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Dark Mission

Livingstone’s African Journals 1853-56

edited with an Introduction by I. Schapera
California, two volumes (236 & 259) pp., $11.50

African explorers are at a discount—at least in Africa. Their statues are being broken up or removed to obscure suburbs. As one native of Nyasaland remarked about Livingstone, “How could he have discovered us? We were always here!” For young nations struggling towards independence, the recent past is often best forgotten in order to obliterate the shame, the frustration, the sense of inadequacy which exploitation and submission always create. So the stature of the great explorers—Mungo Park, H. M. Stanley, Heinrich Barth, Richard Burton and the rest will diminish. They will be reduced to cosy adventure-reading a la Moorehead, or buried in meticulous scholarship à la Schapera. The careful annotation of Livingstone’s diaries and journals, however, needed to be done and Mr. Schapera has done it as well as it can be done—minute variations between the journals and the final published version, Missionary Travels and Researches, are correct to a thousandth of a comma, the failure to track down obscure place names in the Barotseland Gazeteer unflaggingly recorded, and plants, animals, fishes described in the splendid rotundity of their scientific nomenclature: for the addict of editorial virtuosity this book could become an obsession; but most readers might doubt whether these rough notes deserved such Herculean labors. However, they have been performed, and this edition will last, awaiting the historian, black or white, who will finally judge the missionary factor in African history, doubtless as a part of that greater and more difficult evaluation of the role of the white man in the development of Africa. Whatever the color of the historian, the assessment will be difficult, for ambiguities of motive are as commonplace as the African atrocities perpetrated by Arabs and Europeans.

In 1850, the condition of Africa was appalling by any standards. Rarely in the history of the world had human life been held in such contempt. The Kabaka of Uganda had no hesitation in shooting a page to see how a rifle worked, but so low a view of the worth of life everywhere abounded. Time and time again in his sad, cool, compassionate way Livingstone reports the terrible treatment meted out by African chiefs and traders to their slaves.

Yesterday morning a man was deliberately beating a poor captive from the east for having endeavored to escape. She was quite naked, and holding up her poor dress in both hands as a sort of shield against the frequent blows of hippopotamus hide.

At other times sick captives were left to die; young children, wanted for sale, were frequently torn from their families; tribal war flourished as vigorously as disease. And disease, in some ways, was a greater horror than slavery. Animals as well as men were full of it. Pestilence of every kind flourished with a tropical luxuriance—partly because of climate and hygienic conditions but also because the vast majority of Africans, then as now, lived on the threshhold of starvation. So life was desperately cheap, and young and old, male and female, were given away, driven away, at times just thrown away. Although Livingstone had grown up in the harsh and brutal conditions of industrial Scotland, he could never grow callous to the desperate plight of ordinary Africans. And these journals possess a nightmare quality.

Livingstone came to believe that there was but one solution to Africa’s plight—trade. Conversion without economic development seemed to him a hopeless crusade. Livingstone saw God as working for man’s future not only through missionaries but also through sanitary engineers.

The sight made my heart sick and sore…It is distressing, besides, to see poor boys going about picking up grains of corn which have fallen in the Kotla—almost skeletons. Their masters, being niggardly, yet retain them in starvation, though their parents would gladly feed them if only allowed.

We are parts of the machinery He employs but not exclusive parts, for all who are engaged in ameliorating the condition of our race are fellow-workers, co-operators with God—sanitary reformers and clergy of all sorts, the soldiers at Sebastopol and sailors of the coast of Africa, inventors of telegraphs and steam engines, promoters of emigration and of prison reform.

Wherever he traveled in Africa, he was on the look-out for commodities to exploit, trade routes to develop, for land on which white men might settle, or Africans improve with new crops. The salvation of the African lay through Birmingham and Manchester, and Livingstone and his fellow missionaries regarded philanthropy at ten per cent as a natural, reasonable, and entirely honorable act of benevolence, particularly if conducted by the British rather than the Boers or Portuguese. About such an attitude it is easy to be cynical, but in 1850 there was no other way. Dark and bloody though the paths of colonial exploitation have been, they have led towards a future of human dignity for the African: and, except for the vile regime of Leopold in the Congo and a few other pockets of depravity, the night of terror for the ordinary African was first dispelled by colonial administration. And succulent though the British pickings may have been in Africa, Britons not only stamped out the slave trade, but also launched Africa into the twentieth century, and then quit with a better grace and a better sense than most. Throughout British involvement in Africa, strong streaks of altruism lay side by side with fatter layers of cupidity, but they were always discernable. The British were at any rate honorable. Livingstone was not alone in wanting to end the bestiality, poverty, disease, and brutality that was most Africans’ lot, or to stop the Arabs, who were making it worse, by white control. His panacea was trade, industry, better agriculture: in fact that self-same economic growth which is still seen to be Africa’s salvation. To Livingstone this was the key to the future. He had no illusions about his own missionary efforts: so long as African conditions remained barbarous, Christianity was unlikely to flourish.

Indeed in these journals, as in all that Livingstone wrote, there is a sense of social despair that wells up from the very depths of his nature. He suffered endlessly from fever and dysentery; he derived no sense of personal triumph from his immense journeys, for these were in the Lord’s hands. He lacked the satisfaction that most explorers derive from their own competence in the details of their expeditions—Livingstone handled porters badly, lost stores, moved at the wrong times, and was the prey of every rascal, African or Arab, whom he encountered. Indeed, at times, it seems as if Livingstone were almost deliberately making conditions worse for himself: letting the worst happen so that he might suffer it. His courage to endure his endless tribulations, physical and spiritual, sprang from the very depths of his personality; it lay deeper than his beliefs, deeper even than his Christian convictions. He needed to test his endurance, to exercise his will in the vast isolation of Africa, amidst sickness, loneliness, pain, and, at the end of his life, in helpless despair. He was seeking some mysterious finality within himself. And so there could be no success; the triumphant journey across the continent, the hero’s welcome in Britain, were all meaningless. His path lay back into the wilds of Africa, as he followed that way of courage through which he had willed himself in search of his identity as a man. It is this integrity of will that gives Livingstone such stature.

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