God’s Own

Angus Calder

  • Empire and English Character by Kathryn Tidrick
    Tauris, 338 pp, £24.95, August 1990, ISBN 1 85043 191 4
  • Into Africa: The story of the East African Safari by Kenneth Cameron
    Constable, 229 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 09 469770 1
  • Burton: Snow upon the Desert by Frank McLynn
    Murray, 428 pp, £19.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 7195 4818 7
  • From the Sierras to the Pampas: Richard Burton’s Travels in the Americas, 1860-69 by Frank McLynn
    Barrie and Jenkins, 258 pp, £16.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 7126 3789 3
  • The Duke of Puddle Dock: Travels in the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles by Nigel Barley
    Viking, 276 pp, £16.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 670 83642 7

It is no surprise when you arrive in Harare, formerly Salisbury, and a taxi driver recommends the Courtney Hotel. After all, there is still a hotel named after Speke in Kampala, Uganda, and the New Stanley Hotel has remained a well-known establishment in Nairobi. But to discover that the Courtney is in Selous Avenue is more of a jolt It’s over a decade since Mugabe and his guerrillas in effect won the war to liberate Zimbabwe, but its capital’s street names are a bizarre mélange. North of Selous the next avenue is Livingstone; then comes Herbert Chitepo, named after an African leader martyred in the struggle. To the south, Baker and Speke intrude between Samora Machel and Mugabe. Since those two famous explorers never came anywhere near the territory formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, their continued invocation in the centre of decolonised Harare is remarkable testimony to the charisma attached to the myth of the doughty white man worming into the core of a dark continent.

Uganda, which Speke ‘discovered’, had indeed been remote from European knowledge. On the other hand, when he and Burton went to Lake Tanganyika, they had been on a track well beaten by Arab slavers, and knew exactly what they could expect to find. No one who has flown over central Africa below the clouds, as I did on routes taking me from Uganda to Kenya, then on to Malawi and Zimbabwe, in November 1991, will underestimate the hardiness and courage of David Livingstone, who traversed, on foot, thousands of miles of bush, mountain and swamp, fearsome to behold even from the air. But Livingstone’s country had not been unknown to the Portuguese, established on both east and west coast for centuries. The term ‘explorer’ really needs to be dropped in favour of ‘traveller’, except when uninhabited tracts such as Antarctica are referred to. Cook was a genuine explorer when he scythed across high southern latitudes proving that there was no land, and no inhabitants, in an area where geographers had hypothesised a great southern continent. In the Pacific, he travelled, or ‘voyaged’, over seas which Polynesian seafarers had mastered.

The cult of the White Explorer overlaps with that of the White Hunter. Speke, to Burton’s disgust, never tired of slaughtering birds and animals. Baker was a daring, wealthy ‘sportsman’. Frederick Courtenay Selous, as DNB styles him (my hotel’s original begetter seems to have borrowed his middle name and misspelt it), was manifestly not an explorer. Kathryn Tidrick, in her admirable study, labels him an ‘adventurer’. He was a dedicated if rather unsuccessful marksman who achieved celebrity by writing, with some charm, about A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881). Tidrick suggests that Selous, an old Rugbcian, deliberately created an authorial personality to recall Tom Brown: ‘honest, modest, brave, and enlivened’ by an innocent love of mischief. She drily adds: ‘Of his modesty, it may be said that though everyone remarked on his reluctance to talk about himself, it is not recorded that anyone ever failed to get him to do so.’

Rider Haggard, in turn, obviously used Selous as a basis for Allan Quatermain in King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Like Selous, ‘Quatermain hunts trouserless and fortifies himself with cold tea.’ Then ‘life imitated art once again.’ Selous, in successive books, ‘sounded more and more like Ouatermain’. He became a national beau idéal, so that his death in action against the Germans in Tanganyika, aged 65, in 1917, provoked eulogies in the British press. In ‘Rhodesia’, settlers remembered him as the embodiment of that ‘justice and fairness’ with which the British inspired respect in the ‘natives’. ‘No one,’ effused one settler, ‘has ever left me with the impression of being a “whiter” man.’ Ian Smith’s Selous Scouts sustained his legend. Tidrick, however, can show that this model Rugbcian lied in order to promote the cause of white settlement and empire. In 1889 he stated, with bald falsehood, in the London press, that the high plateau of Mashonaland had been emptied of people by Matabele (Ndebele) raids. So it would be quite all right for whites to settle it. ‘At some point, it appears, Selous had decided to make a supreme sacrifice – that of his honesty – on the altar of a greater, imperial good.’ Tidrick, however, is analyst, not mocker. ‘In matters not affecting the immediate practical interests of empire he was fearless for the right. He was the first to recognise and tell the shocking truth about Zimbabwe – that it was built by Africans and not some mysterious Semitic visitors.’

Since those stone ruins have an important role in the mythology of Mugabe’s African state, perhaps Selous deserves to have his name commemorated in a black capital for longer than the egregious Ewart Grogan, famous for travelling all the way from the Cape to Cairo in 1898-9. Grogan made a fortune out of land speculation in Kenya Colony, after he had been imprisoned (nominally) for publicly flogging three Kikuyu in Nairobi in 1907 when they ‘insulted’ a white woman by shaking the shafts of the rickshaw in which they were pulling her. He lived long enough to hurl his own insults at Africans during the Mau Mau emergency. When I resided in Nairobi in 1968-71, there was still a Grogan Road in the city centre after several years of black majority rule, though he had written that ‘the Boer method of treating niggers as vermin’ is ‘the only one they deserve’. Since then, he has disappeared from the street map.

On the Kenyan settlers in general Tidrick is properly severe. She is unimpressed by the mythology which turned them into brave pioneers. ‘Many settlers’ most heroic struggles were with their banks.’ To farm in Kenya you had to have gentlemanly status and a bit of money: poor whites were never welcome. Comfortable stone homesteads in the White Highlands represented ‘the Cotswold ideal, transplanted to the equator, inflated in scale, and without the servant problem’. Tidrick disposes ably of the pseudo-liberal fantasies of Elspeth Huxley, whose books still hold their own in print, though she excuses European seizure of the Kenyan Highlands on the grounds that whites ‘instinctively’ select cooler country and ‘make for the mountain tops’, whereas ‘natives, on the whole, thrive better in hotter, lower, wetter places.’ The still more seductive witterings of Karen Blixen get even shorter shrift. Out of Africa’s idealisation of well-pedigreed white settlers was the work of a ‘fabulist’ struggling to identify herself with aristocratic values.

It was dismaying, when I revisited Nairobi after many years, to find that the city’s numerous bookshops still displayed Blixen and Huxley with far greater prominence than they gave to such important local African writers as Ngugi and Okot. Their settler ‘classics’ sat beside the disgusting array of glossy volumes glorifying the wild African animals which people like Speke and Selous slaughtered, and equally wild African ‘tribesmen’ in their exotic spear-waving poses. It was some relief to see the paperback of James Fox’s excellent White Mischief with its measured exposure of the shallow callous daftness of settler society circa 1940, popping cheekily up among them.

Nairobi is still Africa’s safari capital, where the lucky tourist is offered all kinds of trips to places where such ‘big game’ as survives can he safely observed at its trumpeting or flesh-munching. I once knew a rather implausible character who taught history at Nairobi University and gave me a scholarly paper which substantiated one of his more unlikely stories. He had spent some time in a game reserve observing predators with a zoologist and concluded that lions were less brave and efficient than hyenas. The ones I saw in East Africa looked like overgrown, lazy pussycats, but in 1898, as the railway advanced from the Indian Ocean through Tsavo, two man-eating lions with a taste for ‘coolies’ virtually halted work for several weeks, till the intrepid engineer J.H. Patterson hunted them down. The railway climbed on, created a little town of corrugated iron and green canvas in an insect-ridden swamp fed by a little river called, in Masai, ‘Nairobi’, meaning ‘cold water’, and drove on to Lake Victoria. As Kenneth Cameron puts it, ‘East Africa had become safariland.’

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