The Kurtz in Stanley

Travellers in Africa
July 28, 1995

Tim Youngs's book makes an excellent addition to the very useful series, Studies in Imperialism, published by Manchester University Press. Youngs uses a socio-historical approach to analyse the chosen travelogues and focuses mainly on travellers who wrote about their experiences in East and Central Africa.

However, the study utilises much more than simply a socio-historical approach per se. Youngs's technique gives an analysis of the "historical" and the "literary" and merges them together in a securely argued, interdisciplinary way. (I use the words "historical" and "literary" in inverted commas to acknowledge their cross-over boundaries.) There are also similar cross-over boundaries in travel narratives themselves, as Youngs acknowledges; there are difficulties in trying to define travel narratives as a specific genre.

Other techniques of textual analysis are not ignored by Youngs; he acknowledges the use of psychoanalytical theory and in particular the work of Homi Bhabha. However, some forms of psychoanalytical theory Youngs finds problematic, especially "the images of polarity and affinity" and the tendency to be historical and rooted in the individual rather than being situated within a wider discursive framework.

Youngs criticises historical and biographical studies of travellers and finds these often lacking in critical awareness with scant "attention being paid to the conditions of their production, their literary and ideological constructions, or their reception".

There is an attempt throughout the study both to provide an additional insight into the period 1850-1900 but also to acknowledge the deficiency of using any one technique of textual analysis fully to recover the past.

In the chapter "Victorian writing; African eating: digesting Africa", Youngs writes about the increasing separation between the producers and the consumers of food. Food and ways of preparing and eating became part of the fabric of social hierarchy in the 19th century. Youngs shows that attitudes towards food and its consumption were highly relevant to the perceptions of other cultures in documents of travel encounters. The relationship between food and eating is seen as a synecdoche for the relationship between Britain and Africa. Travelogues reflect the response of observer to observed and are part of the observer's own interpretation of culture, often revealing more about the situation in Britain than that in Africa. Travellers who were fond of taking western food and eating it with western eating implements were reconfirming their culture and identity in an unknown place.

Youngs touches on the interpretation of cannibalism and reflects upon Bram Stoker's Dracula and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as examples of the periphery taking a journey to the centre.

If attitudes towards food and its consumption affected British views on Africa, so other social and commercial changes were influential in both the writing and reception of travelogues. Youngs's main focus is on Henry M. Stanley's expedition to Africa in 1887-1889 to relieve Emin Pasha. He provides a highly insightful approach to the event with his meticulous search of press reports.

Nine years after Stanley's expedition, Heart of Darkness was published. Young suggests, along with other critics, that the character Kurtz could have been partly modelled on Stanley.

This final chapter concludes a sensitive, well signposted, lucid study that acknowledges the difficulty of both interpreting and writing about travelogues in the late 19th century.

Being interdisciplinary, Youngs's study should appeal to a wide range of readers, not just historians but those interested in cultural studies, anthropology, and textual analysis.

Marjorie Toone teaches English, media and cultural studies (part-time) at De Montfort University, Lincoln and is also a freelance writer.

Travellers in Africa: British Travelogues, 1850-1900

Author - Tim Youngs
ISBN - 0 7190 3969 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 235

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