Thursday, 1 July 2010

Dr Livingstone I presume?

After reading a fair bit of the new biography about the explorer Henry Stanley I was surprised to learn of just how much adversity he had to overcome before "finding Livingstone". And, that, in deepest dark Africa, he probably never said: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume".

Apparently, what Stanley said about himself owed much to a deep insecurity about his childhood which developed into a need to exaggerate short comings or any perceived weakness.

Consequently, some have placed too much trust in what Stanley said instead of what Stanley did. Nevertheless, what Stanley did was extraordinary enough. He had to overcome being rejected by almost everyone he knew including his parents. Though it is not this that concerns me.

It appears that an Arab/Swahili Muslim slave trade was at work throughout East and Central Africa during the 19th century. David Livingstone, a Christian Missionary, witnessed the reality of this and considered that the only effective way to end the slave trade was by opening up the whole region to colonialization and trade. For trade in goods and ideas rather than people.

It is notable that Stanley was to some extent duped by King Leopold ll of Belgium who placed Colonial and nationalistic ambitions above any altruistic or Christian ideas for ending the slave trade. King Leopold also used Stanley to compete with the French for land in the Congo.

But it is Henry Stanley the misunderstood hero who emerges from these pages of history as a man of our times. Who overcame personal disadvantage to continue in the vision set down by Livingstone.

So instead of immersing ourselves in shame about British history let us consider the facts. That William Wilberforce was an English Tory. That David Livingstone was a Scot. That Henry Stanley was Welsh (albeit with an American accent). And, that, alongside the might of British Navy and British public opinion, all helped to fight against the slave trade in Central and East Africa.

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