Sunday, February 26, 2012

eReadings 8

Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa
David Livingstone

I suppose there are ways to get some sense of the length of books in the Kindle, but generally I don't bother. I do notice after having read a dozen screens and see that the progress indicator shows that I've read just 1-2%. This is one of those sorts of books.

I considered quitting at several points early on, since this was not so interesting reading at first, covering particulars of the domestic life of a missionary and doctor. It gradually became more interesting reading, either because he began going on his exploratory travels, or perhaps his writing improves (or both).

David Livingstone was an interesting person, whose early life is given in some detail in a review from Harper's after the end of the book (in this Project Gutenberg version). He was deeply religious, which must have been the source of the audacity with which he ventured through wild and dangerous areas of Africa unknown to Europeans at the time (the mid 19th century). It's rather amazing he did not succumb to the recurrent "fevers" (I presume this was malaria), or some injury, or some hostile tribe. He was the first white man that some tribes had ever seen.

Since this was a decade before the US Civil War, slavery still existed in various parts of the world, though the English had abandoned it, and were intervening where they could to stop the slave trade. In the far south of Africa the Boers saw the indigenous people as part of the bounty of the land, who they could enslave to run their farms, and thus they would regularly engage in raids on villages for the capture of new slaves. The animosity between the Boers and English was further inflamed by the English trading guns for ivory, thus making the natives less defenseless against the Boers.

To the north, the Portuguese were engaged in the slave trade, which commonly involved buying them from various tribes. In some areas, there were some tribes more aggressive than others, with chiefs extending their domain by attacking and plundering their neighbors, taking captives back with them. These captives were then likely to be traded to the Portuguese for items like calico or beads. Livingstone found that in these areas highly travelled by the Portuguese that chiefs would demand "an ox, a tusk, or a man" for passage through their regions. Passage typically and most importantly involved being supplied with a guide to help choose the paths which led in the direction one wanted to go.

Yet there was much generosity along the way. In areas not involved with the slave trade, the people were quite generous, supplying large quantities of food. In return, there was a tacit expectation of some goods in return, such as calico, ivory, and such. Money had no value here. Making friends with various chiefs was key to Livingstone's success, since they could send messages to assist him on his way, and even supply porters for his trips.

In spite of the antagonism between the English and Portuguese about the slave trade, Livingstone found great hospitality among the Portuguese in the populated areas on the west and east coasts of south central Africa.

Among the surprises in this book is that Livingstone carried with him a sextant, and periodically in the text was able to note the latitude and longitude of some location, which can be taken to Google Earth to show where he was at that point. Even in Google Earth's latest images, these are mostly sparsely inhabited areas. There is also a listing of these measurements as an appendix at the end.

This was a highly interesting book, full of many insights into southern Africa and its people as they were in the 1850s.