Friday, June 19, 2009

Into Africa by Martin Dugard

'Doctor Livingstone, I presume?' Sigh. If only Henry Morton Stanley knew the can of misery-worms he was about to unleash upon the world. His famous discovery of missing British hero Dr. David Livingstone opened up an interest in the dark continent that was to result in untold horror for millions. With the extraordinary King Leopold of Belgium at the helm (and Stanley as his aid, to his eternal shame), Africa was torn apart in a new age of Imperialism that opened wounds that still hurt today.

But preceding this, of course, came the greatest colonial tale ever told round a campfire to warm the quinine-soaked heart of a wayward explorer- the Stanley-Livingstone story.

In this book, Martin Dugard retells the famous tale in fascinating detail. Livingstone, a working-class Scot turned Christian missionary, traveled across central Africa looking for the source of the Nile. While he was away, he became something of a hero at home, so when contact was lost with him in 1871, several individuals began to rustle up funds to mount a rescue attempt. The politics of this are twisted and tortuous, but eventually, one Henry Morton Stanley, an American journalist working for the New York Herald, left Zanzibar and plunged into the heart of darkness in pursuit of Livingstone.

Dugard plays up the differences between these great men. Stanley is by far the more interesting of the two- escaping from a hellish life of neglect and abuse in his native Wales, he reinvented himself as an American in the Deep South. Dugard paints him as a self-doubting oddball who worked hard all his life to achieve success and hide his true origins. Even before his African adventure, Stanley had a resume that fans of 19th century history will find impressive. He had fought on both sides in the US Civil War, covered the Abyssinia Campaign (where he allegedly met Flashman!), and traveled extensively through the territories of the Ottoman Empire. In Livingstone, Dugard notes that he sought the father figure that had searched for all his life.

Pretty soon into the proceedings it becomes clear that even before the mass intervention of Europeans, Africa was not a land of candy rainbows and gumdrop smiles. Local chiefs sold entire tribes as slaves in return for beads, trinkets and firearms. Nor were these chiefs naive or easily-manipulated by outsiders, as they have often been portrayed. They were often sharp and callous business men with extensive information networks. Whenever Stanley entered the territory of a new tribe, the local chief would know exactly what goods Stanley was carrying (via the 'bush telegraph') and demand a hefty tribute. He would frequently have to avoid villages, despite badly needing rest and medicine, because he could not afford the tribute. A cruel death was often the only alternative. Dugard is not trying to make any political point by mentioning these facts- its simply the way things were.

This book really makes clear the hardships these incredible men faced in those days. Tribal war, wild animals and especially disease made travel a nightmare. Characters in this book contract malaria and dysentary more frequently than I would have thought possible. When Stanley finally meets Livingstone and utters the famous words, its a positive relief for the reader. While the book is occasionally flawed on a prose level, the story is so good that you probably won't notice.

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