Africana Votes & Views # 18
Who can actually lay claim to the title of being an ‘explorer’? In the last fifty years or more, the title has increasingly been misused, being applied to individuals who have chosen slightly different routes to an iconic and much-visited goal; those who have used unusual conveyances or unorthodox methods of progress and a few ‘professionals’ who have mustered armies of men and convoys of heavy machinery at great cost to prove that there is no such thing as an impassable route. However, could one really say that a person who undertook to skateboard along the N1 from Cape Town to Johannesburg – a marathon journey certainly – has contributed anything to the sum of knowledge of mankind, geography or the natural sciences? I doubt it; therefore this essay is not going to be entitled ‘Lady Explorers of the Dark Continent’, though a few undoubtedly were just that, while others were adventurous travellers of great courage, entertaining writers, well-off tourists, symbols of growing female emancipation – or even long-suffering wives who were dragged along as ‘camp comforts’ by their unfeeling husbands – presumably.
So where do we start? Of the latter sort mentioned, there must have been a few unrecorded heroines during early Victorian times and I would not like to put my head on the block as to who was the first. One unfortunate comes to mind – Mary Livingstone, daughter of the Moffats at Kuruman. She had the singular misfortune to marry the great missionary/explorer in 1845. She often accompanied him on his early travels, despite the Moffats’ protests as she was heavily pregnant with the first of their five children in 1847. A mere five years later, the Livingstones were in the wilds on the Zouga River, a tributary of the Zambesi. Mary was extremely ill; she gave birth to her fifth child (her fourth having died shortly after birth at Kolobeng) and her doting husband finally came to realise that dragging a woman and four children through the bushes in a constant state of pregnancy might not be the ideal way of conducting a relationship. He brought her back to Cape Town and shipped her and the children off to Britain. Much relieved, he was able to devote himself to traversing the subcontinent for the next three years. He returned to Britain in 1856 and penned the Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (John Murray, 1857) His wife’s contributions did not merit a single line in the book. It took some serious prompting by John Murray to remedy that state of affairs in the next impression, with a page which tells of their marriage. That he managed this by adding two more pages 8* and 8**, after the original page 8 – rather than resetting/repaginating the entire book – is tribute to the prudence and ingenuity in matters of economy on the part of author and publisher. Their last child was born in 1858 while Mary was with her parents back at Kuruman, after which she returned to Scotland for a short while before being summoned by her lord and master once more to join him on his almost farcical Zambezi Expedition. The reluctant exploratrix died scarcely three months later at Shupanga in Mozambique, of malaria, possibly exacerbated by the alcoholism she had become a victim of. At this stage, the great man could actually bring himself to write:
‘About the middle of the month Mrs. Livingstone was prostrated by this disease; and it was accompanied by obstinate vomiting. Nothing is yet known that can allay this distressing symptom, which of course renders medicine of no avail, as it is instantly rejected. She received whatever medical aid could be rendered from Dr. Kirk, but became unconscious, and her eyes were closed in the sleep of death as the sun set on the evening of the Christian Sabbath, the 27th April, 1862. A coffin was made during the night, a grave was dug next day under the branches of the great baobab-tree, and with sympathising hearts the little band of his countrymen assisted the bereaved husband in burying his dead. At his request, the Rev. James Stewart read the burial-service; and the seamen kindly volunteered to mount guard for some nights at the spot where her body rests in hope. Those who are not aware how this brave, good, English wife made a delightful home at Kolobeng, a thousand miles inland from the Cape, and as the daughter of Moffat and a Christian lady exercised most beneficial influence over the rude tribes of the interior, may wonder that she should have braved the dangers and toils of this down-trodden land. She knew them all, and, in the disinterested and dutiful attempt to renew her labours, was called to her rest instead. Fiat, Domine, voluntas tua!’ That’s right David, pass the buck (though it is writ that the great man never got over his loss and blamed himself – as he should)
An explorer in her own right, without a doubt, was Florence Barbara Maria Finian von Sass Baker (those names are a bit doubtful – just depends which source you use). She was, of course, the reputed slave girl, rescued by Samuel (later Sir Samuel) White Baker from the clutches of an oriental Pasha in what is now Hungary – a story which may have gained a little romance in the retelling. She became his inseparable companion, aide, lover and wife, and insisted on accompanying him when he started his explorations into the origins of the Nile in 1861. In his own words,
‘I shuddered at the prospect for her, should she be left alone in savage lands at my death; and gladly would I have left her in the luxuries of home instead of exposing her to the miseries of Africa. It was in vain that I implored her to remain, and that I painted the difficulties and perils still blacker than I supposed they really would be: she was resolved, with woman’s constancy and devotion, to share all dangers and to follow me through each rough footstep of the wild life before me’. That’s what she did, and then some.
As her adoring companion states:‘Possessing a share of sangfroid admirably adapted for African travel, Mrs. Baker was not a screamer, and never even whispered; in the moment of suspected danger, a touch of my sleeve was considered a sufficient warning’ - and ‘Mrs. Baker was dressed similarly to myself, in a pair of loose trowsers and gaiters, with a blouse and belt--the only difference being that she wore long sleeves, while my arms were bare from a few inches below the shoulder.’
Although she was able to speak a number of languages, which came in handy during their exploits, it is a great pity that she left the writing to Samuel in describing their epic trek to Lake Albert, in his book The Albert N'Yanza Great Basin Of The Nile; And Exploration Of The Nile Sources. (Macmillan And Co., 1866). It may be that she only acquired fluency in English through constant communications with Samuel and later his children from his previous marriage, to whom she became greatly attached. It was only on the later expedition to end the slave trade on the upper reaches of the Nile that she kept an interesting diary and wrote numerous letters, which present her side of the story. These are included in the book Morning Star (Kimber, 1972); a compilation by Anne Baker, wife of a great grandson of Samuel. Not that the latter was sparing in acknowledgement of his wife’s sterling qualities and contribution to overcoming their travails. They were scarcely off the mark when the Bakers faced down an incipient mutiny. Baker writes,‘How the affair would have ended I cannot say; but as the scene lay within ten yards of my boat, my wife, who was ill with fever in the cabin, witnessed the whole affray, and seeing me surrounded, she rushed out, and in a few moments she was in the middle of the crowd, who at that time were endeavoring to rescue my prisoner. Her sudden appearance had a curious effect, and calling upon several of the least mutinous to assist, she very pluckily made her way up to me...’ and by sheer effrontery, the Bakers managed to get the mutineers disarmed. This type of problem kept on dogging them during the northern part of their journey, and they had several more similar experiences of the same kind. Each time Flooey stood by her man; almost at the end of their epic journey, Samuel relates: ‘Parrying with the stick, thrusting in return at the face, and hitting sharp with the left hand, I managed to keep three or four of the party on and off upon their backs, receiving a slight cut with a sword upon my left arm in countering a blow which just grazed me as I knocked down the owner, and disarmed him. My wife picked up the sword, as I had no time to stoop, and she stood well at bay with her newly-acquired weapon that a disarmed Arab wished to wrest from her, but dared not close with the naked blade…’ – certainly no shrinking violet. When Kamrasi, king of the Bunyoro, suggests that Baker might like to swap wives with him, Florence gave him a tongue-lashing in Arabic, which the king understood only too well, though he knew no word of that language. He apologised hurriedly, offering the excuse that it was a customary courtesy in his country.
Illness and even starvation was a constant worry. At one stage she was felled by sunstroke while battling her way through an almost impenetrable swamp and Samuel, himself fever-stricken, writes: ‘Almost as soon as I perceived her, she fell, as though shot dead. In an instant I was by her side; and with the assistance of eight or ten of my men, who were fortunately close to me, I dragged her like a corpse through the yielding vegetation, and up to our waists we scrambled across to the other side, just keeping her head above the water: to have carried her would have been impossible, as we should all have sunk together through the weeds. I laid her under a tree, and bathed her head and face with water, as for the moment I thought she had fainted; but she lay perfectly insensible, as though dead, with teeth and hands firmly clenched, and her eyes open, but fixed.’
She only recovered consciousness some days later, and of their final arrival at Lake Albert, Samuel writes: ‘My wife in extreme weakness tottered down the pass, supporting herself upon my shoulder, and stopping to rest every twenty paces. After a toilsome descent of about two hours, weak with years of fever, but for the moment strengthened by success, we gained the level plain below the cliff. A walk of about a mile through flat sandy meadows of fine turf interspersed with trees and bush, brought us to the water’s edge’ - and again later - ‘It was with extreme emotion that I enjoyed this glorious scene. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted – a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert lake that we had so long striven to reach’ Honour given where honour was due, to be sure.
Their expedition had almost as much trouble with their own men as with the tribespeople among whom they passed. Baker’s perceived racist actions and high-handed manner have deprived him of much of the renown and respect due to the pair’s dogged pursuit of geographical exactitude. In his defence it must be said that they were extraordinarily unfortunate to be in the company of and to meet with some truly horrible people along the route. The Bakers returned from their travels and finally married ‘properly’ back in England, after which the disapproving queen reluctantly knighted the old sportsman, though she could never bring herself to meet with Florence.
Almost at exactly the same time (in fact they met the Bakers at Gondokoro) another real explorer, Alexandrine Tinne, the daughter of a rich merchant family from the Hague, indulged her fancy for parts unknown, and in company with her mother and aunt, she determined to explore the upper Nile. Alexine, as she was known, was the richest heiress in the Netherlands, which meant she had the resources for the job on hand. First and foremost she accumulated some ₤800 in small coin (banks being in short supply where she intended to go), loaded it alternately on ten camels, or filled one of her flotilla of three boats with cash when travelling by water. After leaving Cairo, they made leisurely progress to Korosko, where they disembarked and prepared to cross the Nubian Desert. Their caravan consisted of 102 camels, four European servants and some forty-odd menials under an Arab chief. Near Berber they rejoined the river as it was less fatiguing. Throughout this journey, Alexine sent letters describing their progress to a relative in England, John Tinne F.R.G.S, who compiled a slim volume entitled Geographical Notes of Expeditions in Central Africa by Three Dutch Ladies (T Brakell, 1864). Without too many problems they managed to reach Khartoum and this is where they encountered the Bakers, who had just returned from Abyssinia. Alexine decided that she wanted to do a little exploring up the Sobat River, the last major tributary of the Nile to enter from the east; so a steamer was chartered to facilitate progress. Besides sampling quantities of fish and game, such as giraffe and elephant meat, no great discoveries were made and they returned to Khartoum in November.
At this stage they met up with two German scientists, von Heuglin and Steudner, and a Baron d’Ablaing who were easily persuaded to share in the bounty on their next excursion, which took on serious as well as scientific proportions. They made the mistake of trying to explore the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile, to see how far west they could penetrate, hoping to discover one or more posited lakes in western north-central Africa, which were also sources of the White Nile. This was a mammoth task – a far cry from the previous leisurely excursions with all luxuries and support within easy reach. All the members of the expedition suffered greatly from fever; first Steudner died, then Mrs Tinne, as well as Alexine’s aunt and two maidservants, the latter three even after they managed to get back to Khartoum. While the distraught Alexine stayed in Cairo, von Heuglin published two works dealing with the geographical and zoological results in Die Tinnésche Expedition im westlichen Nilgebiet 1863–1864 (Gotha, 1865) and Reise in das Gebiet des Weissen Nils (Leipzig, 1869) and a number of new plant species were described by various botanists in Vienna under the title of Plantes Tinnaennes.
In 1869 the inveterate explorer fitted out a caravan to cross the Sahara from Tripoli to Lake Chad. In Murzuk she met the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal, however the latter wanted to explore the Tibesti mountains first, while she wanted to head further south. It was to prove her undoing. For reasons still unknown, but suspected to be due to factional politics, she and several of her companions were murdered by Tuaregs. Alexine Tinne is not well-known in English circles, since only a little has been written in that language about her and her travels, but she certainly has a huge and well-deserved reputation in the Netherlands. There are a number of romanticised works in English, German and Dutch about her explorations, but only one thesis by Antje Köhlerschmidt does justice to her: Alexandrine Tinne (1835–1869) – Afrikareisende des 19. Jahrhunderts (Magdeburg, 1994).
Another dutiful wife was Jane Moir, who was married to the co-founder of the African Lakes Company, which was engaged in fulfilling the vision of Livingstone in the then Nyasaland, ie civilising the African by means of missionary endeavour and trade – as well as eliminating the pernicious slave trade that was the scourge of Central Africa at the time. The Moirs set off on an ulendo (safari) from their almost palatial Blantyre home in 1890, and embarked on the little steamer, the Domira, for the fairly pleasant journey up Lake Nyasa, stopping halfway at the mission at Bandawe to embark some porters. Here our traveller encountered the first taste of rough weather and huge waves which threatened to swamp the boat, before they made it safely to Karonga at the northern end of the lake. The party walked the next 240 miles during the three weeks that followed, before embarking once more at Abercorn in an open steel sailing boat captained by A.J. Swann, a colonial official on treaty-business, to complete the voyage to Ujiji, midway up Lake Tanganyika. She describes her experience in a collection of A Lady’s Letters from Central Africa (James Maclehouse, 1891 & Central Africana 1991 repr.) What distinguishes her from other travel companions is the fact that she put a camera to good use, and took a number of the earliest photographs in the region, only two of which appear in her book, though her husband made more extensive use of her photos in his work After Livingstone (Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), and some were published in The Graphic in London.
While Moir pere discussed matters of economics and diplomacy with the local slaver cum chief (who is described as a rather civil and pleasant person, though a blackguard under the veneer), Jane was languishing in the company of dozens of slaves, handmaidens, concubines and two Muscat wives of the chief – none of whom had any language in common with her. Understandably she was not hugely entertained, but the couple had perforce to wait until a dhow could be repaired sufficiently to load the ivory Moir had obtained and for them to start on the return voyage. As before, all went idyllically for a few days until a storm brewed up and once more the passengers and crew were in mortal danger of foundering. In the dark of night they were forced to run westward across the lake under bare poles until they managed to shelter in a shallow lagoon on the next afternoon. They cautiously bay-hopped south for four days until the storm abated, when they could cross the lake eastwards once more. Now they exchanged the ‘deep sea for the devil’, as it were. Near the mission station of Karema, the winds once again rose and they were blown ashore among a warlike tribe, the Attongwe. While the crew refloated the boat, the Moirs tried to stay on friendly terms by exchanging presents with the Africans, but as dusk fell, an attack was launched and Jane found herself scrambling aboard while her crew tried to push the dhow out into the rough seas. Suddenly she became aware that her husband was still in the water trying to reach them, and she made the crew return in the face of a growing fusillade from the shore. They retrieved Fred in a hail of bullets, during which her helper beside her was hit and her double terai was adorned with two splendid bullet-holes as a memento to this brave act. The rest of the lake journey was painfully slow in the face of adverse winds, but from Abercorn onwards the journey was only marred by occasional fever of which Jane makes light; reaching the northern tip of Lake Nyasa (Malawi), where they were most hospitably received by the Wankonde tribe in their beautiful villages. They had to wait another ten days for the lake steamer, and once more Jane was dreadfully ill ‘having a horrid fever, which left me looking like Gorgonzola cheese’, before reaching home some four months after their departure. Jane Moir’s book is no great literary work, but in parts it is quite interesting and one can but admire her understated account of some five hundred miles afoot as well as some weeks afloat on the two deepest African lakes which have some of the most fickle weather and sailing conditions.
In chronological order we now come to the greatest of the Victorian lady travellers, whom I can only call la belle dame des Voyages d'Afrique – Mary Kingsley. Although largely self-taught from her father’s considerable library, her lectures and written work became immensely popular, so she is relatively well-known both as a writer and scientist/explorer – also being mislabelled a feminist. Her stance on the Christianisation and colonialisation of the Africans brought her into conflict with the church and the Empire Builders as she found justification for institutions such as polygamy in African society, as well as debunking the concept that the African was the intellectual inferior of the European by virtue of his race. The loss of her parents at the age of thirty provided her with a measure of independence and a modest income, which permitted her to set off on the first of her travels to the Canaries and later Loanda. Here she learnt the basics of survival among native tribes, and decided on a course of action for future exploits.
The year 1894 saw her back in West Africa, better equipped and supplied to follow her passion for ‘Fish and Fetish’, as she calls her quest. Obviously Mary was an engaging person; people seemed to fall over each other to try to aid and abet her in her efforts; British, Portuguese and German administrators, soldiers, missionaries of all denominations and most especially the traders that put their lives on the line on that fever-afflicted coast and inland, as well as their black staff manning the ‘factories’, as the trading posts along the malarial rivers were called. Her hefty work Travels in West Africa (Macmillan, 1897) launches immediately into a lively description of the scene and especially peoples of Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Fernando Po, where her ship’s voyage ended the first stage, though she seems to have visited all the countries fringing the Bights of Benin and Bonny. One of the great shortcomings of her work is the lack of a map to show her routes, as it is extremely difficult to follow her course from her descriptions using the names then current. Her main travels and scientific researches were along the course of the Ogoue River in what she calls the Congo Français (Gabon), she spoke no French and certainly had very little knowledge of the Fan (Fong) indigenous language. Instead she established cordial communication with all and sundry in English, German and an enthusiastically acquired command of Pidgin. She certainly did not explore the geography of the river and its tributaries – that was fairly well-known and often traveled by Europeans – but some of the short-cuts she followed led her through dreadful swamps which could sink her up to her neck in a matter of a few steps, necessitating laborious extrication by her companions. Other great obstacles were the steep ravines that had been filled with storm-felled jungle trees to a depth of six to ten metres. One false step could precipitate a person through this jumble of slippery, rotting wood to the valley floor below. To escape unscathed from these mazes could be enormously complicated and dangerous. In comparison, learning to paddle her own dugout on a rapidly flowing river during her missionary hosts’ siesta-time, is one of the funniest episodes graphically described in the book. Mary also writes in her customary understated way, that she had to beat an enterprising crocodile about the head with her paddle when it tried to join her in the craft. On another instance she was taking a midnight stroll as she could not fall asleep in her village accommodation on an island and suddenly she found herself in the midst of a small herd of grazing hippos. With remarkable sang froid she poked the obstructive beast in front of her behind his ear with the ferrule of her umbrella to shift him out of the way so that she could proceed. She also proved her mettle during a fight between a village dog and a leopard. The leopard stood no chance at all once Mary had ‘fired two native carved stools into the melée’ after which she was forced to break an earthenware water-cooler on the poor beast’s head to get it to change its mind about attacking her. Inevitably there were disagreements with the locals over matters of custom or trade, but Mary not only charmed the Europeans that came her way; she genuinely liked and got on well with the West Africans, especially the Fan, who had a bad name for cannibalism among the whites. She stood firm when it was needed, she reasoned and even wheedled when it was politic to do so – and she yielded only when an impasse was evident. No opponent was shot; neither was she attacked. Her most dangerous moments came from the violence of nature and the occasional man-trap that was set at the entrances of the villages she visited – but there was nothing personal in that.
Not content with conquering the pestilential swamps, impenetrable jungles and raging rapids, she next sets her sights on conquering the 4000 m high peak of Mount Cameroon. Completely under-equipped she sets off on the six-day hike, and before long her party is suffering from thirst, hunger and freezing temperatures. Mary, though having to leave her last companions huddling together under their blankets in the streaming rain, gropes through the swirling cloud and howling storm to find the cairn at the summit – more by touch than by sight. Thoroughly satisfied, she commences the descent. The only country in the region that receives barely a mention is the Belgian Congo, and she shares my non-existent esteem for the owner as well as his administration. On the other hand the Germans and their colonial efforts in the region get the Kingsley stamp of approval.
A large proportion of her utterly entertaining and informative work consists of describing ‘Fetish’, which would be classed as ethnographical details of indigenous culture in present-day terms. Even this I found eminently readable (though I do have more than a passing interest in the subject) and other readers of the book I have spoken to, have concurred with me. There is a small section on her zoological discoveries, but this was written by a German scientist and can safely be ignored by all but the most ardent ‘pisciphiles’. A relatively alarming number of deaths among her compatriots and other Europeans are noted, which gives the reader some idea of the health and hygiene along the coast. A whole chapter is devoted to the ills and parasites that afflict the human condition; enough to make one wonder what made any man (and Mary Kingsley) want to disembark on those shores. Nonetheless, her book is my all-time favourite Victorian travelogue and I can heartily recommend it, taken in short doses, to anyone from nine years old to ninety – regardless of sex, race, creed or literary tastes.
The last, but certainly not least of our assemblage of notable ladies, would be Mary Hall. She wrote an entertaining and informative tome on her experiences: A Woman’s Trek from the Cape to Cairo (Methuen, 1907) and she was certainly the very first pioneer tourist to traverse the length of the African continent hard on the heels of Ewart Grogan. Despite her achievement, and possibly because of her common name, I have been unable to find any background on the lady. She seems to have been a termagant of mature years; a seasoned traveler; accustomed to making progress come what may – in addition to being a gifted writer with a fine descriptive turn of phrase, a photographer who developed her own glass plate negatives in transit, so to speak; a discerning observer; a stern disciplinarian, yet a fair judge of men and their frailties. Above all she was a dauntless soul who would tackle an unknown route with some dozens of strangers of a different culture and language than her own, without a single firearm for her protection, relying only on a small terrier-like canine for personal protection. Except for fowls, goats and the odd bovine, no wild animals were injured, nor were there any fatalities caused among the tribespeople along her route. The one exciting episode with enraged warriors she faced with extreme coolness, sitting perched on her trunk under a tree, while she explained politely to the affronted chief and his howling horde that it had not been her intention to offend, and that her guilty askari would be punished. Needless to say, she and the chief parted the best of friends!
She obviously had the means to tackle the journey while preserving some comforts of civilisation; her folding bathtub, wardrobe, bed, tent and machila (or hammock) are ample proof of that. Every morning she would walk for an hour or two before it got too hot, but she was not a good climber, nor did she ford a stream afoot, while she had willing bearers to hoist her aloft, or a canoe to transport her. She paints a charming portrait of her progress up hills (facing backwards in her hammock, so as not to have to look at the empty skies) and down into the valleys (facing forward to enjoy the view) – seemingly determined to miss nothing of the passing scene. Like Grogan, she did her jaunt in two stages. 1904 saw her touring Southern Africa, and in the following year she set off from where the steamer had dropped her off at Chinde, in Mozambique. She made her way upstream by boat and then took to her hammock for the hike towards Lake Nyasa (Malawi). Here she assembled a volunteer force of porters, as well as two young locals, one of whom could speak English, while his companion knew some Swahili – which was going to facilitate matters linguistic through their east African leg of the journey. Admittedly, being a lone lady traveller did single her out for extraordinary treatment by all missionaries, administrators and military men along the way. Time and again the overwhelmed gentlemen would vacate their quarters for her and try to provide her with as many comforts as were available, so she was never out of touch with Europeans for any great length of time. Neither did she have to carry ten camel loads of small change like Alexine Tinne – since she used the African Lakes Company, the British colonial outposts and even the German administration as bankers along the way.
Mary avoided the malarial swamps between Lakes Edward and Albert by cutting cross-country from the top end of Lake Tanganyika across to Lake Victoria, from where she took to the water for a ride to Port Florence. Here she entrained and enjoyed the novelty of a moderately comfortable ride to Nairobi and back, missing a sighting of Kilimanjaro due to the weather. Back at Entebbe, she decided to try a rickshaw to Butiaba, since evidently there was a fledgeling road already in use. From there onward she embarked on one of the sources of the Nile and despite swarms of mosquitoes (which she seems to have kept at bay by sheer willpower, for she suffered not a day’s illness during her entire trip), she concluded her jaunt to Cairo in fine fashion – taking a mere nine months, compared to Grogan’s triple that time. On her arrival at Khartoum she notes that ‘coming from the south after months of privation and spare living, it seemed to me that the hotel was replete with every comfort available’ and that she wished only to have recorded in detail her experiences in the more unknown parts of Africa, therefore she will skip the thousand miles between Gondokoro and Khartoum, as well as the railway journey between the latter town and Cairo – which is within reach of the ‘ordinary tourists’ – among whom she does obviously not include herself. A formidable achievement - and a fitting conclusion to this tribute to six decades of lady travellers, from pioneering explorer to first tourist.