Victorian Writing about Risk: Imagining a Safe England in a Dangerous World

By Elaine Freedgood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
A field for enterprise: the memoirs of David Livingstone
and Mary Kingsley

… Geographers in Afric-Maps With Savage-Pictures fill their Gaps …

Jonathan Swift, On Poetry

The previous two chapters explored the pleasures of risk as recounted in the memoirs of balloon aeronauts and the pains of risk as represented in the memoirs of Alpine mountaineers. This chapter will concern the effects of two writers whose work effectively dismantled ideas about the severity and ubiquity of risk in the most dangerous place in the dangerous world as it was imagined in Victorian Britain: Africa. David Livingstone's Missionary Travels and Researches (1857) and Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa (1897) work to illuminate the “dark continent” and render it less threatening and hazardous than the dominant Victorian discourse of Africa suggested. 1 Livingstone, as a laboring-class Victorian, and Kingsley, as a female Briton, create (because of the exigencies they experienced at “home” as a result of their class and gender) an alternative discourse of Africa. They implicitly direct their readers to a safer Africa, a place in which Britons like themselves could risk subjective expansion in a way that had been impossible for them at home: it becomes what Mary Kingsley calls in West African Studies (1899)“a field for enterprise. ” This subjective expansion is the latent content of their narratives; the manifest content of both texts is the geographical expansion that each writer accomplishes in his or her explorations of previously unknown (by Europeans) or little-known areas. The other manifest issue at stake in their narratives is economic expansion: Britain could and should take the risks involved in trading with Africa, both authors argue, although, as we shall see, for very different reasons.

This “illumination” of Africa as a less dangerous place than was usually imagined by Europeans worked to endanger Africa and Africans.

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