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BOOK REVIEW: Into Africa by Martin Dugard

Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and LivingstoneInto Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” These iconic words are culturally embedded in the psyche of Americans (and, I assume, the British as well), but I had only a vague understanding of their meaning before reading Dugard’s account of the two expeditions that would bring the phrase into household immortality—the first of which was Dr. David Livingstone’s search to once-and-for-all find the source of the Nile and the other was Henry Stanley’s search to discover whether Livingstone was still alive.

If one isn’t a diehard history buff, it can be hard to maintain one’s interest in events of almost 150 years ago. Let me assure you, this isn’t the case for stories of African explanation—including “Into Africa.” If the author is at all skilled, these books read like novels with an almost improbably high level and pace of tension. That’s because almost everything in Africa in those days was working against the explorer, and most things were actively trying to kill him. A summary of threats include: a panoply of diseases (e.g. malaria, dysentery, etc.), an ark of animals and insects (e.g. poisonous snakes, lions, elephants, rhinos, etc.), and of course tribes and other humans (e.g. one could find oneself caught in the cross-fire between Arab slave traders and tribes who resented being enslaved, even if one had no stake in the fight.) And if none of those killers got one (and at least some of them always did), your men might desert you in the middle of the night while absconding with all your goods—and those goods were how one paid for both one’s food and for safe passage through tribal lands. In Dugard’s work, one sees each of these threats played and replayed, as well as a host of others from political conflicts, incompetence, and disgruntledness. It should be noted that there was almost no precedence for sending someone to look for a lost explorer—it was considered so unlikely to succeed in that era, not to mention likely getting a lot more killed.

The book largely alternates chapters featuring Stanley with those featuring Livingstone. This is particularly the case once the book reaches the point at which Stanley is actively on the trail. These were very different men, but the name of each man became synonymous with courage. Stanley was an American journalist who made it to the top based solely on willingness to go places and do things other reporters wouldn’t. In fact, he had trouble making a go of his career starting out, and it wasn’t until a traumatic adventure that he developed the assertiveness to make something of himself. Livingstone was already a legend when he took on this expedition, and was arguably too far past prime to be taking on such an adventure. The men were also quite different as expedition leaders. Stanley ran his caravan with an iron fist, while Livingstone was known for being lax and easily distracted—while they were at opposite end of the spectrum in this regard, it seems likely that both would have succeeded better with more moderation.

At the book’s beginning there’s a conflict at the Royal Geographical Society between Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) and John Speke over the source of the Nile. Livingston, a living legend, was asked to investigate and settle the issue—an objective he didn’t complete. It should be noted that finding the river’s source isn’t as easy as it sounds. Speke was correct in that the Nile reached at least to Lake Victoria (at the equator), but it wasn’t clear whether Victoria was connected to other lakes in the southern hemisphere, and—if so—how far down it went. There was a chain of lakes to the south that might have drained into the Nile, but, as it happens, flow into the Congo River.

I found this to be fascinating reading. The book consists of 40 chapters divided among five parts, and so most of the chapters are quick reads and the interspersal of the Stanley and Livingstone story lines keeps the pacing going nicely. Dugard did a good job structuring the narrative.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about Stanley, Livingstone or who just want to know what it was like to be an explorer on the Dark Continent. [Fun-fact: While “dark continent” sounds blatantly racist, it turns out that the phrase was originally used in reference to the fact that so much of the map was blank—i.e. it was largely unmapped.]

View all my reviews


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