Trevor's Reviews > Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone

Into Africa by Martin Dugard
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Jun 12, 09

bookshelves: history

After a while I stopped noticing how badly written this book was and just went with the flow of the story. Sometimes this was very difficult, as there were lots and lots of adverbs and no noun seemed to ever be deprived of an adjective. No one ever went into a town: rather they rushed or scampered or sauntered or something equally silly. Clearly the writer must have had to read lots and lots of Victorian English to put this book together and this told in his style. Worst of all was the hyperbole about the remarkable achievements of these two men. I don’t know if it is really reasonable to say this was one of the greatest epic stories of all time. You know, it seemed to be basically the story of a couple of blokes more or less lost somewhere they quite frankly didn’t belong in the first place. Perhaps I am being too harsh?

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with ‘Adventurers’. I’ve always been quite sympathetic to the view that huskies should be trained to eat those on their way to the North Pole (either magnetic or true) as soon as the first snow begins to fall or after their 100th call of ‘mush’. I tend to look on in disgust while tax payer money is spent rescuing some fat-arsed English gentleman who doesn’t realise that his yacht should always remain with its sail pointing out of the water. I don’t know much about sailing, but I do know that So, I wasn’t really expecting to feel very much sympathy for any of these ‘lions’.

And so I was as surprised as anyone when I did feel sympathy. The writer cleverly understood that if you want to find the link that will immediately bind all men together in a tight brotherhood you merely require a discussion of the immanent threat of castration or of multitudinous illnesses of the testicles, particularly elephantiasis that ends with the phrase ‘one foot in diameter’ and suddenly I’m using nearly as many adverbs as the writer did and cheering on the boys with the best of them. I’ve even started saying, “There were made of sterner stuff in those days”.

The story of Speke and Burton is the beginning of the homo-erotic aspect of this book – and, let’s face it, all ‘boy’s own’ stories are always guaranteed a homo-erotic element. There was speculation that these two were lovers. Anyway, during their first exploration into Africa they landed in an area where the locals tended to cut off the penises of the enemy they captured. There was a fight in which Burton got a spear through the face (through his cheeks) and Speke was captured and the natives began fondling his genitals while trying to make up their minds about how to remove them in an appropriately painful and humiliating way, when they became distracted and thought that they should save that particular pleasure for a little later. To keep him in his place they ran spears through his legs severing muscles. All the same, (in what I hope taught the African Natives the lesson to never leave until tomorrow what you can do today, Speke evaded them by crawling and dragging himself for three miles to safety. Why am I telling you this story? Well, mostly because of what the author said next that ‘lessor men’ following such an experience might give up exploring, but not these two.

I kid you not! He actually used the phrase ‘lessor men’. As one of those lessor men I was still not convinced that returning to Africa after a tribe has fondled your genitals as a prelude to providing you with a free castration does not necessarily make you a morer man. In fact, I would have said that behaviour like that on behalf of the locals probably means that you aren’t really welcome and that you should probably just take the hint.

I read this book because I was hoping for a description of how we found the source of the Nile. Herodotus whetted my appetite for this subject with his description of his efforts to find ‘the source’ and his speculations on what the source might be. There was then a huge falling out between Burton and Speke after their second African holiday about where the Nile started, and to settle this disagreement between the two of them Livingstone began his touring of East Africa for years. Livingstone wanted resolve who was right, but also, wanted to prove them both wrong and to prove Herodotus right by finding his mythical ‘fountains of the Nile’.

The two main characters of this book are Livingstone and Stanley. Livingstone basically spent years screwing his way across Africa. This proved to be too much for Victorian England who could not believe that their favourite son was engaged in a Touring and Whoring expedition and filling his journals with comments on how beautiful the women where. He was very much the sort of man who figured that you are more likely to get what you want with a teaspoon of honey. He was strongly opposed to slavery and this was part of the reason why none of his letters ever got home, as the Arab Slave Traders that were given his mail destroyed it soon after he left them with them as they were afraid he would encourage the world to try to stop their very profitable business. Livingstone was a bit nutty, but nutty in a good way, and I ended up quite fond of him.

Stanley wasn’t really an American, wasn’t really called Stanley and definitely wasn’t really all that nice. He had a thing for young boys which conveniently continued the homo-erotic theme of this book which you might have thought ended with Speke and Burton. He was also a bastard, in all senses of the word. A very strange man, he may not have spent as much time having sex with the local women as Livingstone seems to (although, he did seem to start to fancy the local women much more as time went on) but rather what he liked much more was beating people for getting sick and not marching quick enough. Despite the fact that he was rather tall, he really did suffer from what is generally referred to as ‘short-man syndrome’. Despite all attempts to make Stanley look human in this book, I still came away not liking him at all. That he later went on to help set up the Belgian Congo pretty much sealed his fate for me.

Livingstone was attacked by a lion at one point in the story and it is described in the book as an epiphany for him – he was never to feel fear again from what I can make out. Now this is very interesting as Livingstone’s view of this experience is much the same as that put forward in Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. Basically, that from the moment a great cat has us in its power we have an evolved trait that makes us relax and not feel pain or fear. Chatwin creates an entire myth around this about an ancient (and now extinct) great cat that hunted and haunted our existence while we were hunter gatherers and this fearless state we feel in the jaws of a great cat is an evolved trait (though how it could have ‘evolved’ is a little hard to explain given you would seem to be about to join the ranks of the Darwin Award Winners). Livingstone comes to much the same conclusion as Chatwin, but instead places the success of this trait as being due to divine grace. Either way, I think it is interesting and would like to know if this has been documented elsewhere as being something we experience while being eaten by great cats.

Like I said, there were many things about this book I didn’t like, the gushing prose not the least. But the book has enough redeeming features to make it worthwhile and some of the historical curiosities and stories do make this amusing.

If you want to see why Simon Winchester is such a good writer a quick comparison between any of his and this one would be a very worthwhile exercise.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Eric_W (new) - added it

Eric_W Terrific review. I especially liked the third paragraph.


message 2: by Paul (new)

Paul Great review - again, thanks for reading this so that I don't have to!


Trevor And it was long, but sometimes a man's got to do what a man's got to do.


message 4: by Paul (new)

Paul And sometimes a man's got to read about genital disease and mutilation.


message 5: by Beth (new)

Beth Brilliant review. So good in fact, that I laughed out loud and was almost tempted to read this, even with your very helpful warnings about the awful writing.


Trevor It is frightening how quickly you get used to the writing. After a while I had to focus to notice it. Some of the hardships endured were remarkable and almost sounded made up. Like Burton getting a spear through the head, for example. I mean, if you must insist on having a spear go in one side and out the other of your head, ending up with only pierced cheeks and a couple of missing teeth is probably as good a result as you can reasonably hope for.


message 7: by Paul (new)

Paul Actually that is something the modern body piercing community is quite familiar with these days. In the catalogues it's called the Double Burton in his honour, like the Double Prince Albert is named after that gentleman.


message 8: by Richard (new)

Richard Paul wrote: "...like the Double Prince Albert is named after that gentleman."

I hadn't realized the Prince Albert was originally due to an injury caused by xenophobic primitives throwing spears. Fascinating.


Trevor All part of the white man's burden, I suspect.


message 10: by Manny (new)

Manny Great review! Somehow missed it when it came out. By the way, are you aware that Richard Burton is the main character in Philip Jose Farmer's SF novel, To Your Scattered Bodies Go? A lot of remorse and guilt about Speke...



message 11: by Jessica (new)

Jessica highly entertaining review!
thank you!


message 12: by Brad (new)

Brad I actually choked on my bagel and cream cheese when I read: "returning to Africa after a tribe has fondled your genitals as a prelude to providing you with a free castration does not necessarily makes you a morer man." Then I instinctively reached down to make sure I was still intact. There is definitely something to the universal brotherhood of testicle pain to bring the boys together.


Trevor I must try to track it down, Manny - the Burton
/ Speke story really is amazing. I watched the film Mountains of the Moon when it came out, but mostly all I can remember now is Burton smoking a cigar with his brandy.

and I must fix that 'makes'


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