- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003


By Martin Dugard

Doubleday, $29.95, 289 pages, illus.


It is the story of the Nile, a universal story of discovery, a story that’s been told many times over many years. Martin Dugard’s version, “Into Africa,” still manages to captivate.

Today’s explorers no longer seek to make a big world smaller. Instead, they make the infinitesimally small world of DNA and enzymes, infinitesimally larger. In the process our explorers seem to have lost much of their audience and many of their admirers. Instead of looking out, today we look within and while it’s no less interesting, it’s certainly less tangible. Mapping DNA is one thing; mapping the Nile is another. That’s why it’s such a joy to read Mr. Dugard’s work: It recalls an age when our collective obsession was not with the vagaries of our own sexual mores, but with the discovery of wild, naked tribes in the heart of Africa.

Mr. Dugard begins his story in Bath, England, on Sept. 16, 1864, where Richard Francis Burton waited for his onetime travel companion — some said, lover — John Hanning Speke to arrive at the annual convention of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The two explorers were to finally confront each other six years after they parted over a bitter dispute about the source of the Nile, in what became known as “the Nile Duel.”

Speke was convinced that the source of the Nile was an equatorial lake the size of Scotland, a lake whose shores he visited, naming it after his Queen — Lake Victoria. Burton didn’t doubt that the Nile flowed from Lake Victoria, but he contended that the true source was Lake Tanganyika, 150 miles further south. Speke never arrived to argue his case, having shot himself in the heart the previous day. Trying to calm his nerves after seeing Burton for the first time in six years, he took to the fields for some hunting. Suicide is the accepted verdict.

Speke was, of course, correct, though his claim wouldn’t be proven until 1875.

At its core, this is a tale of outsized personalities, of explorers who were literally and figuratively too big for this globe. Mr. Dugard tells the story through them and he seems to all but introduce them to each other, as he does to his reader, with a prose that flows as smoothly as the Nile itself.

There is the indefatigable walker: David Livingstone himself, toothless and restless, bent on finding the source of the Nile with the same religious zeal that first brought him to Africa as a 27-year-old virgin — a missionary devoted to God and ending the slave trade. His obsession with the Nile would force him to befriend and depend on the Arab slavers he despised. His heart would stay in Africa, buried by his porters upon his death, as his body returned to Britain for entombment at Westminster Abbey.

Then there is the mysterious and complicated Henry Morton Stanley, an immigrant from Wales who assumed an American identity. Looking for fame and fortune in Africa, he also had to please the eccentric and ambitious editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

Lingering in the background is the president of the Royal Geographic Society, Sir Roderick Murchison, and a mischievous and duplicitous British consul in Zanzibar, John Kirk. But give Kirk some credit: When he was asked what impressed him about Livingstone, he said, “He didn’t know what fear was.”

Somewhere along the way, the search for the Nile became the search for Livingstone, as Britain longed to be assured that her famous explorer would once again emerge from the interior of Africa. The news that Livingstone was alive — and of Stanley’s triumph in rescuing him —overshadowed the dispute about the Nile.

Whether or not Stanley uttered the famous line “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” when the explorers met is a matter of some debate. Stanley destroyed the relevant pages of his journal, but it is in keeping with Stanley’s style, as the insecure Welsh bastard sought an appropriately stilted greeting for the revered Englishman. The line first appeared in print in the July 15, 1872 New York Herald.

In 1875, three years after returning with Livingstone’s journals, Stanley was the first to circumnavigate Lake Victoria, thereby identifying it as the main source of the Nile. As news of Stanley’s discovery of Livingstone trickled back to civilization, and when Stanley himself arrived in London, there was great doubt about the authenticity of his entire story. For starters, polite London society didn’t want to believe Livingstone’s journals, especially as he describes the raw beauty of the natives of Nyangew. Indeed, it has been documented that Livingstone fathered at least one African child, a son who was with his 60-year-old father at his death.

One of Livingstone’s English sons eventually declared the journals authentic. Stanley’s triumph was complete.

The backdrop of Mr. Dugard’s tale is the political machinations between two powers: Britain on the decline; America, ascendant. Stanley was concerned that Livingstone would not respond well to his rescue by an American paper. Yet Livingstone wouldn’t have any of that nonsense. Mr. Dugard writes: “Unlike all the other British he’d met, Livingstone certainly wouldn’t take issue with Stanley’s nationality.”

As Livingstone himself noted: “Here, Americans and Englishmen are the same people. We speak the same language and have the same ideas.”

Hans Nichols is a reporter for The Hill newspaper.

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