BOOK REVIEW / Mistah Kurtz - he bonkers: Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn: Hutchinson pounds 18.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FRANK McLYNN, the author of biographies of both Stanley and Burton, is a former Oxford history don bristling with prejudices, his frowning visage a basilisk of disapproval turned against the hapless subjects of this book, who are the English-speaking explorers of 19th-century Africa. Here, McLynn rehashes leftovers from his previous books in a sort of exploration bubble- and-squeak. His aim is to provide a 'sociology' of African exploration, though curiously he shys away from the concept itself as 'pretentious'.

After a cursory examination of such early explorers of West Africa as Mungo Park and Caille and Bruce in Ethiopia, he gets his teeth into the main prey - the mid- and late-Victorian explorers of Central and East Africa - Burton, Speke, Stanley, Livingstone, Samuel Baker and Co. McLynn's attitude to this job-lot is like the clergyman's towards sin - he's against it. Some of the gang are clearly worse than others, but McLynn doesn't hestitate to let us know at every turn that they were all wrong 'uns - undemocratic, reactionary, unecological, foolhardy. This is history of the sanctimonious, finger-wagging school; so remorseless does McLynn's moralistic nagging become that you start to feel a twinge of sympathy for even such arrogant, trigger-happy hearties as John Hanning Speke.

McLynn's thesis is that the explorers provided an 'objective correlative' to the African Darkness: that they themselves were driven by dark forces, were neurotics and pyschos to a man. Mistah Kurtz - he bonkers, in fact. McLynn has a further theory - that the 'Celts' (Irish, Scots and Welsh ) were somehow more 'natural' as explorers than the stuffy old public school Brits, because they were 'outsiders' and not, like Samuel Baker, 'establishment'. Lack of suitable prospects in Scotland, Wales and Ireland is a more prosaic if less chippy explanation.

McLynn is good on the minutae of exploration - trade goods, routes, food, languages, porters. His analysis of the inter-relationship between malaria, the tsetse fly zone, medical advances such as the discovery of quinine, and the economics of 19th-century African trade is detailed and perceptive. His examination of the swift advances in weaponry available to Europeans makes sound sense, and explains why Europeans succeeded so quickly in forcibly colonising the continent once the battle against disease had been won.

He is right, too, in identifying the Arab slave traders as the link between European demand for ivory and African desire for guns. The Arab traders captured slaves to transport ivory to the coast for export, taking Snider rifles back with them. Between 1885 and 1902, McLynn estimates, a million guns and four million pounds of gunpowder poured into British and German Africa alone, and between 1856 and 1876, Europe took 1.5 million tons of ivory a year from Africa (America took 150,000 tons as well), this representing at least 500,000 elephants killed each year.

The destruction of wildlife makes grim reading, though McLynn waxes more wrathful about this than the iniquities of the slave trade. Which brings us to the key problem with revisionist critiques such as this: does it matter that the author thinks Dr Livingstone was 'selfish, ambitious, obsessional, unforgiving, deceitful and lacking in compassion for his fellow Europeans'? Or is it more important that Livingstone devoted his life to propaganda against the slave trade in Africa, a crusade which subjected him to terrible hardships for no material gain, and which in the end killed him? Is it more important that McLynn thinks Sir Samuel Baker was 'the least attractive personality of all African explorers', or that he devoted much of his life and private fortune to exploring the Upper Nile, with the dream of stamping out slavery there: from which fate, in a truly Victorian act of gallantry, he redeemed from a Turkish slave market the woman who was to become his wife?

In even the saintly David Livingstone, McLynn sees only venality and egotism. 'What did the explorers gain by all their sufferings?', he even asks navely at one stage, missing the point completely.

There's no generosity of imagination in this book, and precious little understanding, either, of what motivated the Victorian explorers to go to Africa - evangelical Christianity, lust for fame, power and wealth, the cult of the hero, a nave positivist belief in progress as well as providence. Instead there's a petty carping tone which ill matches the author's scholarship. His own motivation is suspect - the envy of rich toffs and the ceaseless harping on class origins suggest a sense of personal grievance projected on to his subjects.

The conclusion is that the explorers were psychotic to the point of being clinically insane. Translated from psychobabble, this means McLynn thinks they were Bad, Bad People. Melanie Klein is even dragged in to suggest that a child's sexual exploration of its mother's body could contribute to man's desire to explore new countries. Um, well . . . and so to Eros and Thanatos, the death wish, repressed homosexuality, mother fixation, the schizoid personality, and the whole panoply of neo- Freudian arcana.

The Victorian explorers of Africa were a blend of cupidity and piety, immense self-confidence allied to remarkable industry and energy, with a central belief in their civilisation and the rightness of what they were doing. Of course we don't approve of them now - how could we? - we have to live with all their mistakes, just as the future will have to live, or die, with ours. Self-righteous fulminating does not help us understand them, or ourselves, any better.