Monday, February 12, 2007

Presumed guilty

Spoilsport Tim Jeal has written a book about Henry Stanley suggesting that he probably lied about saying “Dr Livingstone, I presume” upon finding the latter in Tanzania after a long search.

Jeal reveals that Stanley had always been impressed by the tight-lipped Englishness of army officers, and he particularly loved an anecdote about two English gentlemen who had passed each other in the wilds of Palestine and merely lifted their caps to each other. As a result he invented the famous phrase about his meeting with Livingstone, having asked himself the question: 'What would a gent have said?'

Jeal does however lament the fact that this prime example of understatement has come to be the only thing for which Stanley is remembered, while his prodigious achievements in exploration are forgotten.

In fact, it’s worse than that, because the apocryphal tale also overshadows Livingstone’s remarkable life.

David Livingstone is the embodiment of Victorian Man – all Christian drive, commercial idealism and humanitarian zeal. As a child, labouring in the Lanarkshire cotton mills, he taught himself Greek and Latin. As a missionary and explorer in Africa he was indomitable. He named the Victoria Falls, being the first European to see them. He travelled thousands of inhospitable, uncharted miles. He aimed to demolish the slave trade by opening up Africa to legitimate forms of commerce. He paved the way for colonial Africa. A great deal of what he did backfired. But the only thing most people remember him for is being presumed about.

It’s probably better now (and this is good), but when I was taught History at school there was a massive, Empire-shaped hole in the syllabus. It ran like this: 1066, Feudal Society, Magna Carta, Tudors and Stuarts, Guy Fawkes, Civil War, Cromwell, a bit about Nelson and Wellington….World War I, World War II, the End.

Men like Livingstone built the Empire. His motto was "Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation."

The Empire meant a lot of good things and a lot of bad things, but it was indisputably a whole great heap of things. Maybe that massive hole in the syllabus can only be explained by postmodern guilt about the bad ones. It would be impossible to imagine the modern world without the British Empire. You can’t even do the thought experiment.

This book should be top of any History reading list.


Peter Burnet said...

And also Jan Morris' three volume series, out of which I got several years of bedtime reading.

It really is a wonderful, glorious story. When you compare these accounts and the histories written in the Empire's heyday to most of the political and social histories by the British left beginning after WW1, you realize what small and mean minds they all had by comparison.

M Ali said...

I try to avoid anything by Niall Ferguson.

Now this is worth reading.

Peter Burnet said...

M. Ali:

Got it. Read it. A gem.

Brit said...


I'll add it to the list. But why the animosity to Ferguson? (I know why some people don't like him, but am surprised you don't).

M Ali said...

His insights tend to be rubbish. His analysis of WW1 is unconvincing and seems based on wishful thinking like his prompting the US to be more like the British Empire.