- Zambesi: David Livingstone and the Expeditionary Science in Africa
A query that promptly came to mind as I opened Lawrence Dritsas's book, Zambesi: David Livingstone and the Expeditionary Science in Africa, was, why is a nineteenth-century phenomenon important to readers, researchers, academics, scientists, and historians of the twenty-first century? The author admits that his book "builds upon past scholarship but intends to add to it by offering a new history of the Expedition" (p. 31). In the face of new documents, including letters from families and diaries and travel journals of the members of the expedition, technology and time are assisting with a new understanding and reinterpretation of the infamous expedition, which was a harbinger to the colonization of Central Africa. In this book, Dritsas presents a "scientific biography of this Expedition[,] rather than of one of its members" (p. 32).
Dritsas opines: "The Zambesi Expedition was planned as a civilizing mission that would need to do some exploration and scientific research to achieve its goals" (p. 33). He assesses the sources available for writing about the expedition while making interesting analyses. He notes that the journals of Universities' Mission to Central Africa, including archiving of the sources, manuscripts, and information on the expedition that are spread all over Europe, Africa, and America, attest to the complexity of the organization of the expedition. He explains how "[it] was a suite of projects answering to different interest groups" (p. 33). His analyses of the archival materials and how they have been kept leads him to argue that the expedition could no more be justified as a "civilizing mission" than as a politico-social effort at commerce, imperialism, and racial control. [End Page 100]
The book has seven chapters, which deal with aspects of the expedition. Chapters one and two provide an overview of the historical settling of Central Africa, its terrain, and the relationship between the indigenes and the Europeans, as well as intra-European relationships. It creates a rereading of the literature on the two Zambesi expeditions and how several decades of historicizing and research writing have influenced our understanding of the expedition and the people involved.
Chapter three assesses the politics in the selection of the crew for the expedition. Here, not only were the abilities and talents of the crew important, but so were the interests of the donor or sponsor communities, such as the Royal Geographical Society and the Natural History Department of the British Museum. These affected the selection of the crew and their assigned duties: to collect information and specimens of the flora and fauna, pictures, animals, geology, rivers, and peoples. According to Dritsas, the real reason behind the expedition was science, though the exercise was "touted as a civilizing mission" (p. 79).
Chapter four, which is especially well written and well argued, looks at the role of religion in the use of technology in the exploration. Technological advancement attained in the mid-nineteenth century was the darling of the expedition. The expeditionists depended highly on the steamboat, photography, and sketching, and least of all, the storage mechanism, but they proved to be the bane of the expedition. According to Dritsas, the steamboat failed woefully, especially in navigating the African waters and, in providing an environment able to store Kirk's botanical specimens. Except for sketches and photographs by Kirk and Baines, the expedition would have returned close to nothing to the scientific community in Britain.
In chapter five, Dritsas answers the question "Does the indigenes' role in the expedition matter?" He uses the opportunity to discuss the role of Central Africans in the expedition as collectors, informants, and aids. Dritsas's argument is that "specimens were best understood when their places in other people's economies, histories, social and symbolic systems were preserved, recorded and remembered" (p. 121). Dritsas notes frankly that the voices of the indigenes and their contributions have been excluded from the documentation of the expedition, perhaps to avoid the possibility of tainting the credibility of the "professionals" and "higher...