Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Last Book I Read

Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal is my kind of summer reading.  It's an richly detailed recounting of the exploits of Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Stanley and a number of other Victorian-era adventurers who sought to find and investigate the source of the Nile River in Africa.  What comes across especially well is how competitive and envious these famous men were of one another, and the often absurd lengths they would go to discredit one another's theories as they competed for support from the British government, the Royal Geographic Society, and even the African monarchs and Arab traders with whom they inevitably came into contact (surprisingly, to me, Stanley is the one who comes off as the least obnoxious, though Livingstone is close).  Jeal also does a good job of crediting the loyal African guides and porters who were a huge factor in the success of failure of the various explorations.  Perhaps most impressive is the final chapter where Jeal analyses the long-term effects of their efforts, and speculates on how contemporary affairs in equatorial Africa evolved (for both good and bad) from the imperial consequences of those explorations.  That analysis even includes some reasonable alternative scenarios (based on the author's speculation regarding potentially different outcomes at various key points in the nineteenth century) that on balance do not suggest things could've been noticeably better in the region today had they occurred.  In the end, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that the slave trade (which is an integral part of the explorers' story in several meaningful ways) was the primary cause of most of the ills suffered on the African continent even down to the present day, even as Jeal notes that many millions of African communities have enjoyed a more-or-less steady history of security and prosperity even despite that legacy.  I'd love to see a sequel to this book that looks at similar adventures and their consequences in Western Africa.   

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