Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure

Written by Tim Jeal
Review by Lucinda Byatt

This is a story you might think you know already, also thanks to Alan Moorehead’s two books published fifty years ago. However, by incorporating the latest research – Richard Burton’s papers and letter books and Samuel Baker’s letters and his wife Florence’s diaries (although, most unusually for the times, she was not married to Samuel Baker during their journey to Lake Albert), Jeal’s picture of the two key figures, Livingstone and Stanley, is more rounded than Moorehead’s portrayal of “the former as a near saint and the latter as a brash and unprincipled condottiero”. Understandably, Jeal does not include here all the material used in his earlier biography of the Scotsman, but Stanley’s role may surprise readers because his contribution to the latter years of the Nile quest was clearly “second to none”. Jeal also analyses the varying motives that prompted the various explorers to embark on such death-defying adventures. In the period (1856–71) covered by this book, which eventually led to the solution of “the planet’s most elusive secret”, these explorers were driven more by a “mania” for discovery than by the political or commercial motives evident by the end of the century. A compelling read.