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Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire


Review: Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire
(November Review, 2007)

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire
by Clare Pettitt (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007)

Review by Robert Clemm

During the European exploration and colonization of Africa during the 19th century many explorers became celebrities. One in particular, Dr. David Livingstone, became synonymous with the intrepid individual braving the wilds of Africa to bring European civilization to the benighted "dark continent. Indeed, Livingstone was selected by Madame Tusaud to join a pantheon of famous British explorers in her famous wax museum. Yet, for all of his exploits he is most remembered not for what he did, but how he was found. In 1869, Livingstone went missing in Africa on an expedition and was presumed lost. Morton Stanley, a reporter for the New York Herald, was sent to locate Livingstone and found him in at the city of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika in 1871. It was at this meeting that Stanley uttered his famous declaration, "Dr Livingstone, I presume". Both men, in many ways, became remembered as much for this meeting as anything they did before or after.

Clare Pettitt in Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire attempts to place both these men, and their meeting, in a larger historical perspective. The writer Walter Benjamin once suggested that "History decomposes into images, not narratives" and Clare Pettitt attempts to pull us away from the image of the meeting that we know to help us see the deeper narratives that have been lost.

Her book is organized into four chapters centering on the meeting and its key figures. Beginning with a chapter on Dr. Livingstone, she spends a good deal of time exploring his life as an explorer, and also delves into his somewhat turbulent personal life. She also attempts to demythologize a man whose persona has overwhelmed his humanity, showing his faults as both an explorer and a missionary. Following this chapter she then discusses in detail the meeting of Stanley and Livingstone. Besides chronicling Stanley's mission she also explores the impact of the media on the story. Stanley, working for a newspaper, represented the beginnings of a mass media culture. One of the reasons this meeting became so famous was that it was spread throughout the world quickly through the Herald's use of the telegraph. Besides charting the history of the meeting itself, she also charts how the meaning of this meeting changed in popular culture. She notes how this meeting, publicized by the Herald complete with copious amounts of American triumphalism, was tied to the easing of tensions between Britain and America. The handshake between Livingstone and Stanley "was a fitting symbol of a thaw in Anglo-American relations." She parallels the handshake with the diplomatic solution to the Alabama question, one example of US claims for British reimbursement for damages caused by Confederate ships built in Britain, which incidentally was reported alongside this famous meeting.

While this meeting was publicized as one between two intrepid white men in the middle of the African wilderness, Petite illustrates again how our image of the event is faulty by looking at Livingstone's black servants in her next chapter "Faithful until the end." Initially, the famous "Dr Livingstone I presume" was greeted with laughter on both sides of the Atlantic as it seemed incredibly formal for the barbarity of the African continent. Yet these two men were not the only "civilized" members at this meeting since it occurred at the large village of Ujiji. Thus, she exposes that for many Europeans the indigenous population and the wilderness of Africa were one in the same.

To correct this, she devotes an entire chapter to Livingstone's servants Susi and Chuma. Livingstone died shortly after being so famously found and it was they who carried his body to the coast for transport back to London, while Jacob Wainwright traveled with the body to London. She endeavors to give their side of the story, explaining their rationale for caring for their deceased master, and reconstructing what they might have thought of cosmopolitan London. She also gives a short biography of each servant, trying to expand our vision of an event that has myopically lingered only on two men.

Lastly, Pettitt turns to Stanley. While it seems odd to hold such a figure for the end, it makes sense given his lasting role in shaping our view of Africa. While Livingstone had died shortly after the meeting, Stanley continued to be a celebrity figure until his death in 1904. And as Pettitt points out it was Stanley's portrayal of "darkest Africa" that helped enshrine what was primitive in the mind of the modern world. She notes how his use of the media to establish and further his celebrity status often played up the basest views of Africa and its inhabitants. In 1890, Stanley and African Exhibition was held in London, which served to reinforce every cliché about Africa in the European mind. In the end she notes the most lingering impact of this meeting is that of Stanley's vision of Africa, which remains tacitly hidden in the way we examine the history of the continent.

Pettitt does an admirable job exploring the deeper meaning of the famous handshake at Lake Tanganyika. She does her ablest work in demonstrating how this meeting related to the growth of mass media and the growth of celebrity culture. The Herald was the most modern of all the newspapers in the 1840s, having pioneered both the interview and daily financial news. She shows how this paper run by the brash James Gordon Bennett Jr., was a populist paper gleefully trumping up Stanley's meeting as the victory of not only "the little guy" over old media, but also America over Britain. She also illustrates how Stanly, ever the publicist, reported this event by "tapping into one of the favorite ideas of the day – that of the Anglo-Saxon character." Using this ideology to signify his, and America's, triumph over Britain, he successfully traded on his popularity throughout his own life. He thus used the first mass media event to become the world's first mass media celebrity in Pettitt's view.

However, two themes which are interspersed throughout her chapters could have used some more focus. She alludes the lingering effect of this meeting on popular culture, but tends to scatter her references throughout the book. Another pattern she notes is how Livingstone's missionary and exploratory work was subsumed behind a Boys Own adventure narrative. Both of these cultural themes could have been developed more fully in a chapter of their own. And as she notes how our views of Africa are still informed by this meeting, one wishes the cultural transformation of the handshake could have been documented parallel to what these changes signified about European views of Africa. My final complaint concerns her treatment of Livingstone. While trying to illustrate his humanity she tends to overreach in her condemnation. At one point she suggests it is "arguable" that he drove his wife to alcoholic despair and his son to depression and death in the American Civil War. Such condemnation hanging its hat on an "arguable" point ends up taking away from her worthy critiques.

As noted these substantive problems are relatively minor. Pettitt has demonstrated that this meeting between Stanley and Livingstone has become part of a symbolic landscape, and as such it deserves to be examined critically.


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  • Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire

    Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007)

  • Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire

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  • Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire

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  • Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers, and Empire

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