In Cannibal Country

Posted on July 6, 2015 in Essays

Review of Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer (Faber, 2007)
& Clare Pettitt, Dr. Livingstone, I Presume? Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers & Empire (Profile Books, 2007)

In January 1963 in his gap year, Tim Jeal set out by steamer, bus and truck on a journey from Cairo to Johannesburg. Over forty years on, his main memory is of his insecurity, of being utterly dependent on the undependable. To get stranded, a ‘guideless stranger would soon be lost … and likely to die in the bush, if not from thirst or exhaustion then in the jaws of a wild beast’. At night, when he was not fretting about snakes or scorpions, he thought about those Victorian explorers, making similar journeys without diesel trucks or insect repellent creams, and his admiration became a lifetime obsession.

Earlier writers on Africa have had similar epiphanies – George Shepperson, speculating about the Nyasalanders under his command in Burma during World War 2, Jan Vansina made curious by his spell of military service in the Belgian Congo, Basil Davidson wondering in mid-travels why there was nothing he could read about the ancient cities of West Africa. By 1963, along with a handful of others, these had become the founding fathers of the new discipline of African History. Jeal comments that as he passed through independent Uganda and soon to be independent Tanganyika, he knew the explorers were considered ‘anachronistic embarrassments’. But he has stuck with them, and imbibed much of their worldview.

His 1973 biography of Livingstone was something of a hatchet job. Much of Livingstone’s geography was haywire, his neglected wife became an alcoholic, he failed spectacularly as a leader of Europeans, he blamed the dying missionaries who had followed his lead for letting him down, and by the end he was dependent on the very Arab-Swahili slave-traders whose atrocities he documented. Jeal could, in fact, have said a lot more had he paid more attention to the African side of the story. He comments, somewhat wryly, that while his book has remained the best-researched on Livingstone, the saintly doctor’s reputation seems intact.

Thirty-four years on, Jeal has produced a massive biography of the man most responsible for creating the Livingstone legend, and long excoriated as Livingstone’s antithesis. Far from being a hatchet job, this is close to hagiography. From the subtitle, ‘Africa’s greater explorer’, to page 1 where Stanley becomes ‘Africa’s least understood explorer’, to page 470 where he is called ‘Homeric’, to the back cover endorsed by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the reader is repeatedly rapped over the knuckles for not appreciating the immense accomplishments of this paragon of Victorian will-power. The book is the first to be based on the papers held at the Musée Royal in Brussels, only accessible in 2002, and the first to uncover Stanley’s private life.

That private life Stanley took such trouble to camouflage is the key to Jeal’s defence. He was born John Rowlands, in 1840 or 1841, the illegitimate son of at least two possible fathers and of Elizabeth Parry, a maid who went on to have four more illegitimate children. His maternal grandfather, his first guardian, died in his sixth year, and he was placed in the St Asaph Workhouse. He left at fifteen and found his way via Liverpool to New Orleans. He took the name Henry Morton Stanley, lying that he had been adopted by a wealthy store owner, fought on both sides in the civil war, deserted from both the Union army and navy, and led a disastrous expedition to Turkey, before landing the job of war correspondent for the New York Herald under its flamboyant tycoon James Gordon Bennett Jr. Jeal reckons the idea of the Livingstone search, which made him famous and Livingstone a saint, was Stanley’s own, though he always attributed it to his boss.

In respect of his conduct during that, and three subsequent African expeditions, Jeal marshals several lines of defence. Stanley was his own worst enemy, his ‘insecurity’ coupled with ‘his psychological need to prove that no one ever got the better of him’, leading him to diminish his real achievements by lies and relentless ‘pepping up’. In Through the Dark Continent (1878), his first Congo narrative, he claimed to have set out from Zanzibar with a massive caravan of 356 people. The true figure was 227, making his expedition no larger or better armed than, say, that of Speke and Grant. In the incident that first damaged his reputation, when he was attacked on Bumbireh Island during his circumnavigation of Lake Victoria and shot ‘fourteen’ Africans, the true figure was one or perhaps two. The exaggeration was unfortunate, making his shooting of a further thirty-three (not forty-three) at the same spot just three months later seem excessive.

Stanley claimed to have had thirty-two ‘fights’ during the descent of the Congo. On the evidence of Stanley’s papers, together with the diaries of companions such as Frank Pocock, most of them were minor skirmishes. For instance, the ‘naval battle’ fought against ‘sixty canoes’ launched again him by the Ngala never involved more than eight at a time. Jeal contends Stanley was actually no more brutal than Lugard or General Gordon, and he quotes, tellingly, Gordon’s comment on Stanley’s published account that ’these things may be done but not advertised’. Unfortunately for this argument, there were also times when Stanley had to suppress damaging information, most notably during the piratical farce of the Emin Pasha rescue mission.

After Gordon’s death at Khartoum in 1885, public opinion demanded that ‘Emin Pasha’, one of his provincial governors, should be ‘rescued’. In fact, this German ex-doctor masquerading as a Turk, was in no danger and had no wish to return home: his Turkish mistress, abandoned in Germany ten years earlier, was suing him. Prime Minister Salisbury was unimpressed, but. a private expedition, led by Stanley and financed by ‘philanthropists’, was organised. When King Leopold insisted it should proceed by way of the Congo, but then failed to provide the promised river steamers, Stanley was forced to divide his expedition. The behaviour of the ‘Rear Column’, left at Yambuya under Major Barttelot to organise carriers and protect the stores to be brought up-river from Stanley Pool, could not be made public. When the allegations of murder, beatings and sexual abuse by men handpicked by Stanley began to leak out, he was made to appear a liar not for his boasting but for what he had concealed.

Stanley’s contributions to geographical knowledge were undeniably substantial. He was the first to circumnavigate and map Lake Victoria, settling finally the debate about the source of the Nile. He was the first to circumnavigate and map Lake Tanganyika, proving it to be a secondary source of the Congo. He was the first to descend the Congo, mapping it from Nyangwe to the Atlantic coast. Jeal complains we no longer value such feats. But it’s possible to admire them while shifting the perspective a little.

When Livingstone reached Linyanti in May 1853, in what is now the Caprivi Strip, he met the Kololo chief Sebitoane. The Kololo had been driven from their homeland by the rise of the Zulu empire in the south east. At Linyanti, they had ivory for sale, and they needed guns to protect themselves against Mzilikazi’s Ndebele, their nearest and most recent enemy. When Livingstone spoke of missionary settlement and trade, the idea appealed at several levels. Livingstone’s wife Mary was the daughter of Robert Moffat, who was known to have influence at Mzilikazi’s court. The prospect of trade with the coast, of access to firearms, clinched matters. Seleketu, Sebitoane’s successor, became the sponsor of Livingstone’s trans-African journey, equipping him with trade goods and a team of carriers as he travelled first to the Atlantic coast at Luanda, and then to the Indian ocean at Quelimane. Without this sponsorship, and the policies that dictated it, the journeys would have been impossible.

By the 1870s, discovery was big business at Zanzibar, with several hundred African entrepreneurs in the trade. Bombay, Chuma, Kalulu, Ali Kiongwe, Susi and others, whose biographies are recorded in Donald Simpson’s Dark Companions (1975), had made numerous journeys of exploration. Livingstone’s son, Tom, said of the leader of his father’s final journey ‘Susi’s geographical knowledge is something wonderful’, and Horace Waller, who edited the Last Journals, agreed Susi and Chuma were ‘actual geographers of no mean attainments’. It does not diminish the achievement of men like Stanley to emphasise their utter dependence on such guides, guards and interpreters and, more important, to recognize a divergence of interests. But in this book, Africans rarely have motives. They are mostly aboriginal savages, or faithful retainers. Or worse.

The word ‘cannibal’ does not feature in Jeal’s index but they’re round every corner in the text. Mirambo’s followers are cannibals, Manyema is ‘cannibal country’, the Wenya are cannibals, the Kumu are cannibals, the Ngala are cannibals, the Soko are cannibals, along with others who don’t have names, just nasty habits. Jeal takes all this at face value, and the idea that Stanley might be lying here too, or at least ‘pepping up’ his material, doesn’t occur to him. Some of these claims read very oddly. A passage reading, “He seemed unaware that Mirambo’s tactics would be to set fire to his tembe’s thatch to force him into the open. His body would then be mutilated … and eaten by Mirambo’s men, mixed with a little rice and goat meat” is sourced to Stanley’s own Diaries.

The truth is Jeal has spent too long with his nineteenth century explorers and has read far too little else. A book published in 2007 that describes one African as “fine-featured” and another as “dandified” is all too redolent of its sources. He has consulted Norman Bennett’s Mirambo of Tanzania (1971), which is probably responsible for the more sympathetic portrayal of Mirambo than of any other African figure of note. But such basic texts as the Cambridge History of Africa (vol 5, 1976 and Vol 6, 1985) or John Iliffe’s magisterial A Modern History of Tanganyika (1979) pass him by completely. This means that Stanley’s accounts of ‘Darkest Africa’ are not tested critically against any other materials whatsoever, least of all anything written from an Africanist’s perspective.

When in October 1876, Stanley left Nyangwe to begin his descent of the Lualaba River, he was confronted by peoples determined not to let him pass. It was how African societies – those ‘cannibal’ Wenya and Soko and Kumu, with their pit traps and poisoned arrows – tried to set limits to the ravages of the slave trade. Only in alliance with Tippu Tip, the biggest trader of them all, who furnished him with 140 men armed with guns and a further 70 spear-bearers, was he able to proceed. Jeal records Stanley found it a ‘distasteful business to have no alternative but to shoot’ his way through.

In November 1883, back on the Congo as King Leopold’s agent, he was faced with the result of his handiwork. A little above Stanley Pool, ‘an area somewhat larger than the whole of Ireland’ had been devastated by Nyangwe-based slavers and tens of thousands killed or captured. Jeal comments that Stanley was now faced ‘with the practical realities with which Leopold had long been grappling’. Hitherto, he had been a free-trader. Only if the Congo became a colony would the king have authority to expel the slavers. So Stanley signed up to the ‘Free State’ holocaust, in which an estimated 10 million Congolese perished.

How should such a history be written? Jeal’s tone of passionate vindication seems wholly inappropriate. He has replaced a ruthless Stanley with a brave, gullible, mendacious figure, who felt occasional misgivings. Okay, he shot less Africans than he claimed. Okay, those treaties were probably forged, and the Congo’s worst atrocities occurred after Leopold had dispensed with his services. But the events had their own savage logic, to which only Conrad’s searing irony seems adequate.

Conrad hovers as an uneasy ghost behind Clare Pettitt’s Dr Livingstone, I Presume? Conrad visited Ujiji, the town on Lake Tanganyika, fifty years after Stanley’s famous encounter with Livingstone where the famous words of her title were (says Jeal) not actually spoken. (A toenote: once in Malawi I took part in a reading of Sheridan’s School for Scandal when, near the beginning of Act V, Joseph Surface’s line ‘Mr Stanley, I presume’ brought the house down. Was this the source?)

Conrad was unimpressed by the ‘unholy recollection of a prosaic newspaper “stunt”’, and especially by the dubious morality of an armed invasion of African territory in pursuit of nothing more than a story. It was the first scoop to break simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic (via the new Atlantic cable), inaugurating a new kind of political and popular culture dominated by celebrities.

Her book is a type we’ve become over-familiar with, not about Africa but about the books about Africa, and not requiring travel, just the mincing-machine of theory. She takes us through the standard signifiers – popular comics, Ladybird books, Boy’s Own Paper, Minstrel shows, Madame Tussauds – with a good deal by way of the construction and appropriation of identities. Her readings of such images as the Illustrated London News engraving of the encounter with Stanley, or of Livingstone’s Westminster Abbey funeral, are acute, and at times funny: when Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie mount a Livingstone search expedition and are contemplating what to say, they blurt out ‘What’s up, Doc?’ Faced with matters really challenging, however, such as what Susi and Chuma thought about their visit to Britain, or what Conrad and the modernist project actually learned from Stanley, her methods fail. The book is married by inaccuracies (Livingstone did not name Blantyre, nor is it the capital of Malawi), inconsistencies (Livingstone ‘would never have been so universally remembered’ but for Stanley, though ‘even before he had met Stanley, Livingstone was a myth’), and by a tiresomely jaunty style (Livingstone’s crew ‘were fathering children left, right and centre’).

First published in the Times Literary Supplement.