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Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Alan Moorehead's The White Nile (1960) is well-researched and coherent, in a strange way that invokes both Carlyle and Orwell.

It's certainly true that Moorehead is in search of 'great men' to - if not idolise - wonder at. Yet he was trained as a journalist and so it would be odd if he didn't also celebrate difference.

In the period covered by the book - roughly 40 years ending at the turn of the century - we are faced, first with first contact, then with the kind of ad hoc colonialism that also characterised Britain's Indian involvement, then with outright war.

Moorehead takes time to get to know the men as individuals. He judges them not by his own standards, but by their own. This gives the book an ecumenical slant that is refreshing nowadays.

He may disagree with the decision one man makes, but he still takes time to understand, and tell us, why this decision - and not that. And he is not too harsh on London functionaries, although he gives poor Gladstone a fair bit of stick at times.

In the case at hand, the war was against the Islamists. It could be said that the success of development - the opening of the Suez Canal in the late 1860s - led inexorably to conflict. Both sides had something to loose.

If we are very thick we'll miss out comparing the situation faced by men such as Kitchener and Baring and that faced by Bush and Blair a century later.

Nietszche would be appaluding from the sidelines were he alive to see Operation Desert Storm. Because the fundamentalism of the last two decades in the Arab world is nothing new.

One thing is different, however. Or perhaps not. In the 19th century the big 'issue' was the slave trade. This occupation kept many Arabs busy out of Cairo or Zanzibar (a small island off the coast of Tanzania).

Men like Stanley (the brash American) and Livingstone (the quiet Englishman) met with truly horrifying scenes both while planning and preparing for trips to the inland, and during the journeys themselves.

Moorehead provides explicit details of this trade. And in the case of the many Scots and English adventurers, explorers, administrators and soldiers who appear in Moorehead's narrative there was also the religious thing.

As Europe struggled to come to terms with the scientific revolution by educating and refining relentlessly, the triumphalist mode of handling a messy world became just another aspect of one's way of dealing with the 'natives'.

It's too easy to criticise, with hindsight. Many of the men Moorehead treats of also were involved in both the American Civil War and Crimea. They were hands-on individuals with difficult assignments and no radios.

Contact with home was as important as good health: without either, you suffered. Cut off from everything they knew, and surrounded by a landscape they did not understand, these men (and one woman) had to deal with Ugandan potentates and Sudanese fundamentalists as well as sickness, supply, potable water, and funding problems.

The page count reveals Moorehead's main topic: religious fundamentalism. And the most pressing problem was a militant brand born in the Sudan with a man named Mahdi.

Mahdi rose, clad in patched robes, and swept all before him for almost twenty years until a superior force put down his successor at Um Diwaykarat, near Jebel Gedir and Abba Island, this last being the place the Mahdi first arose to note.

So while the book begins in the pure and unadulterated regions of exploration, it ends in the muddy and compromised arena of colonial revolt.

A thoroughly good read.

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