Livingstone’s African Journals 1853-56
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.