The latest Hakluyt Society publication, ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this third post, he reflects on the theme of post-colonial readings of exploration, seeking to provide a more historicised portrayal of Grant that challenges popular views of him as a ‘colonialist explorer’.
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In the early twenty-first century, much popular and academic opinion tends to roundly condemn anything to do with Britain’s past activities in overseas regions as ‘imperialism’ or ‘colonialism’. These activities are, by definition, reprehensible exploitation of non-Western peoples.
It is not politically correct to write about the so-called exploiters. An explorer like Grant is clearly, it is supposed, part of the exploitation processes. His ‘false modesty’ and ‘false philanthropy’ must be exposed. Hence, to give only one example, what I believe was intended as a little joke to be played on Grant by his companion Speke, has been interpreted by post-colonial writers and commentators as an assertion of cultural superiority over the inferior Africans.
The two pictures here (figures 1 and 2) tell the story. Grant attempted to depict a dance as shown in figure 1. The picture was adapted by the engraver working on Speke’s 1863 book to show Grant – drawn as a comic book Scotsman complete with deerstalker – dancing with a bare-breasted African female, called Ukulima as shown in figure 2. I believe Speke arranged to have the picture so engraved in order to play a little joke on his fellow Indian Army officer.
In fact, Ukulima was an elderly Nyamwezi chief who was undoubtedly male. Grant’s original picture, as may be noted, does not show Ukulima or himself.
It seems to me absurd to read into Speke’s joke picture serious assertions about the expedition as an exercise in cultural imperialism. Grant, the representative of an advanced civilisation demonstrates his superiority by contrasting himself with the ‘primitive’ African woman. There are other examples, such as Grant drawing what he noted might one day be a steamboat on Lake Victoria (figure 3). This has been seen as an example of Grant demonstrating that he was ‘monarch of all he surveyed’. But Grant drew the picture to amuse his African porters. At the time, incidentally, as for most of the trip, he was entirely at the mercy of the African peoples he encountered, not in any sort of position of power.
This is not to deny that Grant was an imperialist of a kind and moreover someone who after 1864 did his best to promote activities which he believed would ‘redeem’ Africa and provide African peoples with a happier future. His imperialism was probably of a kind which reflected Palmerston’s mid-century brand of ‘free trade imperialism’, with everyone recognising that no British government would be willing to take over new territories to rule.
In other words, one should attempt to provide an accurate and understanding account of Britain’s overseas activities in the past and the assumptions that were made about them at the time. At the period of Grant’s expedition and for the next twenty years, no-one could have foreseen that the Scramble for Africa would take place in the 1880s and 1890s. Even if the details of what occurred were moulded by African events, that it happened at all was probably for global international relations reasons as new powers arose to challenge the previous hegemony of the Europeans, notably as far as Africa was concerned, Britain and France.
The final part of the Introduction to my Hakluyt Society edition of Grant’s Walk surveys the actual historical situation in East Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century and goes on to survey the literature which has dealt – or failed to deal — with Grant and the other explorers of East Africa.
Grant was certainly not a colonialist explorer but a distinguished and worthy traveller. He was, nevertheless, one who was inevitably a child of his time who cannot be held responsible for the deplorable outrages which were later sometimes perpetrated by those seeking to impose their brand of alien rule on Africa.
If anything, Grant was part of a continuing tradition of attempts to improve the lot of some of his fellow men even if that was in what may be regarded as an over-paternalistic manner. He deserves to be remembered with at least considerable respect and his activities examined, not in the light of some easily-assumed contemporary superior morality, but in the light of the actual situation of his time.
Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.
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