review of Books

"[T]his commanding, definitive biography . . . is an unalloyed triumph."—Jason Roberts, Washington Post Book World

“Sympathetic yet balanced, perceptive and full of perspective, this is biography at its best.”—Ross Leckie, The Times London

Named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review

Selected as one of the best books of 2008 by the Washington Post

Nominated for the 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography

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