Brook Bakay'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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May 23, 12

Read from May 16 to 22, 2012

An excellent book, it would have received five stars if it weren't for the author's fanatical hatred of Richard Burton. According to Jeal, Burton did nothing that wasn't utterly despicable. Jeal will bring out the same quotes multiple times to prove his point. When talking about Burton, his writing devolves into rhetorical questions and reads like a high-school essay. I understand that he is reacting to the sensationalized portrayals by other biographers, and Burton himself, who was certainly one of history's greatest self-promoters. He's not the most likeable man, but Burton and Speke both behaved like children after their African adventure together, which is not the story Jeal tells. According to Jeal Speke was the perfect gentleman and Burton the lying coward. He spends a lot of time on Burton's character, even naming one of his chapters "About a Rotten Person." Reaction or no, this is not good history. Burton was a complex character and deserves better in this book than to be reduced to a cartoon villain.

The counterpart for Burton is Livingstone, and though Jeal accuses other biographers of hagiography, he certainly commits the same sin. When Livingstone is prevented from seeing if the river flowing out of his lake is going north (toward the Nile) because he simply can't buy boats from the suspicious natives and has to leave without knowing, Jeal portrays is as a tragedy. When Burton and Speke have the same problem, it's a failure in their character. Jeal even says Livingstone would never have allowed himself to be thwarted by such a thing, despite having previously described a very similar situation in which he was.

That aside, the book is rich in beautiful detail. It clearly describes the problems and dangers these men (and women) faced. At it's best, it is a rollicking adventure book. Jeal takes a very sensible approach to the benefits and problems of colonialism in Africa, and shows how some decisions have led to terrible problems (and others to to prosperous nations) today.

I highly recommend this book. Just read another Burton biography to get some perspective.
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