Sheri's Reviews > Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal
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's review
Apr 06, 2012

really liked it
Read in April, 2012

"Livingstone, I presume?" You finally reach this point about half way through the book, when explorer Stanley (not who he seems) finally succeeds in locating the long lost legendary explorer Livingstone. Before that, the physical dangers & travails of the many British explorers of the Nile headwaters are already pretty amazing. Coupled with the remarkable hardships experienced by the explorers themselves are the usually brutal treatment they give their African porters. Besides the beatings they frequently dished out, these British "heroes" often departed for home without paying their bearers & porters the promised compensation. And when I say "bearers," I mean just that. Some of these explorers explored the Nile basin while being carried flat on their backs on beds & litters, near death, sometimes for months on end. The nasty egos & battles between these explorers for primacy, taken to the point of publishing lies about each other & making false speeches about each other back in merry olde England at the Royal Geographic Society meetings, make the 2012 Republican primary look like a happy family wedding.

The final section of this book attempts to analyze the impact of the British explorations. In a nutshell, exploration was followed inevitably by imperialism. The African "land rush" between Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium led to some pretty awful boundaries being drawn, largely on the basis of the interests of these European countries vis-a-vis each other, rather than along more natural tribal lines. Many of those boundaries remain today, and put Tutsis and Hutus together in Rwanda, instead as separate tribal nations, and put the south Sudan African tribes in the same nation as the Arabs up in Khartoum (resulting in 40 years of civil war, the newly created nation of South Sudan just last year, and now border incursions across that border).

The slave trade was principally conducted by Arabs against tribes in central Africa, and secondarily by tribe against tribe. Much of the incentive for the slave trade was to obtain western trade goods (cloth, cookware, guns, etc.). Not surprisingly, European traders didn't want agricultural products in return for their goods; they wanted slaves. And they left almost all of the dirty work in acquiring those slaves to Arab middle-men who went to central African villages to capture or buy slaves. A few tribes resisted slavers' efforts with success, but most weren't powerful enough to fight off slavers with guns. For those tribes, they either lost people from raids, or capitulated to the "market," and began selling their less desirable members to the slavers to avoid attacks on the tribe as a whole. The slavers rampages through central Africa cause great fear and hatred by tribes against all strangers who entered their turf, making the explorations of the British even more dangerous -- the explorers were perceived as slavers themselves, or at least supportive of slavery. The danger of attack by tribes then led the explorers to travel along with the better-armed Arab slavers, cementing that impression even further. Ultimately, the British identified much more strongly with the Arabs than with the central African tribes, largely out of self-interest. But, hey, that's where the oil is, and if you look at American interests today, our nation is much more interested in Arab nations & international policies than with what's going on in central Africa.

All in all, this was a fascinating book.

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