Friday, June 17, 2011

Stanley & Livingstone

Currently my bedside book is Into Africa by Martin Dugard.

I bought this book when the paperback edition was released then moved before I could get to reading it, thus it has spent a few years in a box I had in storage. Recently I Netflixed a Stanley and Livingstone movie starring Aidin Quinn so I was primed to pull the book out and give it a go.

The book goes back and forth between Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone as one draws near the other. Back in college, I had written my term paper for a History of England course on this topic but never got beyond the basic encyclopedic details. This book has been rather enlightening, bringing more texture to the story than I had known. For those not familiar with this story, during the middle of the Victorian Era, the British Royal Geography Society explored Africa top to bottom, side to side, thus creating the backdrop, lore and tableau for countless adventure books and eventually movies. The very image of the khaki clad explorer with pith helmet and rifle comes from this period, nearly spanning the entirety of the 19th Century. Dr.David Livingstone, who was, following Sir Richard Francis Burton before him, the most popular of the explorers of the Dark Continent, was lost and presumed dead by some. All the British led expeditions to find him ended in failure but American newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett Jr put journalist adventurer Stanley on the job, which was kept secret, at first. The most familiar story has Stanley finding Livingstone and uttering the famous quote, "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"

As the book Into Africa reveals, the details of the story make it all the more interesting. I haven't finished it yet, but Stanley is a mere few hundred miles from Livingstone where my bookmark is currently tucked. So far, I have learned much more about both men, and even more reasons to respect and be amazed at the men who braved such exploration. Between the insects and the rigors of malaria and other forms of fever, including elephentiasis, it reminds me of what I do appreciate about our times. Probably the most enlightening is what is revealed about the two men themselves. Livingstone was a missionary, literally a man devoted to 'spreading the word', yet he also enjoyed the carnal delights Africa had to offer as regularly as available. Stanley, usually portrayed as the stalwart American hero good guy, appears to have actually been quite an asshole on many occasions. His view of the African porters trudging his gear through miles of jungle and other treacherous terrain was generally disdainful and often abusive. He is the only explorer I have ever read of being disrespectful to Sidi Bombay, the best known guide who worked with Burton, Speke and just about every other major African explorer of the 19th Century. Stanley, according to Dugard's book, had a checkered past as an explorer before the Livingstone expedition, once betraying a male colleague to a gang rape in Turkey to save his own ass. Throughout this book, one sees a Stanley going through several bouts of malarial hell and other fevers without much grace. To be fair, most people would likely not show their best side under those conditions, but much of Stanley's bad behavior occurs in between fevers when his wits were apparently clear. Admittedly, I haven't finished the book yet, so a redemption through revelation may yet happen to Stanley, but so far he's often a class A jerk. Still, I'm enjoying this read very much, as the details make it all the more textured and colorful. I must also note that there is a school of thought among some Brit writers that require the trashing of Americans and an American expedition finding Livingstone after so many British expeditions failed, during the height of Brit reputation for exploration, is rather embarrassing.

I recommend Into Africa to any fan of real life adventure and would like to see a movie based upon it. At one time, Robert Redford was reportedly interested in the story, but I haven't heard much about that since it was reported Brad Pitt was doing Lost City of Z. What a double feature that would make!

1 comment:

Walter Bosley said...

I am reaching the end of the book and I must say it has been a most satisfying read. As he drew nearer the conclusion of his quest, Stanley improved the morale of the expedition by proving more attainable as a human being. By the time he found Livingstone, according to this book, it seemed everyone involved was in good spirits. He actually began to feel guilty because his perception of the whole search for Livingstone implied he was seeking personal glory over rescuing a lost hero.
This book adapted properly would make a hell of a movie. I recommend it. WB