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Notes on African travel, etc.

On starting on an expedition

Take an honest, open-eyed view of your surroundings, with as much faith as possible in the God above you, Who knows your heart better than you know it yourself; and consider that you cannot perish unless it is His will. But a man need not let his soul be oppressed by fears, religious, or otherwise, so long as his motives are righteous, his endeavours honest. Let him see also that his actions are just, and his mind free from sordid or selfish passions; and that his whole aim is to be workmanlike and duteous. Thus he is as fit for Heaven as for the world. Then, bidding a glad farewell to the follies and vanities of civilised cities, step out with trustful hearts, souls open as the day, to meet whatever good or evil may be in store for us, perceiving, by many insignificant signs around, that whatever heavenly protection may be vouchsafed to us, it would soon be null and void unless we are watchful, alert, and wise, and unless we learn to do the proper thing at the right moment — for to this end was our intellect and education given us.

Pious missionaries, even while engaged in worship, have been massacred at the altar. The white skin of the baptised European avails nothing against the arrow. Holy amulets and crosses are no protection against the spear. Faith, without awakened faculties and sharp exercise of them, is no shield at all against lawless violence!

Written in Africa, in 1876, in a note-book

One of the first sweet and novel pleasures a man experiences in the wilds of Africa, is the almost perfect independence; the next thing is the indifference to all things earthly outside his camp; and that, let people talk as they may, is one of the most exquisite, soul-lulling pleasures a mortal can enjoy. These two almost balance the pains inflicted by the climate. In Europe, care ages a man soon enough; and it is well known that it was “care which killed the cat” ! In Africa, the harassing, wearisome cares of the European are unknown. It is the fever which ages one. Such care as visits explorers is nothing [533] to the trials of civilisation. In Africa, it is only a healthful exercise of the mind, without some little portion of which, it were really not worth while living.

The other enjoyment is the freedom and independence of mind, which elevates one's thoughts to purer, higher atmospheres. It is not repressed by fear, nor depressed by ridicule and insults. It is not weighed down by sordid thoughts, or petty interests, but now preens itself, and soars free and unrestrained; which liberty, to a vivid mind, imperceptibly changes the whole man after a while.

No luxury in civilisation can be equal to the relief from the tyranny of custom. The wilds of a great city are better than the excruciating tyranny of a small village. The heart of Africa is infinitely preferable to the heart of the world's greatest city. If the way to it was smooth and safe, millions would fly to it. But London is better than Paris, and Paris is better than Berlin, and Berlin is better than St. Petersburg. The West invited thousands from the East of America to be relieved of the grasp of tyrannous custom. The Australians breathe freer after leaving England, and get bigger in body and larger in nature.

I do not remember while here in Africa to have been possessed of many ignoble thoughts; but I do remember, very well, to have had, often and often, very lofty ideas concerning the regeneration, civilisation, and redemption of Africa, and the benefiting of England through her trade and commerce; besides other possible and impossible objects. “If one had only the means, such and such things would be possible of realisation” ! I am continually thinking thus, and I do not doubt they formed principally the dream-life in which Livingstone passed almost all his leisure hours.

Another enduring pleasure is that which is derived from exploration of new, unvisited, and undescribed regions; for, daily, it forms part of my enjoyment, especially while on the march. Each eminence is eagerly climbed in the hope of viewing new prospects, each forest is traversed with a strong idea prevailing that at the other end some grand feature of nature may be revealed; the morrow's journey is longed for, in the hope that something new may be discovered. Then there are the strange and amusing scenes of camp-life in a savage land; [534] the visits of the natives, whose peculiar customs or dress, and whose remarks on strangers, seldom fail to be entertaining; and, best of all, there is the strong internal satisfaction one feels at the end of each day's labours, and the proud thought that something new has been obtained for general information, and that good will come of it. Lastly, there is the pleasure of hunting the large, noble game of Africa; that truest of sports, where you hunt for food and of necessity; to track the elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, the eland, and other magnificent animals of the antelope species.

It is a keen, delightful feeling which animates the mind of the African hunter, as he leaves his camp full of people, and plunges into the unexplored solitudes, accompanied by only one or two men, in search of game, ignorant of the adventures which lie before him; but with swift pulse, braced nerves, and elated heart, he is ready to try his luck against even the most formidable. The success of the hunt enhances his pleasure, and, on his return to camp, he meets his people, who are all agape with admiration of his prowess, and profuse in thanks for the gift of animal food.

If the traveller's mind is so happily constituted that, in the pursuit of duty, he can also command enjoyment in its pursuit, each day brings its round of single, happy pleasures, often out-balancing the drawbacks of travel in savage Africa.

For such, the rivers dash their foaming tides,
The mountain swells, the dale subsides;
E'en thriftless furze detains their wandering sight,
And the rough, barren rocks grow pregnant with delight.

If he is a true lover of wild Nature, where can he view her under so many aspects as in the centre of Africa? Where is she so shy, so retired, mysterious, fantastic, and savage as in Africa? Where are her charms so strong, her moods so strange, as in Africa?

One time she appears so stale, flat, and tedious, that the very memory of the scene sickens and disgusts; another time she covers her prospects with such a mysterious veil, that I suffered from protracted fits of melancholy, and depression of spirits, to such a degree I was glad to turn to meditations on the words of the fourteenth chapter of Job. It is when Africa [535] presents vast desolate wastes, without grandeur, beauty, or sublimity, when even animated life appears quite extinct, then it is that the traveller from long contemplating such scenes is liable to become seriously afflicted with sullen, savage humour, as though in accordance with what he beholds.

At another time, Nature in Africa exposes a fair, fresh face to the light of heaven, a very queen in glory, whose grassy dress exhibits its shimmers as it is gently blown by the breeze; soft, swelling hills, and hollows all green with luxuriant leafage; wild flowers and blooming shrubs perfume the air, and beautiful outlines of hills grace the extensive prospect. Oh! at such times I forgot all my toils and privations, I seemed re-created; the mere view around me would send fresh vigour through my nerves.

In her grand and sublime moods, Nature often appears in Africa, her crown, wreathed in verdure, lifted sheer up to the white clouds, the flanks of her hills descending to the verge of her mighty lakes, vast and impenetrable forests spreading for unending miles. These are the traveller's reward; therefore his life in this little-known continent need not be intolerable; it is not merely a life of toil and danger; though constant travel may be fatiguing, thirst oppressive, heat a drawback, and the ever-recurring fever a great evil, he may also find much that is pleasant. If he is fortunate in his travels, he will not regret having undertaken his journey, but will always look back upon it, as I do, as a pleasant period of a useful life; for it will have considerably enlightened and matured him, and renewed his love for his own race, his own land, and the institutions of his country, thus preparing him for the cultivation and enjoyment of more perfect happiness at home.

After one of his expeditions

Stanley writes: “When a man returns home and finds for the moment nothing to struggle against, the vast resolve, which has sustained him through a long and difficult enterprise, dies away, burning as it sinks in the heart; and thus the greatest successes are often accompanied by a peculiar melancholy.”


On the Government of the Congo

1896. The King of the Belgians has often desired me to go back to the Congo; but to go back, would be to see mistakes consummated, to be tortured daily by seeing the effects of an erring and ignorant policy. I would be tempted to re-constitute a great part of the governmental machine, and this would be to disturb a moral malaria injurious to the re-organiser. We have become used to call vast, deep layers of filth, ‘Augean stables’: what shall we call years of stupid government, mischievous encroachment on the executive, years of unnecessary, unqualified officers, years of cumbersome administration, years of neglect at every station, years of confusion and waste in every office? These evils have become habitual, and to remove them would entail much worry and dislike, to hear of them would set my nerves on edge, and cause illness.

On the value of the Congo and British East Africa

English legislators imagine they exhibit their wisdom by challenging travellers to describe the value of the countries to which they seek to draw attention. Hasty and preliminary exploration of the topographers cannot be expected to discover all the resources of a country. For sixty years the English were in possession of South Africa before either diamonds or gold were found. Nay, England herself was thought by the Romans to produce nothing but sloes! New Zealand was supposed to be destitute of anything but timber. Australia has been frequently contemptuously alluded to.

The Congo possesses splendid inland navigation, abundance of copper, nitre, gold, palm oil, nuts, copal, rubber, ivory, fibre for rope and paper, excellent grasses for matting, nets, and fishing-lines, timber for furniture and ship-building. All this could have belonged to Great Britain, but was refused. Alas!

The Duke of Wellington replied to the New Zealand Association, in 1838, that Great Britain had sufficient colonies, even though New Zealand might become a jewel in England's colonial crown!


On General Gordon. 1892

I have often wondered at Gordon; in his place I should have acted differently.

It was optional with Gordon to live or die; he preferred to die; I should have lived, if only to get the better of the Mahdi.

With joy of striving, and fierce delight of thwarting, I should have dogged and harassed the Mahdi, like Nemesis, until I had him down.

I maintain that to live is harder and nobler than to die; to bear life's burdens, suffer its sorrows, endure its agonies, is the greater heroism.

The relief of Khartoum, that is to say, removing the garrison and those anxious to leave, was at first, comparatively speaking, an easy task. I should have commenced by rendering my position impregnable, by building triple fortifications inside Khartoum, abutting on the Nile, with boats and steamers ever ready. No Mahdist should have got at me or my garrison! I should then have commanded all those civilians desirous of submitting to the Mahdi to leave Khartoum; people do not realise how ready, nay eager, they were to do so. Gordon said to an interviewer, before starting, “The moment it is known we have given up the game, every man will be only too eager to go over to the Mahdi; all men worship the Rising Sun.”

But I should never have stuck to Khartoum, I would have departed with my garrison to safer lands by the Upper White Nile. It would not have been difficult to get to Berber, if Gordon had started without delay, in fact, as soon as he had fortified himself at Khartoum. My withdrawal would have been to attack the better, “leaving go of the leg, to fly at the throat” ; but if, for some reason, I had decided to stay, my fortified citadel would have held the Mahdists at bay till help came. There would have been no danger of starvation, as I should have turned all undesirables out. Then, as a last resource, there was the Nile.

My one idea would have been to carry out what I had undertaken to do, without any outside help. If I had gone to Khartoum to rescue the garrison, the garrison would have [538] been rescued! When Gordon started, this is what he undertook to do; there was no thought, or question, of sending a rescue expedition. It was failure all round — Gordon failed first, then Gladstone and the Government.

But I have refrained from all public expression of opinion, because it is not permitted in England to criticise Gordon; and, besides, he was a true hero, and he died nobly. That silences one: nevertheless, I hold that Gordon need not have died! [539]

Henry Morton Stanley

large shall his name be writ, with that strong line,
     Of heroes, martyrs, soldiers, saints, who gave
Their lives to chart the waste, and free the slave,
     In the dim Continent where his beacons shine.

Rightly they call him Breaker of the Path,
     Who was no cloistered spirit, remote and sage,
But a swift swordsman of our wrestling age,
     Warm in his love, and sudden in his wrath.

How many a weary league beneath the Sun
     The tireless foot had traced, that lies so still.
Now sinks the craftsman's hand, the sovereign will;
     Now sleeps the unsleeping brain, the day's work done.

Muffle the drums and let the death-notes roll,
     One of the mightier dead is with us here;
Honour the vanward's Chief, the Pioneer,
     Do fitting reverence to a warrior soul.

But far away his monument shall be,
     In the wide lands he opened to the light,
By the dark Forest of the tropic night,
     And his great River winding to the Sea.

Sidney Low. May 13, 1904.

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