Saturday, April 7, 2018

Joanna Lewis's "Empire of Sentiment"

Joanna Lewis is an Associate Professor in the Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, having previously studied at the University of Cambridge after winning a Thomas and Elizabeth Williams Scholarship for students with a first class degree, and first-generation to attend university.

Lewis applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism, and reported the following:
If you open this book to page 99, then you are drawn into the dangerous, violent and unforgiving world of the Scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century – in this case central Africa and the quest to find by the 1890 the holy grail of exploration: the sacred spot where Dr David Livingstone had died. So remote was Chitambo in the Ila region (in present day Zambia near the border with the DRC), and so engulfed was the area in conflict as cheap guns, slavers, concession hunters, and company agents (like the men sent by Cecil Rhodes) that not only had the grave remained hidden, but finding it became a great competition between the Belgians and the British.

The section page 99 falls within is called ‘The destabilisation of central Africa’. On page 99 two key European forces trying to inch into the region and claim sovereignty over land and people are introduced to the reader. The missionaries – in this case the Church of Scotland were keen to move down from Lake Nyassa and push back other denominations. Dr Robert Laws arrived in 1875, young and idealistic. Arab slavers, African mercenaries, white hunting parties and trading companies would all clash. Britain was not keen to spend resources on converting informal influence into responsibility for new territory deep in the interior of ‘darkest Africa’. Livingstone’s grave was not far from the notorious Bangweula Swamps, an area so vast and flat, that it was rumoured you could clearly see the curve of the earth from its centre. In the rainy season, when Livingstone had tried to traverse it for a second time, the water and winds were so remorseless that it proved his down fall, and he perished in the region in 1873.

As page 99 suggests to the reader, it was the hinterland which now drew more men and more nationalities into its dangerous, and often fatal landscape. The King of the Belgians, desperate for an empire, had followed the death of Livingstone and the attempts of Henry Morton Stanley to find him, and later on find the source of the Nile and follow the course of the Congo. By the early 1890s, Belgian mercenaries were teaming up with local militia to stake their claim over the region. The most powerful chief in the area, Chief Misiri had tolerated Scottish missionaries inspired by Livingstone. These young, working class men called him ‘the perfect savage’. They told him not to cooperate with Cecil Rhodes’s British agents seeking to make treaties. He also declined when the Belgians arrived. They were not instructed to take no for an answer. They shot him dead. The Belgians took Katanga but the British took the area west, where the tree was located under which Livingstone’s body was buried and the rest of the chapter tells the story of the young explorers who set out to find the grave, many becoming martyrs in the process…

Not surprisingly, this chapter is called “A perfect savagery: the Livingstone martyrs and the tree of death on Africa’s ‘Highway to Hell’.”
Learn more about Empire of Sentiment at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue