Explorers of the Nile
Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure
Faber 494pp £25
It is more than 50 years since Alan Moorehead wrote The White Nile, his magisterial study of efforts to find the source of the great river that rises in the lakes of central Africa and flows down through the swamps of southern Sudan to bring life to the cotton fields of Egypt, before reaching the Mediterranean.
Having written biographies of David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, two of the quintet of great Victorian explorers of the Nile (the others being John Hanning Speke, Richard Burton and Samuel Baker), Tim Jeal is well placed to bring this story up to date.
While mindful of some of the absurdities and cruelties of their missions, Jeal is refreshingly sympathetic to the anti-slavery ideals of men such as Livingstone, as well as to the old-fashioned romanticism of Burton and Speke – before such qualities were overtaken by more political and commercial considerations in the age of late Victorian imperialism.
He recreates the mosquito-infested journeys and reveals the complex personal relationships, as Livingtone’s early ventures to Lake Nyasa give way to the rivalry between Burton and Speke, who ventured north to Lakes Tanganyika, Victoria and Albert. Jeal confirms that Speke was the first man to find the source of the Nile (on Lake Victoria) and was later traduced by Burton, who suggested that his rival’s suicide in 1864, shortly before a scheduled debate between them, resulted from the uncertainty of his claims.
Jeal writes interestingly when he leaves his comfort zone of quasi-biographical enquiry and tackles the geopolitical consequences of finding the source of the Nile. Since Baker was working for the Egyptian khedive, his efforts brought the Upper Nile within the orbit of Egypt and thus of British strategic aims, geared to protecting the Suez Canal and India.
Matters were upset by the activities of the fundamentalist Sudanese leader, the Mahdi, and the killing of General Gordon in 1885. It took more than a decade before the British could gather an army of revenge and defeat the Mahdi at Omdurman in 1898. Thereafter Sudan became virtually a British colony. But it was split between an Arabised north and a Nilotic south, known as Equatoria, whose boundaries remained uncertain.
Jeal is scathing about Britain’s failure to resolve this issue. He argues that the Sudanese Political Service (‘the blacks ruled by the blues’) should have secured a future for greater Equatoria, including much of northern Uganda. But they were held back by obligations to the Sudanese of the north and by the Colonial Office’s preference for a larger, more diverse Uganda, incorporating not only the tribes of the south (particularly the Buganda) but also the martial Acholi of the north.
Inevitably the new protectorate of Uganda required supplying, so the ‘Lunatic Railway’ was built from Mombasa. When the costs went over budget, it was proposed that white settlers should be introduced to the Kenyan highlands to help pay off the debt. Thus history creates its own meandering channels, as Jeal charts so convincingly and entertainingly.
Andrew Lycett is the author of The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes (Simon and Schuster, 2008).
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