Taming the Sublime in Darkest Africa: Stanley's How I Found Livingstone and Burton's Lake Regions of Central Africa

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This essay explores how African natives and African landscapes are written in the register of the sublime and how different types of rhetorical appropriation are used to "tame" such apparently dangerous threats to British colonial rule. Writing about Africa as a menacing and perilous space, yet one that they ultimately manage to navigate safely, is crucial for Stanley and Burton, for it allows them to assert control over their environment and to use the sublime to establish an aesthetic sanction for the values and prejudices underwriting imperialism, exploration, and British cultural hegemony.


In his essay "Geography and Some Explorers," Joseph Conrad recalls his childhood fascination with adventure and exploration, picturing himself as a young reader reveling in romantic accounts of intrepid explorers tramping through jungles, gliding across mountain ranges and deserts, and marching through valleys never before touched by "civilized" man. Calling geography the "science of action," Conrad imagines isolated adventurers chronicling their lonely, hazardous exploits by the light of a campfire for the benefit of stay-at-home types who "like to dream of arduous adventure in the manner of prisoners dreaming behind their bars of all the hardships and hazards of liberty, dear to the heart of man," (239). And though he acknowledges that the geographic "discovery," ethnographic research, and religious missionary work that reached its peak during the scramble for Africa in the 1880s also produced the "vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience," Conrad nonetheless respects, even applauds, the romance and excitement that accompanied European exploration in Africa, the Arctic, the South Pacific and elsewhere (273). For Conrad, the geographic and ethnographic knowledge acquired by adventurers traveling through unmapped territory outweighs the violence and rapacious exploitation that their discoveries introduced; the cruelty occasioned by Europe's "acquisitive spirit" is justified in the name of both progress and adventure.

Africa in particular was a fascinating region through which Conrad's boyhood imagination wandered. In the mid-nineteenth century, African explorers could still find open spaces not yet thoroughly mapped or filled with soldiers, missionaries, and traders. It was a place where those devoted to geography were "nibbling at the edges, attacking from North and South and East and West, conquering a bit of truth here and a bit of truth there, and sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling" (254). Much of the exploration in Africa, especially that which occurred during the middle decades of the Victorian period, centered around a search for the source of the White Nile, what Harry Johnston called "the greatest geographical secret after the discovery of America" (qtd. in Moorehead 11). At the time, almost all that was known about the White Nile was learned from maps drawn by the second-century geographer and astrologer, Ptolemy. These maps showed the Nile stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Equator, the source arising out of two lakes positioned near a range of high mountains, later to be labeled "Mountains of the Moon." But long stretches of cataracts, dense forests, relentless tropical heat, unfriendly tribes, and the constant threat of malaria and other diseases had prevented any European from tracing the river southward to its source. Only in 1856, when Sir Richard Francis Burton and Captain John Speke chose to enter Africa at Zanzibar and travel into the interior from there, did finding the source begin to look increasingly likely. As a result, their expedition set off what Alan Moorehead calls "the great age of Central African exploration" (13).

Conrad's exalted praise for British explorers and adventurers in "Geography and Some Explorers" highlights a particular strain of English patriotic myth-making, one in which the heroic kings and soldiers of early English history are followed in the nineteenth century by explorers and other proponents of popular imperialism. …