Two rivers, two views of empire

Two well-written histories about Europe’s scramble for Africa provide a fascinating study of how perspectives change with time.

Alan Moorehead was a renowned Australian journalist who began his career reporting on the Spanish Civil War and the North African campaign during the Second World War. After the war, he turned to narrative history and published one of his most highly acclaimed books, The White Nile, in 1960.

TheWhiteNileThe White Nile follows that great river’s course through the last half of the 19th Century, beginning with Richard Burton and John Speke’s 1856 expedition to find the source of the Nile and ending with Britain’s suppression of the Mahdist Revolt in the 1890s.

Tracing the source of the Nile to Lake Victoria is a story of heroic feats of endurance and hardship. In addition to Burton and Speke, it includes two names familiar to every child: the missionary Dr. Livingstone and the journalist Henry Morton Stanley. These men were soon followed by Samuel Baker who sought to tame the river for steamboats and General Gordon who sought to introduce the (British) rule of law to the Sudan. Barely a decade later, the Mahdi’s siege of Khartoum and Britain’s race to rescue General Gordon and then at Omdurman to avenge him involve two other famous Brits: a young Herbert Kitchener and an even younger Winston Churchill.

Moorehead is a gifted writer who presents a riveting, novel-like narrative replete with well-researched details about these colorful figures. His own travels up the Nile during the war and while researching the book provided a first-hand experience that shows in his fine descriptions of the land and his appreciation of the early adventurers’ accomplishments.

Moorehead wrote The White Nile as independence finally came to the “protectorates” Britain established in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. He isn’t an apologist for empire, but he still believes in the positive elements Britain brought with its governance. He describes the flourishing slave trade that Burton and Speke encountered (Arab traders had plundered East Africa for ivory and slaves for centuries, much as European traders did from West Africa). And he rightly asserts that Britain’s increasing influence through its missionaries and civil administrators helped put an end to that trade.

His book, however, remains largely one-sided. He acknowledges, for example, that Stanley used repeating rifles to massacre Bumbire warriors armed only with spears on the shore of Lake Victoria, yet he admires Stanley’s ingenuity to transport (on porters’ backs) a steel boat in sections to the lake. He makes plain that Stanley was not a humanitarian even by Victorian standards, yet he lauds his drive and efficiency.

What a difference in perspective forty years can make. The British Empire may never have been as abusive as the one American journalist Adam Hochschild describes in his 1999 book, King Leopold’s Ghost, but one suspects that if Moorehead were alive to write a history of the Nile today, it would require another dimension—that of the Africans who lived under British rule.

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone i...

Henry Morton Stanley meets David Livingstone in Ujiji, 1871. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Figures like Stanley might come under greater scrutiny, too. The Scottish orphan, who changed his name in America and made his name by “finding” Livingstone, doesn’t get off as lightly in Hochschild’s book. As Moorehead tells, this tough-as-nails explorer was the first European to descend the Congo River (after definitively charting the source of the Nile). But, as Hochschild tells, he later returned to oversee the rapacious development of the Congo Free State at the behest of Belgium’s King Leopold II.

KingLeopoldsGhostKing Leopold’s Ghost recounts the harrowing story of the most egregious form of exploitative colonialism in the continent’s history. You already know something of this if you have read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for it was King Leopold’s large-scale and deceitful pillaging of the Congo’s resources that both books describe. The horror indeed.

Disguised as philanthropic development to end slavery and bring Christianity to the Congo, the mercenary king created a kind of serfdom that might as well have been slavery. Through a brutal regime of European administrators who used terror and forced labor to extract ivory and rubber, Leopold made millions (billions in today’s dollars) in profit. The horror included hangings, beheadings, the severing of hands, and whippings that often killed. Women were held hostage, raped and traded as chattel. Children were starved and worked to death. And whenever any resistance occurred, retribution came in the form of destroyed villages and mass killings. Hochschild estimates that between 1885 and 1908, due to murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate, the population of the Congo River basin declined by half, from twenty million to ten million.

The story would be dismal if it were not for the brave missionaries and human rights organizers like Edmund Dene Morel, William Sheppard, Alice Seeley Harris and Roger Casement, who risked their reputations, and some their lives, to bring these abuses to light. Hochschild also strives to weave into his story as many African voices from the era as he can, although there are many fewer than he would have liked. Most were silenced by death.

Moorehead wasn’t wrong to tell, in a gripping fashion, the  story of Britain’s role on the Nile, but as history it was incomplete. “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King said. Hochschild’s important book lends credence to that claim.


Filed under Reviews

18 responses to “Two rivers, two views of empire

  1. How great to review these books together. Hochschild’s book seems like a difficult, but important read, in terms of its subject matter.

    • Thanks. This is the second of Hochschild’s books I have read, the first being To End All Wars (which I reviewed early in my blogging career). What I like about his writing, aside from its graceful style, is that he finds great unsung heroes of humanity amid the difficult subjects he covers. He’s well worth reading.

  2. Sally

    This will be an interesting yet disturbing read. Try to catch Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN – he just completed a segment on the Congo and the atrocities committed by King Leopold – the object of his show is to review the cuisine, but he works in important facts that show the resilience of the people and the photography is well done.

  3. Mark Rudolph

    Next read The Scramble for Africa, then Half a Yellow Sun. The former for the historical overview of the great European land grab put into motion by Bismarck, and the latter for an indigent perspective from within the Biafran tragedy. 😀 If you are so interested…

  4. Two books, two authors and one highly skilled reviewer! An interesting, informative and thought provoking read. Thanks, Tom.

  5. todadwithlove

    Just had to come back to tell you this: that I always come away from reading your posts, thinking, “Gee, I wish I have a fraction (like 1/1,000,000) of Tom’s deep intellect.

    • That’s kind of you. I love to read but until I try to sit down and process what I read, it’s all kind of a blur. My blog is really just a way for me to do that processing. I’m glad it doesn’t come off as babble!

  6. Fascinating to have both books reviewed together…the old appetite for history is back, complete with the words…it’s all subjective in my head….awesome!

    • Thanks. It was fun to read the two together. Both are excellent books. Now I should go back and reread Heart of Darkness. I have been enjoying reading history lately, over fiction. It seems to go in cycles. Go for it if you feel the urge!

  7. Heart of Darkness, for some reason it seemed a struggle for me, it was great yet seemed a long slog for its 120 pages. I may go back to King Solomon’s Mines though…that was epic!

  8. The Hochschild book is excellent. Thanks for the review. I have the Pakenham book on my shelves – must read it soon.

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