The Niger Quest
J.H. Plumb documents the repeated attempts by British explorers and abolitionists to open West Africa for the Empire.
In the nineteenth century, tropical Africa, vast, unknown, difficult of access, was a challenge to men of courage. It would be hard to find three men more varied in character than Mungo Park, David Livingstone, and H.M. Stanley, or three men so courageous. Yet their courage sprang from widely different sources. Park was born indifferent to the sweetness and the charm of life. In his grey world, the mysterious and pre-ordained ways of God brought inevitable suffering. He endured degradation and hardship with patience; for in that endurance Park found the meaning of his existence. To Park, the human tragedy was irrelevant and meaningless, whereas it racked Livingstone, who was driven by a saint-like compassion for primitive suffering, for there, and there alone, he could follow absolutely the dictates of his own nature. His vast pity brought him back again and again to Africa until it claimed him like an obsession, and his last mad wandering journey has the quality of a myth. How vivid the contrast with Stanley! Hewing and hacking and shooting his way through Africa, Stanley seems the embodiment of courage at its most muscular and active. Yet, of the three, Park’scourage had the starkest quality. Livingstone was sustained almost to the end by his sense of mission; Stanley knew that success would bring fame and glory and wealth; but Park was supported only by the knowledge that he was the instrument of God’s inscrutable purpose, doomed either to discover the termination of the Niger or to perish in the attempt.
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