THE GATES OF AFRICA: DEATH, DISCOVERY AND THE SEARCH
By Anthony Sattin
St. Martin’s, $27.95, 416 pages
IMPERIAL FOOTPRINTS: HENRY MORTON STANLEY’S AFRICAN JOURNEYS
By James L. Newman
Potomac, $35.00, 416 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES
I am the most sedentary, stay at home Americano you would ever want to meet. I go out reluctantly and come home fast. But only on my few reporting treks to Africa have I heard the siren call of adventure. Only there — but every single time there. From Tunis to Cape Town. What is it about Africa? What is this soft whisper to go forth and experience this kaleidoscope of desert, swamp, jungle, mountains, rivers and people that enchants Westerners even as it brings so many to ruin?
My guess is that it is the sheer unknowability that has drawn explorers and exploiters to row its rivers till their backs break, trek its mountains and deserts until they drop, and slog its swamps and jungles until something eats them. Other lands have features that fascinate, exhilarate, or frustrate but only Africa has it all. One can only visit it, not even its indigenous people can conquer it.
So if you share the same itch I do, let me recommend these two ripping yarns about folk just like us who for the lust of knowing have undergone unspeakable adventures and hardships to discover wonders that still mystify us today. Together these books are an African timeline that begins with the earliest organized efforts by British cartographers to fill in the huge blank spaces that dominated 18th century maps of Africa and it ends in the 19th century adventure tale of the self-annointed king of African explorers Henry Morton Stanley and what happened to him after he said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
There are several reasons to start with “The Gates of Africa” by Anthony Sattin, a British journalist, broadcaster and traveler. Its story begins at the beginning of the first organized efforts to penetrate the Dark Continent, as it was called, and was.
Secondly, Mr. Sattin writes in an easy and elegant style that is made all the more colorful because he has trekked through many of the same places. And not least, the author skillfully tells the tales of these first purposeful explorers (called missionaries by their sponsors) but keeps readers mindful of the larger context where the first blush of scholarly curiosity steadily is subsumed into a frantic race for empire.
Mr. Sattin picks the year 1788 as a good starting place. The maps of much of the world have been filling in at an accelerating pace. Britain has lost its biggest and richest colonies in North America and there is competition for empire elsewhere. Only the inner regions of Africa are unknown land. While Europeans, Englishmen included, have scouted the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastlines, few have penetrated inland more than 200 miles and returned to tell about it.
Sir Joseph Banks, an aristocratic botanist, explorer, and power broker in June 1788 summoned a group of equally wealthy and serious minded men to the St. Alban’s Tavern and proposed they form a society to support the sending of “missionaries” of discovery into Africa from various directions — from west to east, from north to south.
They were to cross deserts and hack through jungles, map making all the way, gathering plant specimens, and locating natural resources from timber to gold along the way. Also they were to discover the sources of various rivers (the White Nile, the Blue Nile, the Congo), but most of all to find out whether what all the world had heard was true about the fabled city of Timbuctu, a city in remote western Africa on the Niger River.
The commercial impetus had a moral tone, their explorers were to look for ways to expand trade that might help end the pernicious slave trade. Even before Herodotus mentioned it in his travel writings in mid-400 B.C., Timbuctu had been a Golconda of a golden city where no man went who did not come away wealthy.
The explorations that followed were heroically insane. The early explorers were lone men of little scientific training and less experience in mounting an expedition in the Africa wilds that would get you in — and get you out.
The equipment, firearms and other supplies were primitive. One of the first to go was an American named Ledyard who had walked nearly all across Siberia and on that basis was hired by Banks and his society. He barely got out of Cairo. Another, named Houghton, got within a month’s walk of Timbuctu before he disappeared. Others followed. They improved their map making and navigation and made some interesting discoveries of other cities and rivers. But mostly they had their equipment stolen, endured awful hardships, and then died, murdered in most cases.
Mr. Sattin’s book is not about which white man actually made it to Timbuctu. After 50 years Banks’ society declined into a squabble with the French over who was first. By that time governments had taken over the financing and mounting of rather large, armed expeditions that produced more definitive results by setting governments in the places they discovered.
There would still be hero explorers like Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke but as in war, the victory in the race to fill in the map of Africa went to the big battalions. By the end of Banks’ African Association in the 1830s, this disconnect between colonial exploration and the lone expedition for knowledge’s sake was already widening visibly. All the more wonder that the lone explorer not only survived as a cultural icon but actually prospered in incredible celebrity, none more so than Henry Morton Stanley.
James L. Newman, the author of “Imperial Footprints,” has the benefit of being a professor of geography at Syracuse University. This gives him the advantage of not letting the reader get lost along the trek route. And he gives us a hard-eyed look at Stanley, who never minded embellishing a good story with a lie and probably was described by contemporaries as “a bit of a cad.”
He was born John Rowlands, illegitimate, in a small village in Wales in 1841. He was raised in a dank workhouse and ran away at 17. He ended up in America, fought on both sides in the Civil War and then found his mtier as a freelance newspaper reporter in the American West.
Intrepid, a lively writer, and good looking, he became Henry Morton Stanley and the darling of James Gordon Bennett, the uber-competitive publisher of the New York Herald. As a journalist he was something of a Geraldo, leaping into dramatic stories such as revolutions in Spain and wars in the Middle East and becoming the center of the story.
Nor was he reluctant to fabricate a story now and then. But in 1871 the top story throughout the world was the disappearance of an elderly Dr. David Livingstone, who combined a zeal to stamp out slavery and to be a true Christian missionary to the African tribes while possessing a hunger to explore Africa equal to any of the ill-fated missionaries sent out by Joseph Banks.
Although Mr. Newman dismisses Livingstone as no equal of Stanley’s as an explorer, he was no slouch. He won a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society for being the first European to cross the entire African continent from west to east, and he was the first such to glimpse Victoria Falls. By 1873 he was old, seriously ill and out of supplies.
Sent out by Bennett to score the scoop of the century and find Livingstone, Stanley outfitted himself in style and got a real insight into what walking through Africa meant. But that is just the beginning of a lifetime of triumph of exploring and helping build colonies throughout Africa, most notoriously working for and defending King Leopold of Belgium and his hellish colony of the Congo Free State.
Stanley’s adventures continued through he 1890s and his discoveries are truly noteworthy. Whether he was as admirable as Mr. Newman makes him out, I will leave for you to discover. It will be an easy trek.
James Srodes covered financial news in Africa for The London Sunday Telegraph and Euromoney magazine, among others.