Dr. Livingstone, I presume? Missionaries, journalists, explorers and Empire, by Claire Pettitt. London: Profile Books, 2007. 244 pp. ISBN 978-1-861977281. £15.19.
Zambesi: David Livingstone and Expeditionary Science in Africa, by Lawrence Dritsas. London: LB. Tauris, 2010. 242 + xii pp. ISBN 9781845117054. £54.50.
Here are two more books for the already vast Livingstone and Stanley bibliography. With each new publication, it becomes increasingly difficult to write about these figures without spending a lifetime in reading. Yet these two are strongly contrasting books and both are very well worth having.
Claire Pettitt has indeed read staggeringly widely, but she has joined the Tim Jeal camp. It is always attractive to "write against the grain" and contradict consensus. Jeal did this by puncturing the Livingstone hagiography with a rather hostile biography. He then went on to write much more positively about Stanley, having gained access to the Congo /Leopold documents held at the Tervuren museum in Belgium (Musée Royale de l'Afrique Centrale). The problem with this kind of approach is that it invariably takes the pendulum too far the other way. The reviews of Jeal's biographies were invariably hostile (particularly of his book on Stanley) and this reviewer has never been convinced by his revisionism. Moreover, Jeal never fully understood either the missionary or scientific dimensions of his subjects. Pettitt is, however, entirely supportive of Jeal describing his work as 'definitive'. Now that is always dangerous: one generation's 'definitive' is quite likely to be deflated and denied by the next.
Pettitt writes on p. 11: "Without Stanley and the famous meeting, we would probably not have heard of Livingstone." Later she writes that Livingstone's iconic status was simultaneously reported and created by the New York Herald. That may be described as the Jeal fallacy and it is surely an indefensible proposition. Livingstone was already exceptionally well known, if also often controversial, by the time Stanley published the story of his encounter at Ujiji. Horace Waller kept his name prominently before the British public throughout his final journey in Africa. Samuel Smiles had long since (1859) singled out Livingstone as one of the classic examples of his self-help, in a book which was one of the greatest best-sellers of the age. Missionary Travels and Researches was also a best-seller and remained highly influential in exploring, missionary, and even scientific circles. Countless missionary biographies and memoirs extolled the influence of Livingstone and it seems highly unlikely that they were all influenced by Stanley's publicity and selfprojection. He was a man whom, by and large, they despised. Yet, curiously, Pettitt writes much that discounts her p. 11 proposition. She provides any amount of evidence for Livingstone's fame in both Britain and the US before Stanley's story broke. She also concludes that Stanley's hero-worship of the older man has to be taken as genuine.
There is in fact much of interest in this book. She charts the Livingstone and Stanley story through so many other cultural forms, from the music hall to children's literature, from the new journalism to moving films. She is also extremely interesting on the subject of the African followers of Stanley and Livingstone, the ones who became celebrated in their own right and about whom Donald Simpson wrote so sympathetically many years ago. Her chapters on Livingstone, on 'the meeting', on the followers ('faithful to the end') and finally Stanley are all eminently readable. Yet it is hard to establish whether this is intended as an academic or as a popular book. It is very usefully illustrated, but it contains no footnotes (only chapter bibliographies), which will much reduce its academic value. Yet she offers a grand historical theory. In attempting a fully developed cultural survey of the intersection of these two figures, she tries to establish a concept of the operations of 'memory' and hero-worship, concluding that the 'global history of modernity is much more complicated than we like to think'.
But if there is much of interest here, it has to be said that Pettitt, like Jeal, does not fully understand the African, the missionary, the Scottish, and above all the scientific aspects of Livingstone. There are a fair number of errors (for example, Blantyre is not and has never been the capital of Malawi). Nor does she contrast the avowed motivations of the two central characters of the drama quite as they should be contrasted. Here were two classically peripheral men who became centre-stage in Victorian times. Livingstone never for a moment sought to obscure his humble origins, but Stanley decidedly did. That perhaps offers one great contrast that many subsequent commentators dwelt upon. Whatever else may be said about Livingstone, he was at least honest. That can never be said of Stanley.
Pettitt comes from one side of the CP. Snow two cultures, so it was perhaps inevitable that she dismisses science in one sentence. That has generally been the case, so it is good to welcome the book by Dritsas which contains a major truth, that Livingstone's work as a scientist and his fame in this capacity (albeit seriously dented by the Zambezi* expedition) has never been fully recognised. His biographers have tended to ignore these issues and I have spent some time wondering why this should be. Is it because of the Snow effect and an educational system that, damagingly, makes a severe distinction between the humanities and the sciences? Is it because it was assumed that Livingstone was not successful in this field? Or is it simply that his roles as a humanitarian, missionary, and explorer in a purely geographical sense obliterated the scientific dimensions? So, for me, this book had a fair wind from the start.
There is indeed much to be said for it. Some fascinating research has been conducted in a wide variety of places to exhume the scientific materials which genuinely emerged from the expedition, given that no single work - including Kirk's projected book on the botany of the region - ever appeared. Although the expedition suffered from many critics in both Britain and in Europe, it did have some significant scientific results, although they have been overshadowed by the total failure of Livingstone's optimistic and rather extravagant ideas on the navigability of the Zambezi, the possibility of a white settlement on the allegedly healthy uplands, and the capacity to produce economic crops like cotton in Central Africa. The results of the expedition have long seemed to be out of proportion to the taxpayers' money and human effort that went into it. It has often seemed that its most important result was sending Livingstone back into Africa to redeem himself, and there find a form of geographical martyrdom and hence a mythic and highly instrumental fame.
Moreover, the book provides some fascinating insights into the application of various ideas to the expedition - network theory, for example, or concepts of the interaction of periphery and métropole, or of the construction of scientific notions from fragmentary evidence. Moreover, there is an excellent passage on the role of local knowledge, the manner in which it was used, transmitted, and often acknowledged (though more in diaries than in publications). Much scientific observation in reality made a considerable use of such local knowledge. The expedition was, in this sense, genuinely co-operative. There is also a welcome section on the manner in which some of the writings of postcolonialists on exploration have lacked a true evidential base and have jumped to conclusions that simply do not fit the facts, as well as a useful passage on Kirk's photography. Yet, although there are some excellent quantitative surveys of the number of scientific articles that came out of the expedition, we still lack an authoritative summing up of its qualitative results - how much new material did it really supply to the world?
Sadly, there are other necessary criticisms of the book. It is a truism of the publishing world that PhD theses seldom make good books. Even the very best of theses require to be revised and, above all, developed, to turn into a book. We usually need more on the background and the foreground. In this case, Livingstone suddenly emerges at the beginning as a man of fame and influence in whom leading scientists were prepared to invest and influence government to do likewise. But we never learn why that should be the case. The wealth of scientific observation in Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Researches never receives a mention. Nor does his reception by scientists of the calibre of William Whewell and Adam Sedgwick. Dritsas cites William Monk's book in which he edits Livingstone's Cambridge lectures, but never seems to use the letter by Sedgwick which appears in it, or the various appendices on Livingstone's scientific observations. This was a man with a scientific reputation. Once that has been established, Dritsas's assertion that Livingstone was so intent upon the humanitarian and economic objectives of the Zambezi expedition that he showed little sympathy for scientific observation needs further explanation. All Scottish doctors were trained in botany and that included Livingstone.
That is one of several major issues which seem to be ignored. One theme, that of fragmentation on the one hand, and the 'seamless web' of science on the other, is never resolved. Indeed, the book has a somewhat fragmentary feel to it and could have been much improved by a concentration on integration and coherence. In addition, the book is irritating in its carelessness. Unfortunately, all publishers seem to have abandoned standards of copyediting and proofreading that were maintained even ten years ago, and Tauris is no exception. In addition to typos there are also howlers. On p. 88, we are told that the steamer the Ma-Robert was named after Livingstone's mother. It was of course after his wife Mary, his eldest son being Robert. On p. 91 we are given a deconstruction of the cover image of the book. That image was never used, either on the cover or anywhere within the book. The Andersonian institution (p. 106) or Anderson's University or College (it had all of those names) was not 'near Glasgow'; it was slap-bang in the centre of the city, a significant location because it was founded in an ambition to bring scientific and other studies to students from lower down the social scale - hence its significance as Livingstone's Alma Mater. Generally, the literature on Livingstone has not been fully explored, to the detriment of full explanations of the background and results of the expedition. Finally, the word heuristic is used too often and the index is minimal.
Dritsas has done a real service in resurrecting the scientific aspects of Victorian exploration given that those writing from a literary tradition have so misunderstood these matters. But it is a shame that he passed up the opportunity to work on the development and extension of his thesis which he was well capable of achieving. This reviewer wishes him well and hopes that he will expand his work further.
John M. MacKenzie
*Dritsas prefers the spelling used in the nineteenth century, but I lean towards the modern version.