Sunday, 14 June 2015

presumptions or tabloid press

Explorer, missionary (of dubious efficacy since he achieved not a single lasting conversion) and abolitionist (also dubious as the slave-trade continued and arguably his heroic exploits inspired European colonialism and the scramble for Africa) Doctor David Livingstone was elevated to his mythic and sometimes saintly status by an American newspaper conglomerate, who harboured fiercely anti-British and anti-European sentiments (shared by much of the US public and manipulated readership at the time in the aftermath of their civil war, which portrayed Europe as either meddling or coldly indifferent), wanting to create the human-interest story, a departure from the hard-reporting and muckraking that was the daily digest. When the eminent adventurer had gone “missing” and was feared dead, the newspaper’s editorial board elected to bank-roll an expedition across the dark heart of Africa to find and rescue Livingstone, whether he wanted it or not, since the British government was doing little in the meantime to save their own national treasure.

Wagering that copy sold to follow such a harrowing mission would far outstrip any costs incurred with funding the venture—whether the search-party ever discovered Livingstone or not, the editors approached a Welsh immigrant, free-lancer and perhaps soldier-of-fortune, first fighting for an Arkansan regiment of the Confederate Army (ironically whose stance on manumission and the ethics of exploitation fueled the business of slavers in Africa and was the chief motivation for Livingstone to go there in the first place) and then for the Union after his capture, called Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was untested when it came to safari but that didn’t seem to matter much—and given an unlimited budget, and as to how the expedition was to draw on these funds also did not seem to matter much to the newspaper, they embarked in 1871 on a journey of over a thousand kilometers through central Africa from Zanzibar to a village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika (soon to become German East Africa and today Tanzania) where some old white man was rumoured to be. Not much was heard from the correspondent during the actual trek that lasted over a year, which elicited some ire from the investors, and probably caused a lot of embellishments to be added to the later account, but it was brutal, punishing and nearly fatal to all involved. Contemporaries attest that Stanley was very callous to the slaves that were employed as porters, some two hundred souls initially, to execute his mission, shooting some deserters who left when matters got very desperate and Stanley himself suffered many bouts of malaria, which made his leadership questionable. Finally the expedition arrived with much fanfare and a bearer marching ahead with an American flag at the village where they hoped to find the object of their quest, and reportedly summoning up all his native British reserve and protocol for such occasions, asked of a wizened and baffled (what was all the fuss about?) old white man, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Through thrust back into the lime-light, Livingstone declined to be rescued and brought back to civilisation until his work was complete and continued to search for the source of the Nile. Circulation exploded for the newspaper that sponsored this journey and Stanley went on to work with European powers to establish colonial outposts in savage wilds.