- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Colin Gardiner
on Alan Moorehead's
The White Nile and The Blue Nile



Seven days on a paddle steamer gently plying through swathes of papyrus in the south of the Sudan meant time on the hands, in between calling at the Dinka villages of jet-black tribesmen, and the urgent need for a reading companion. The Nile books by Alan Moorehead, the former Australian war correspondent, traveled with me on this laboriously slow voyage (ultimate destination Khartoum) soon after they had been produced in the early 1960s and have obsessively remained in the mind as milestones in African adventure ever since.
Moorehead was a man for all seasons. I have read him on the Russian Rrevolution, sailed through him with Chares Darwin on the Beagle, been at his side on his exploration of the "noble savage" in the Pacific, soldiered with the Anzacs in the blunder of Gallipoli and suffered the anguish of the lonely outback pioneers in his epic account of Australia.
When my son, appropriately named Nile, was born, I was reading Moorehead's classic on the life of Gen. Bernard Montgomery. Strange how it is that books have a time and place in one's life. Certainly the author can have a dominant influence and Moorehead led the way for me as we cast off from the riverside jetty of Juba, a motley collection of young travelers filled with Beatle mania and German missionaries out of the Congo.
The beauty of the Nile books, and they have since come into more luxurious color-illustrated editions, is that they are as much about history as they are about the great quest. The first book, "The White Nile," follows the fortunes of explorers such as David Livingstone and Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Congo masochist Sir Henry Morton Stanley. There is the martyr death of Charles George Gordon and the opening of the Suez Canal.
The second, "The Blue Nile," covers the campaign of Napoleon in Egypt, trailed by his Paris savants who found the Rosetta Stone, key to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and such imperial episodes as the storming of the heights of Ethiopia to rescue British prisoners held by the mad Emperor Theodore.
The thread within it is the desperate desire to find the true sources of the White and Blue Nile and the history that is brilliantly intertwined with the river. These are the hard men of Africa, fighting off hostile natives and life-threatening diseases to solve one of the great mysteries of geographical history. As Moorehead says: a "sunburst of Victorian courage and imagination." Even as Livingstone died, his hands clasped in prayer in the remote lakeland of Bangweolo, he was dreaming of the Nile, thousands of miles to the north.
Africa in the 19th century was very rich and fertile pasture for a writer such as Moorehead. For each of the characters he portrays has a heroic quality within a period that worshipped those whom the gods loved and denigrated villains. There was no gray area. Everyone was good or evil within a landscape possessed of a multitude of secrets to be unveiled for a society cosseted in their grand European houses.
It is the triumph of Moorehead that he puts us right in the center of the action every time. It is all about empire and the keeping of it. There is something utterly memorable about Gordon's death in Khartoum even as a relief expedition approaches down the Nile.
The destruction of the Madhi's dervishes at Omdurman took some years to accomplish but it may be fairly said that Queen Victoria herself, pale and trembling at the demise of her mystical general, virtually led the charge through the redoubtable Gen. H.H. Kitchener.
And there was the infamous question of slavery, the cruel whiff of Zanzibar and the Gold Coast infecting the morals of a pious society which launched British gunboats to patrol the surrounding waters and wipe out centuries of shame. Moorehead shows, however, that this did not stop the trade. There were other regions especially Arabia or Persia more than willing to fill the void.
The beauty of Moorehead's writing is his research and narrative skill. He had an extraordinary capacity to offer the right quotation from the right observer and with his succinct analysis and compelling sense of historical drama, he virtually created a book out of every episode. And there is no dearth. For virtually all the subjects are epic figures, searching for a goal that had eluded the philosophical since the ancient Egyptians and Herodotus.
There is something about the British character Moorehead says a curious combination of love and hatred that drew the explorers from their small island to the dark continent. The tremendous influence of Christianity also played its part, certainly with Livingstone and Gordon, while others sought to build an empire. Stanley, victim of a Dickensian childhood within a Welsh workhouse, was essentially a crusader, a "man of iron, an adventurer every bit as hard and ruthless as the world in which he lived."
The giant Scotsman James Bruce, who discovered the source of the Blue Nile at Lake Tana, was vain and intolerant and it was his masterful understanding of court intrigue that enabled him to survive in one of the most bloodthirsty periods of African history a "medieval drama of horror piled upon horror." On his return, he was ridiculed by such illustrious personages as Dr. Johnson for his claims, among others, that Ethiopians cut steaks from living cows a fact later revealed to be true.
A dedicated, more scientific breed of explorers were to follow in the 19th century. Among them were Sir Samuel Baker, a big-game hunter who shared his travels with a young and beautiful wife, whom he was alleged to have bought in a Hungarian slave market. Calm and brave in his search for the Nile, Baker had the right credentials and was lionized in Britain. His principal contribution was the naming of Lake Albert.
And then there was John Speke, the Indian Army officer, who had the misfortune to be Burton's companion. Burton ideally was a loner, a scholar of Eastern erotica who could speak and write some 30 languages. He was all cloak and dagger and dangerously eccentric and when Speke set off alone to find the source of the White Nile which he did at the edge of Lake Victoria, a fact proved some 20 years later he sparked a vicious vendetta with his fellow explorer that ended only when Speke fell victim to a shotgun in mysterious circumstances in Bath (Southwest England) on the eve of a great Nile debate.
Somehow the pioneers survived such tyrants as, for instance, the King of Buganda. "Unless the ruler surrounded himself with an atmosphere of dread and superstitious awe," writes Moorehead, "he did not stay long on his throne. Mutasa, on becoming king, had instantly put to death 60 of his brothers by burning them alive a perfectly normal precaution against rebellion."
Within this savage situation, Moorehead steps back to compare Mutasa with the Lord High Executioner in "The Mikado." It is his lyrical power even in the most brutal situations that sets the Nile author apart from his contemporaries. He is writing on the grand stage, providing a pageant of the bizarre and putting the classical touch to the greatest river in the world.

Colin Gardiner is an international travel writer and a reviewer of books, particularly on history and exploration, for the Oxford Times in England. He lives in Zimbabwe.

"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.


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