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Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian… (2011)

by Tim Jeal

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242579,265 (3.73)10
"Nothing obsessed explorers of the mid-nineteenth century more than the quest to discover the source of the White Nile. It was the planet's most elusive secret, the prize coveted above all others. Between 1856 and 1876, six larger-than-life men and one extraordinary woman accepted the challenge. Showing extreme courage and resilience, Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Samuel Baker, Florence von Sass, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley risked their lives and reputations in the fierce competition. Award-winning author Tim Jeal deploys fascinating new research to provide a vivid tableau of the unmapped 'Dark Continent,' its jungle deprivations, and the courage--as well as malicious tactics--of the explorers. On multiple forays launched into east and central Africa, the travelers passed through almost impenetrable terrain and suffered the ravages of flesh-eating ulcers, paralysis, malaria, deep spear wounds, and even death. They discovered Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria and became the first white people to encounter the kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro. Jeal weaves the story with authentic new detail and examines the tragic unintended legacy of the Nile search that still casts a long shadow over the people of Uganda and Sudan."--Publisher's website.… (more)

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Showing 5 of 5
Biography tends to be regarded somewhat askance among academic historians, particularly those working within universities and institutions of higher learning. And that is a pity, because so much of history as a popular source of knowledge of nations, countries, and world events comes to us through that filter. And then there are works such as Tim Jeal's, which lift the genre to an even higher estimation.

Jeal's work on the Nile explorers of the nineteenth century is that important. It revises the assessment mostly handed down for the past 150 years or so of John Hanning Speke as an opportunist who stole the glory appropriately belonging to Richard F. Burton. Jeal shreds that argument apart through his investigations of Burton's and Speke's own works and the heretofore unknown documentation now available from recently discovered archival material, manuscripts, and writings. What emerges is a portrait of Speke as an irascible individual who promoted himself rather poorly. Yet he is seen as someone who is also forthright, dogged, and possessed of a strong moral sense. The same cannot be said for Burton, who Jeal successfully proves spent a lifetime building a publicity campaign attacking Speke while generating undeserved praise for himself.

That is at the core of the book. There are also chapters on Stanley and Livingstone and Samuel Baker. Jeal makes the case that each man, even Burton, was sincere in their opposition to slavery. And their proposals for free trade and commerce were built upon a true humanitarian desire to see central Africa develop the means and strength to protect itself from slavers. Jeal doesn't hold back on these people's shortcomings, but he gives them their dues as men interested in projecting their faith and sincerely seeking out knowledge for the betterment of mankind.

In achieving this goal, Jeal also neatly delineates between this era of exploration and adventure and the one that immediately came after, the so-called "Scramble for Africa" and inroads made into Africa by European imperialism. They are separate ideas, according to Jeal, with the exploitive commercial nature and power politics of the latter era desperately different in motivation than the decades in which Livingstone, Stanley, Baker, Speke, and Burton actually hoped to intervene to stop an evil practice, slavery. For those interested, an even greater revisionist effort is put forth in Jeal's subsequent independent biography of Stanley.

If there is one weakness in this book, it comes with the last two chapters. For some reason, Jeal goes off on a tangent and writes about "what if." He spends too much time fantasizing about what could have happened had British policy in particular been different in Darfur and in Uganda, the area designated as Equatoria. If only a separate Equatoria had been carved out, muses Jeal, then perhaps there would have been no Sudanese civil war and perhaps no Idi Amin in Uganda. Too much irrelevant speculation, here, because it didn't happen. Still, a landmark history of Africa and Britain's role, there. And written with fairness. ( )
  PaulCornelius | Apr 12, 2020 |
Good eye opening account of the tribulations of African exploration definitely not a walk in the park. ( )
  charlie68 | Oct 10, 2016 |
The Nile River might have been one of the cradles of early civilization, but the source of that great river remained a mystery until the Victorian Era. As scientific exploration all around the planet became in vogue, much of it sponsored in England. The source of the Nile, as well as the exploration of central Africa, received considerable attention at this time.

Among those who sought to confirm their theories was Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, and Samuel Baker. Raising money to fund an expedition was the least of their worries...once one the move, expeditions would run afoul of local wars, slave traders, cannibals, and endless biological agents - infections, diseases, and other critters. In many cases, a large number of the original party would succumb, and sometimes even their famous leaders.

The difficulties of the challenge cannot be overestimated. A year or more could be spent pursuing a dead end, a lake with other tributaries, or a morass of shifting channels. The region was rife with tribal warfare, and Caucasian explorers were only sometimes tolerated. Local diplomacy was a necessary skill that all explorers had to work on, although some, like Burton, couldn't ever overcome his prejudices to be successful.

A good map would be a welcome accompiament to this book. Google Maps was often insufficient in locating every place covered in this book. I was a little surprised though about how far west into central Africa the quest took some explorers: indeed, it was often an elaborate detour to figure out if a particular river was a tributary to the Nile or the Congo.

At the end of the book, Jeal takes us from Stanley's second expedition (his first was to locate Dr. Livingstone) up to modern times. Some of the tribal discord discovered then holds true today. It was a nice touch to see the continuity from this period of time to the present, and helps to understand some of what goes on in the world's backwater. ( )
  JeffV | Apr 3, 2016 |
I found this very interesting - see my review http://www.dnsmedia.co.uk/reviews/view/1099 ( )
  AnneHudson | Dec 26, 2012 |
Very interesting history of the European discovery of central Africa during the search for the source of the Nile, mainly in the 1860s and 70s. The primary actors were Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Grant, Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone and Samuel Baker, although there are more in this generous book. Jeal recounts their journeys with an emphasis on setting the record straight behind the legends built up over the years. He reveals Burton to be a duplicitous jerk hardly worthy of the title "explorer", while John Hanning Speke, historically vilified, is the surprise hero of the story. The relationship of Livingstone and Stanley is revealing in how the later was able to leverage the formers good reputation into his own by deifying his mentor. The wealthy gentleman explorer Samuel Baker and his slave/wife was a story I had never heard of but fascinating for their accomplishments and experiences. Their story would make great fiction or film. Baker also seems to have written the most readable contemporary account, The Albert N'yanza; great basin of the Nile, and explorations of the Nile sources, though Speke's book Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile looks good too. Tim Jeal is probably the most authoritative writer on this subject and this book moves the scholarship forward with his discovery of Spekes previously unpublished papers. Jeal has previously published detailed biographies of Livingstone and of Stanley, so he doesn't go into lengthy bios in this book, but does give pretty detailed accounts of the expeditions in search of the Nile and places them in context with African history that makes it more than just an adventure story. ( )
2 vote Stbalbach | Feb 11, 2012 |
Showing 5 of 5
“Explorers of the Nile” is a brilliant, scholarly and at times almost unreadably vivid account of the two decades in the middle of the 19th century when the search for the Nile’s source in central Africa was at its height, told through the interlocking stories of Livingstone, Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Grant, Samuel Baker and Henry Morton Stanley.
"Explorers of the Nile," Tim Jeal's engaging biographical study of the 19th-century adventurers who dared—clamored, even—to face these dangers does not stint on the brutal deaths met by many of them: Mungo Park probably drowned, Richard Lander was shot, the Dutchwoman Alexine Tinné was hacked to death, the French naval officer M. Maizan was mutilated, then beheaded. Yet reports of these grim ends seemed, if anything, a spur to other explorers, and Mr. Jeal examines the reasons, both spoken and unspoken, behind this lust for discovery.
added by tim.taylor | editThe Wall Street Journal, Judith Flanders (pay site) (Nov 12, 2011)
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