Tim Jeal Responds to Review of Explorers of the Nile…

...and Dane Kennedy, author of the review, replies to Jeal. Now also includes final response from Tim Jeal (2/2/12).

Tim Jeal, author of Explorers of the Nile, responds to the review by Dane Kennedy.

In reviewing my Explorers of the Nile, Professor Kennedy wrote that, after finishing the Nile search, I turned my attention to “the British colonial conquest of Kenya, Uganda and Sudan. Was this a worthy end to their [the explorers’] efforts? Jeal obviously thinks so, though he feels Britain should have stayed longer in Africa. It is a conclusion entirely consistent with the imperial nostalgia that courses through this flawed effort …”

In fact “imperial nostalgia” is totally inconsistent with the argument of the final quarter of my book. I stated that if Britain had not occupied the Nile basin “the tragic twentieth-century war in southern Sudan might never have happened. Nor might the north/south divide in Uganda have come into existence to cause so much bloodshed and misery in that country.” I described how Equatoria’s “tragedy moved closer when Britain allocated half the 800-mile wide and 500-mile deep territory to Uganda and the other half to Sudan.” Then I devoted an entire chapter to Britain’s woeful administration of the Sudan, including the civil servants’ belief that by withdrawing in 1956 they had abandoned the South to its fate at the hands of the northerners. This was the specific context in which I suggested Britain should have stayed longer. “The seeds of future disaster were planted by the British” I stated at the start of the chapter headed “A Sin not Theirs,” in which I placed the blame for the bloodshed in Uganda largely on Britain. None of this is remotely “consistent with imperial nostalgia.”

Instead of acknowledging that in Explorers of the Nile and in my biographies, I made significant research discoveries, increasing our knowledge of these individuals’ lives — and yes, changing the conventional view of them — Kennedy described my overturning of the status quo as “a strategy” for creating simplistic oppositions and contrasts rather than as a legitimate attempt to reassess past certainties in the light of newly discovered letters and journals. But had I not argued my case on the basis of solid new evidence, none of my biographies would have been well-received and all would be out of print. But my life of Livingstone is still selling forty years after its first publication, and Stanley won prizes in Britain and America.

Kennedy suggested that I was equivocal about Livingstone, Stanley and Baker having travelled with slave traders. I stated very clearly that they did. Deserted by porters, and lacking the trade goods to proceed unaided, they reluctantly chose to accept such help rather than abandon their travels. If Livingstone had abandoned his, Stanley would never have taken home news of the massacre at Nyangwe and other killings, and the House of Commons Select Committee investigating the East African Slave Trade would not have recommended that the British government close the Zanzibar slave market and end the seaborne trade. So if Livingstone had returned to the coast, the seaborne trade would have continued for decades. Kennedy imputed disingenuousness to Livingstone and Stanley because they accepted Arab-Swahili aid, and praised Burton for lacking their hypocrisy. Burton called the Royal Navy’s Anti-Slavery flotilla “the sentimental squadron” and opposed its role in preventing the export of slaves. I hope Kennedy would not praise him for that too. For Livingstone, being thought a hypocrite was a small price to pay for exposing the slave trade.

Kennedy’s suggestion that Livingstone and Stanley did not encounter cannibalism in the eastern Congo flies in the face of many diary entries by both men, as well as by Pocock, Bonny, Jephson, and the missionaries Bentley and Comber, who worked in the region for decades. In 2003, press reports appeared containing eye-witness accounts of cannibal practices in eastern Congo. Kennedy’s “Africanists” should think again.

I did not say that the Ugandan child converts were “roasted” to imply that they were later eaten. I used that word because the victims were impaled on a spit which was turned over a fire. I made clear that Kabaka Mwanga had not acted mindlessly but in the belief that “white men had put their heads together to steal his country. It was a natural conclusion to have drawn.”

Kennedy caricatured my remarks about Livingstone’s followers to make it seem that I supported the old view of them as devoted and faithful. In fact I emphasised his constant troubles with his porters and servants and their indifference to his wishes. (My biography was the first to do this.) The claim that I stereotypically made them “respect” him as “a great man” is nonsense. I used that expression only in relation to their brave decision to bring his dead body to the coast. By carrying a corpse they knew they would be vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, and they expected no thanks from the British Consul at Zanzibar, so it is hard to imagine what else — apart from respect for him – might have motivated their behaviour.

Like many academic historians, Kennedy seems inclined to dismiss the work of non-academics because they do not share his preconceptions and do not write their books from the perspective that he would have adopted if dealing with the same material. In my opinion this specialism can blind academics to the substance of the book that has actually been written and lead them as reviewers to give a poor service to general readers. A comparison of the reviews of my book on this website and in the New York Times and the TLS illustrates this point starkly. But perhaps this website is not aimed at general readers.

Tim Jeal

Dane Kennedy replies to Tim Jeal

It is telling that Mr. Jeal begins his screed by insisting that I am wrong to suggest that he believes “Britain should have stayed longer in Africa.”  Those are his words, not mine, and I clearly indicate the fact in my review by placing the statement (which appears on page 418 of his book) in quotes. Yet Mr. Jeal removes the quotes, making it seem that the statement is an invention of my own. It is true that he argues near the end of his book that British colonial authorities made some grievous mistakes in Africa, but he endorses the explorers’ view that colonial rule was essential to the elimination of a greater evil, the slave trade, and he laments the fact that the British were forced out of Africa before they could rectify their mistakes. If this is not imperial nostalgia, I don’t know what is. (Jeal has complained elsewhere about “post-imperial guilt” and campaigned for a statue to honor Henry Morton Stanley, whose “colonial sympathies” he acknowledges and defends. See Tim Jeal, “Remembering Henry Stanley,” The Telegraph, 3/18/2011).

Jeal tries to have it both ways.  He assures us that his book acknowledges explorers’ associations with slave traders, yet it concludes with a panegyric to the “courage and vision of this small group” of “nineteenth-century humanitarians.” You can only reconcile those positions if you believe that explorers’ associations with slave traders did not entail any complicity in the slaving system. This is what I challenged in my review.

Jeal claims that I caricature his portrayal of Livingstone’s African assistants as being besotted by the “great man,” then goes on to say that when they carried his body to the coast, “it is hard to imagine what else … might have motivated their behavior.” Here’s one motivation advanced by historians: Livingstone’s assistants feared being accused by British authorities of having abandoned him or even having contributed to his death. They needed to prove their innocence.

Jeal insists he did not mean to impute cannibalistic intentions when he refers to the “roasting” of Bugandan Christians who were executed by their ruler, yet he claims that cannibalism was common in the eastern Congo (a geographical delimitation that isn’t apparent in the book), citing as evidence the reports of explorers. Well, reports also circulated among Africans that explorers were cannibals, but we don’t take them seriously. Scholars who have studied African societies have cautioned us to be skeptical of the claims of explorers as well: they often imagined that cannibals were lurking behind every bush. Jeal, however, uncritically accepts what they say about this and much else regarding Africans.

In the end, Jeal attributes my objections to his book to the fact that I am an academic historian who has “preconceptions” that prevent me from fairly reviewing non-academic historians’ works. Exactly what those preconceptions might be (or why they didn’t cause me to criticize another non-academic historian in an earlier review for The Independent) aren’t explained. It seems fair to say that Jeal would prefer to be reviewed by someone who has no specialized knowledge of his subject, as was the case in those New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement reviews he mentions with approval. Perhaps he would prefer that I should simply echo the judgments offered in those august publications, but I stand by my review.

Dane Kennedy

A final word from Tim Jeal (added 2/2/12)

I would be wronging the memory of Livingstone’s African assistants, five of whom served him for almost a decade, if I left unchallenged Kennedy’s ungenerous suggestion that they carried his body to the coast (a journey taking five months) not out of respect but to avoid accusations of murder or abandonment. To suppose they were unaware that his journals (which they were also carrying) would record the progress of his final illness is to insult their intelligence. En route they encountered V. L. Cameron, an officer sent by the RGS to help Livingstone finish his work. Cameron accepted that Livingstone had died of natural causes and urged the men to bury his body immediately to avoid being attacked as witches. If fear of becoming suspects had really motivated them, they would have done as Cameron advised the moment they thought themselves above suspicion. But they refused indignantly out of respect, preferring to deliver Livingstone’s body to his own countrymen at whatever risk.

“Complicity” is usually defined as being a willing accomplice to a crime or reprehensible act, and yet Dane Kennedy says that Livingstone and other explorers were guilty of “complicity in the slaving system.” Undoubtedly, when in dire straits, they sometimes travelled with Arab-Swahili slave traders. But Stanley loathed the trade’s “indescribable inhumanity,” Speke said participants were “conniving at murder,” and Livingstone denounced it as “this open sore of the word.” Because his porters often deserted, Livingstone travelled with slavers more frequently than did other explorers, but was he guilty of “complicity” when he used the experience to document their crimes and destroy the trade?

Kennedy says explorers imagined cannibals behind every bush, but when Stanley stated that he found near Nyangwe “the thin forearm of a person near a fire, with certain scorched ribs,” and William Hoffman, working in eastern Congo, wrote of the Batetela “cutting all the chair humaine [human flesh]” from captives and eating it, was this imagined? When one of Livingstone’s servants was killed and eaten and his master received “indisputable proof,” should I doubt his reluctant admission: “They are cannibals, but not ostentatiously so.?” J. S. Jameson paid to sketch the scene while cannibals killed, cooked and ate an eight year-old girl. Bonny and Stanley saw his sketches and wished they hadn’t. These things happened.

Professor Kennedy clearly thinks that reviewers, like himself, with “specialist knowledge,” do a better job for potential readers of all sorts than gifted non-specialists like Ben Macintyre and William Boyd (who reviewed my book in the New York Times and TLS respectively). Let’s just say that Kennedy must be a self-confident man.

Tim Jeal

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