Africa is the second biggest continent on the planet and home to an almost incomprehensible number of wonders. It has played host to some of the most time-honoured civilizations in history and is reputed to have been the birthplace of modern humans. However, until a relatively short time ago it was often thought of as a mysterious and largely unknown part of the world. Foreign explorers and geographers argued with each other about what may lie at its heart and a multitude of expeditions were launched to uncover whatever secrets their leaders imagined existed.
Sadly, Africa has also been victim to some of the most heinous crimes and human rights abuses that we have ever inflicted on each other. Colonialism, genocide, and slavery have wreaked havoc on the continent over the centuries. Without any doubt, it is the people of Africa that have always had the worst of it, but others have suffered too.
Below we consider two very different accounts of the harsh conditions faced by men who found themselves a long way from home on African soil. Some of them were there voluntarily and others through misfortune. Regardless of the reason, or whether they traversed jungle, savannah, mountains, or desert, they all paid a heavy price for their adventures.
Into Africa (2003)
The meeting that took place between David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley in the middle of Africa in 1871 is one of the most famous encounters in the history of exploration. However, it is only a small part of a much bigger and more entertaining story. In his book Into Africa, Martin Dugard offers a comprehensive account of events that led up to and followed the legendary liaison. He also considers its legacy. By dissecting the background, experiences, and personalities of the two hardy adventurers, Dugard has created an exceedingly insightful piece of work that should not be overlooked.
The aim of seasoned explorer Livingstone was to locate, and establish beyond doubt, the geographical source of the Nile, a challenge that had preoccupied curious minds since as far back as Herodotus in the first millennium B.C.E. Stanley’s task, as a New York Herald journalist, was to find Livingstone, who had gone missing during his quest. Dugard deftly reconstructs the two missions in exciting detail, highlighting not only the differences between their objectives but also between the men who undertook them.
The author uses alternating chapters to show how the lives of these two fascinating individuals were gradually drawn together by fate until they intersected. Livingstone, the darling of nineteenth century British exploration, had already made several expeditions to Africa and had achieved fame and glory during the course of his career. Everybody was aware of him and of his disappearance. In contrast, Stanley was largely unknown, and was completely untested in Africa. His mission to pinpoint and extract Livingstone was arranged and conducted in secret.
Throughout Into Africa Dugard shows that despite their differences, the two men shared many of the same traits, including a dogged tenacity to succeed. They both possessed tremendous endurance and perseverance in the face of danger, and their ability to stay focussed in spite of injury, illness, hunger, attack, sedition, desertion, the weather, and other discomforts was astounding. Dugard does an excellent job of providing a window to the mindsets of the explorers, while never shying away from unveiling their less wholesome facets, such as Livingstone’s promiscuity and Stanley’s cruelty and racism. This honest approach results in a book that comes across as well balanced and intimately researched.
Into Africa also serves as a solid introduction to the history of charting Africa, reminding us that the Livingstone and Stanley story should be appraised in its greater context. We get to learn about other exploration heavyweights along with some lesser known local travellers, without whom the famous duo would have been doomed from the outset. The author also sheds light on the men in the background—the power brokers behind the expeditions, and the political climate in which they lived and worked. Into Africa is an excellent overall read, but the biggest testament to the book’s quality is that the story it tells remains exciting throughout, despite the fact that many already know its outcome.
Skeletons on the Zahara (2004)
Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara is an account of the harrowing experiences of a group of early nineteenth century American sailors who were shipwrecked on the west coast of Africa and held captive as slaves. During their months-long ordeal in one of the most punishing environments imaginable, the men had to endure a level of deprivation and suffering that no living creature should ever be exposed to. With a no-holds-barred approach to describing the depths of misery, degradation, and despair the unfortunate mariners faced, King has penned a hard-hitting and gripping book.
Skeletons on the Zahara came about as a result of its author chancing upon the long-forgotten writings of one James Riley who was captain of the Commerce, a vessel that foundered at Cape Bojador in 1815 in what is now Western Sahara. Using Riley’s memoir and the first-hand account of another survivor as a starting point, King painstakingly recreated the sailors’ unenviable journey through his own arduous research and relentless commitment to verifying accuracy. This has resulted in a true adventure story that includes a startling amount of detail for an event that took place two centuries ago.
Although Skeletons on the Zahara predominantly follows the path of the the two mariners who recorded their experiences, King has made sure to divulge as much as he can about all the men subjected to the hellish period in captivity. The book begins with a list of their names, ages, and provenance as they set sail from Connecticut to cross the Atlantic. This helps personalise their individual tribulations for the reader after they are separated from each other and forced across the desert by their different Arab masters. At certain times throughout the book we are reunited with them in various states of ill health and disfigurement—a result of searing heat, lack of food, dehydration, forced labour, and regular beatings.
In addition to laying bare the torment and cruelty with which the officers and crew of the Commerce had to contend, King uses evocative descriptions of the sparse, monotonous, and savage terrain to paint a bleak and depressing picture in the reader’s mind. The writer’s attempt to inform the reader about the culture and curious customs of the nomads who inhabited such a desolate landscape—a region torn asunder by extreme temperatures, wind, and sandstorms—benefits from the attention he gives to Sidi Hamet, one Arab with whom Riley made a fragile and risky pact in an attempt to save as many of his companions as possible.
Despite circumstances so dire that some of the Americans resorted to eating their own skin, the author leads us to the realisation that with a spark of hope, rare composure, and a little luck, there can be a chance of salvation for some poor souls who seem destined for damnation. Skeletons on the Zahara is absolutely riveting and the strength, stamina, and will to survive that can be discovered among its pages is remarkable.
- For more cinematic escapes take a look at our list of adventure films.
- If it’s great written adventure stories you want, you’ll no doubt find something to your liking on our adventure literature page.
- Finally, if you are seeking a vicarious African adventure from the comfort of home, we recommend the excellent ‘Assassin’s Creed: Origins’, which offers a vast and beautifully crafted digital version of Ancient Egypt to explore.
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