Thursday, April 7, 2011

Martin Dugard's "Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone" (Cadillac)

Most everybody raised in the Western world up to my generation just *knows* the statement, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"   Like me, most don't give much thought to the story that was the genesis of the meme.  They should.  It's an amazing one.

There's a great deal to unpack from this simple meme.  Too much to give justice to here, but something Dugard achieves sharply in just over 300 pages.  Livingstone, a 'lion' of Britain's RGS (Royal Geographical Society), is lost in the depths of Africa looking to resolve the dispute of the Nile's source.  In 1871, Stanley, a journalist with a sketchy but adventurous and entrepreneurial past, subsidized by the New York Herald, sets out to rescue Livingstone or determine his fate, to boost readership and thumb the nose of the Yankees at the expense of the Brits.

This in itself is amazing stuff.  The account of Livingstone's multiple expeditions in Africa (he walked across the continent, the first European to do so), Stanley's early adventures as an orphan at sea, in the Civil War (fighting on both sides) and Indian Wars in the American West (meeting and knowing Custer, Hickok, etc.), as well as the epic journey of each in context of this famous meeting make for really engrossing reading.  Just stunning stuff.  Dugard goes further.

This story comes at the intersection of some very meaty historical trajectories, and Dugard's narrative gives due attention to each of them without washing out the core of the story.  The open to Dugard's Epilogue captures this perfectly:
"The saga of Stanley and Livingstone sparked an unlikely turning point in history.  Journalism's growing power, America's ascendance and Britain's eventual eclipse, one generation of explorer giving way to another, and the opening of Africa - all were either foreshadowed or came about as the result of Livingstone's love affair with Africa and Stanley's unlikely march to find him."

The colonial legacy that followed shortly thereafter is a great tragedy of history and stain on our collective humanity, one that Stanley himself catalyzed in helping Belgium and Leopold II colonize the Congo (and something that haunted him for the remainder of his days, despite the many astounding discoveries and achievements that followed 'Livingstone').

Though Joseph Conrad criticized the Stanley expedition as a media stunt, some suggest his classic 'Heart of Darkness' is a (dark?) mirror image of the saga.  This stands to my amateur scrutiny.  Livingstone [in the role of Kurtz] was a toothless, broken man/missionary by the time Stanley found him - often muttering to himself without realizing it.  Stanley himself was wracked with moral issues and haunted by a past he needed to escape, with the trial of pressing ever deeper into the continent acting as a self-inflicted crucible.  Each of these strands are followed by Dugard in exploring the motivations and psychology of each adventurer.  

Well, well worth the read...

Henry Morton Stanley (right).

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