The history of European exploration in Africa is replete with tragedy. Mungo Park was killed by natives at the Bussa Falls on the Niger River, Alexander Gordon Laing was slain only days after he departed Timbuctoo, Klaus von der Decken was murdered by local tribesmen in present-day Somalia, and Boyd Alexander suffered a similar fate in Chad. In addition to these four examples, scores of seemingly healthy European travelers in Africa succumbed to illnesses caused by various diseases. Whether true or not, Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not a safe place to be for European travelers.
In one of the most engaging books I have ever read on the subject of African exploration, James McCarthy relates the story of one of the most talented and knowledgeable men who ever attempted to explore the continentís unknown interior, and whose dreams were cut short after less than six months on the trail. Alexander Keith Johnston, Jr. (1844-1879) was only 35 years old when he died near the Rufiji River in present-day Tanzania from a combination of malaria and dysentery. He was the leader of the East African Expedition (1878-1880), the first (and last) sponsored by the Royal Geographical Societyís African Exploration Fund. McCarthy indicates that Johnstonís organization of this expedition was the most detailed in the history of east African exploration. Further, Johnston was touted as being the most qualified man in Britain when he was selected as its leader. His sponsors cited Keithís successful (and adventurous) experience while working on the Paraguay-Brazil Boundary Survey in 1874-1875. What the African Exploration Fund wanted Johnston to do was gather information to construct route maps, collect scientific data regarding meteorology, geology and natural history, obtain ethnological and commercial data, and he was to make a recommendation on the practicality of constructing and maintaining a telegraph line in east Africa.
Keith Johnstonís assistant was 20-year old Joseph Thomson, a brash but able Scot who had great difficulty getting along with his leader. Their personalities were completely different, and incompatible - Johnston was, quiet, introspective, and taciturn, whereas Thomson was bumptious and outgoing, so much so, that he often embarrassed his leader. Johnston made many attempts to have his assistant recalled, but ironically Thomson continued the journey after Johnston died, and returned a hero. Indeed, Thomsonís later journeys rank him as one of the most successful and famous of all African explorers, and to many, his achievements rivaled those of both Livingstone and Stanley.
Author James McCarthy, an experienced environmentalist and nature conservationist (and an old Africa-hand), was invited by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society to transcribe the ďlostĒ unpublished expedition diary of Keith Johnston. The task was difficult, because Johnston used an idiosyncratic short-hand, his writing was hard to decipher, and the ink he used ran on the pages. Nonetheless, McCarthy produced a document in the year 2000 that is now housed in the National Library of Scotland. Using material from the diary, he then began to write the first biography of the ill-fated young explorer, and what a fascinating story he tells.
Having access to myriad letters, the archives at the RGS, and most importantly, to the two-volume unpublished Recollection of the Keith Johnstons, written by Keithís sister, Grace, McCarthy is able to describe the family life of Alexander Keith Johnston, Sr. (1804-1871), a founder of one of Europeís most distinguished publishing houses, and a first-class intellectual. His son, Keith, was raised in his fatherís image, and he became a brilliant geographer and cartographer. The younger Johnston was an excellent linguist and scholar and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society at age 24. Keith also was quite comfortable in social situations involving politicians, well-known scientists, and distinguished university professors, all friends and acquaintances of his father. McCarthy points out that his strong middle-class upbringing made it almost impossible for him to later communicate with Joseph Thomson, because of Thomsonís perceived lower class social roots.
McCarthy places every aspect of Keith Johnstonís life in context.
He covers such things as the social life in mid-nineteenth century
Edinburgh, social stratification in Victorian times, how men and women got
educated, and later the legacy of Livingstone and Stanley, the importance
of porters for European explorers, the problems of illness and disease,
and the hazards of wildlife. Upon
completing this book, I sadly understood the tragedy of Keith Johnston
perishing at such an early age. He certainly was destined for great
things. As fate would have it, though, his father comes across as a more
interesting and capable man; and, certainly, despite Keith Johnstonís
concerns, Joseph Thomson became a distinguished scientific explorer.