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Mission Impossible

Livingstone

by Tim Jeal
Putnam, 427 pp., $10.00

The upper Clyde has two gorges. In one of them, profit-sharing industrialism was born, at the mills which Robert Owen built at New Lanark. In the other, or rather in a stone house on its lip, missionary exploration found its father. David Livingstone, dead 101 years ago on his knees in Chitambo’s village somewhere to the south-southeast of Lake Bangweolo, was born here.

The house, a gray vernacular hulk of a place with outside stair turrets, is at Blantyre, close to Glasgow. It has become the Livingstone Museum; around it, Presbyterians have laid out lawns. A café sells nonalcoholic drinks and memorial teaspoons. Inside, there is a dark gallery where you pull down levers to illuminate diorama scenes of Livingstone’s life. The lion mauls his arm; he outstares the wild men; he accepts the challenge of Stanley; he dies, with faithful Susi and Chuma. After a few seconds, the light turns a nostalgic yellow and fades down: the lever returns to its position and you are returned to darkness, denied any permanent revelation.

Some of the dwelling-rooms have been restored to their appearance of 1813, the year of David Livingstone’s birth. Here is the box-bed, the kitchen range, the clock, and the neat dresser. The suggestion is of spare, hard living much turned toward cleanliness and a few improving books, a Scottish “Selbstbildnis.” But Mr. Jeal, the author of this biography, points out that matters for the Livingstone family were not so neat or improving. Nine people—the parents and seven children—inhabited this “single kitchen apartment house,” or one-room slum. David lived here fourteen years, working in the cotton mill from the age of ten as a “piecer” for over twelve hours a day. After the work, though his fellow children mocked him, he studied in that room for a further two hours. And from that mill and room, he got himself to Anderson’s College, Glasgow, and into the vocation of medical missionary. As Jeal says, this was

…something that statistics alone made grotesquely improbable. Of all the children put to work in mills during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, less than ten per cent learnt to read or write with any proficiency. Those who managed to do this and devote time to Latin, botany, theology, and simple mathematics were virtually unheard of.

Jeal calls Livingstone’s reputation that of a “Victorian astronaut.” But he was twice a voyager: Was the distance from Loanda to Quilimane less than the distance from “Shuttle Row” at High Blantyre to mission college in the south of England, or the journey any less lonely? Livingstone left for southern Africa a gaunt, apparently slow-witted and emotionless young man with a Scots accent and a giant uvula which eventually had to be cut out so that people could understand his sermons. He went to the London Missionary Society’s settlement at Kuruman, in what is now Botswana, and there—if he had done what a missionary was supposed to do—he should have remained for the rest of his useful life, laboring with his hands and hoping that, by the end, thirty years’ work might have converted a dozen BaKgatla tribesmen.

Perhaps, after all, it was the other missionaries who were the astronauts: obedient to Mission Control in London, loyally performing the required experiments by planting words in stony ground, reporting home with synthetic optimism. Livingstone would never have done for Houston. He thought Kuruman (forty communicants after twenty years’ work) a failure, and he was irritated by fellow missionaries. He resolved that “I shall preach the gospel beyond every other man’s line of things,” and it was not long before he was straying off on longer and longer journeys to the unknown north.

At Kolobeng, among the BaKwena (or “Bakwains,” as he called them), he set up his own mission. He married Mary Moffat and begat children, who grew up there eating grubs and speaking better Sechuana than English. This was the first day in Livingstone’s creation. Then he began to wander northward again, through malarial swamps toward the Zambesi. On some of these terrible journeys he took his wife and family: they wasted away, shook with fever; a baby was born and died. Livingstone, who possessed one of the toughest constitutions even among Scotsmen, could not give them proper sympathy in their suffering, which he involuntarily identified with some moral weakness. He wanted to settle among the Makololo people, and to use their Zambesi as the highway for civilizing commerce.

This was the second stage of his work. Direct missionary work was now forgotten. He would no longer dutifully plant the flag of Jesus in the dust and have his picture taken beside it: he had now gone far enough to be out of range of all Mission Control’s expostulations. Livingstone still meant to Christianize. But he thought to achieve that—he, and not the London Missionary Society—by exploring and establishing routes into the interior. European commerce would then ascend these routes: its purchases of goods in “healthy plateau regions” would render the slave trade unnecessary. Commerce and industry would also dissolve the structures of customary society, which Livingstone had identified as the real obstacle to the ideological offensive of Christianity.

It was in this period that Livingstone walked across the continent, became famous, abandoned the L.M.S. to become an honorary consul and a protégé of the Royal Geographical Society, and found—back in Africa—that after all the Zambesi could never be the highway of the Lord because of the rapids at Cabora Bassa. He turned toward the Shire Highlands and Lake Nyassa. On his recommendation, the disastrous Zambesi Expedition came out, led by a muscular bishop, and was slaughtered by fever. Livingstone’s reputation was darkened, and his promises of a fertile, welcoming region in Zambesian Africa were discredited.

His third period ensured his legend and restored his name. The aging Livingstone returned to Africa as an explorer, preoccupied now with the fashionable mystery of the sources of the Nile. Seeking the origins in Lake Tanganyika or—as he grew older and crazier—in the four fountains described by Herodotus, he faded out of sight, only to be “rediscovered” by Stanley, who sold him back home as the patron saint of the campaign against the slave trade. And at the height of this new fame, which he never knew about, Livingstone died, lost in the Bangweolo marshes, on his way to proving that a river which was really the upper Congo was the headwaters of the Nile.

Tim Jeal, a young novelist who has now turned to biography, approaches the Livingstone legend with very proper iconoclasm. There is, no doubt about it, any amount of things which David Livingstone was not. Not, for a start, a good husband or father: Mary was driven to drink and perhaps to lose her faith, and had to raise her children in destitution back in Britain. Not a great missionary, strictly speaking. If Jeal is right, he made only one convert in his life, and he backslid. Not a good traveling companion: the hardness of his own upbringing had left him with “an almost total inability to appreciate or sympathize with other people’s physical sufferings.” Not even a habitually truthful man, either. This is not just a matter of Livingstone’s obstinate assertion that regions shuddering with fever and clamant with slave raids or tribal wars were as bracing and inviting as the Home Counties of England, assertions which Jeal shows to have been primarily responsible for death after death. He was also capable of slandering another man or woman to gain his own ends. This was his method with the victims of the Zambesi Expedition, whose corpses suggested something wrong with the whole project. Livingstone hastened to blame them for their own deaths: “coarse living and rash exposure” was his diagnosis.

Mr. Jeal has used the new letter and journal material which has become available in recent years, and there can be no doubt that this, now, is “the best book about Livingstone” (with the exception of his own Journals, whose editing by I. Schapera a few years ago really began the business of revaluation). It is very full, interesting, and emotional. Mr. Jeal starts off being immensely censorious, but then—a failing irresistible to the reader—gradually becomes converted by his subject as the book goes on. In part, this arises from the author’s discovery that he dislikes Mission Control, in the person of Mr. Tidman of the L.M.S., even more than the self-obsessed astronaut himself. According to Mr. Jeal, for instance, the L.M.S. did not care whether Livingstone survived or perished on his journeys: if he died, he would provide a useful martyr for charity appeals for funds, and if he succeeded, “that too would stimulate public generosity.” Perhaps this really is how Tidman’s mind worked, but Tim Jeal departs from his habitual standards of scholarship and provides no text to prove it.

In contrast, he is probably too soft on Henry Stanley. The fact that Livingstone was delighted to see him at Ujiji and that Stanley had a childhood even more bestial than the Doctor’s does not mean that he was not one of the great destroyers, or excuse him from making Africa safe for King Leopold of the Belgians. Stanley was no more callous toward European companions and subordinates than was Livingstone. But toward Africans he was savage, and that is the difference.

It is too simple to say that Livingstone liked Africans. His journals show that he could be scathing. But he was never dismissive. It still seems to me, after reading Mr. Jeal’s book, that the most interesting times of Livingstone’s life were the years among the Bakwena at Chonuane and Kolobeng, before he set out on the journeys which made him famous. His relationship with Sechele, the chief who learned to read, who found the courage to put away his extra wives in the face of the whole tribe’s opposition, and then “backslid” from grace by sleeping with one of them after all, is one of the most moving of all cultural encounters. After that backsliding, which “fell on the soul like drops of aqua fortis on an ulcerated surface,” David Livingstone turned away from Sechele in anger and, in a short time, began his journeys to the north.

Yet Livingstone’s anger is not the sneering, contemptuous hatred for the African which lies stinking on every page of travel diary by Stanley or Lugard, or the assumption of genetic African depravity which Livingstone so much detested in Burton. This harsh young man from Blantyre set his own standards for Africans to live up to and, when they failed, blamed them as he would have blamed himself. He was almost the last European—no, the last northern Protestant, for the Portuguese were different—to place himself in the same moral world as a man like Sechele.

Throughout the book, Mr. Jeal correctly plays up Livingstone’s changing attitude toward tribal customary society. He was exceptional from the beginning in his recognition that certain ceremonies were not just “heathen beastliness” but functional: the puberty ceremony was “more a national civil rite than a religious observance.” Logically, he came to see that Christianity could only reduce the efficiency of traditional Bantu society; it followed that tribal society would continue to resist missionary conversion until a new environment had been created which would render its fabric anachronistic. Livingstone was seeing things now with that terrible clarity which only the nineteenth-century giants could summon, cousin to Darwin and to Marx. This new environment could only be produced by European commerce, which would destroy the assumptions of a society based on cooperation and collective mutual obligation. When the traders had imported the cash nexus and the cotton gin, the teaching of Jesus would pour in through the breach and profit from moral confusion.

That remained Livingstone’s philosophy of African history. But it did not always affect his “subjective” feelings. He continued to love, in all honesty, that African scene which he believed must disappear and which has now almost entirely disappeared. “How often have I beheld, in still mornings, scenes the very essence of beauty…. Green grassy meadows, the cattle feeding, the goats browsing, the kids skipping, the groups of herdboys with miniature bows, arrows and spears; the women wending their way to the river with watering pots poised jauntily on their heads; men sewing under the shady banians; and old grey-headed fathers sitting on the ground, with staff in hand, listening to the morning gossip.” This is how Africans, not white men, remember their land.

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