It ended, apparently, in Africa, just about a century ago, and no one who had anything to do with it thought for one moment that anything was ending. On the contrary, men supposed that a new threshold had been crossed, and that more doors would be opened as the years went on. But the last blank places on the map were at last being filled, and without any warning at all the old driving energy went to seed. The moment of final triumph was also the beginning of the end. The great age of discovery was nickering out; as it did so, Western man’s confidence, his inbred certainty that he and no one else was in charge of what was going to happen to the world, began to flicker out with it. It took a century for this fact to become apparent, but the process was at work.
This comes through in Alan Moorehead’s excellent The White Nile , which covers roughly the last fifty years of the nineteenth century, when the Nile was finally traced to its source, and the broad light of modern day fell upon the last recesses of the dark continent. Richard Francis Burton, Captain James Grant, and John Hanning Speke, abandoning the old effort to go up the Nile from Egypt, cut cross-lots from Zanzibar and got into the area of Africa’s great lakes. They were followed, presently, by Sir Samuel Baker, and then by Dr. David Livingstone and the slightly incredible Henry M. Stanley; after which, in the fullness of time, came General Charles George Gordon, who was killed at Khartoum. The great era of privately financed expeditions came to an end, and the European governments took over; General Kitchener led an army up the Nile and broke native power in the Sudan, accompanied—so recent was all of this, and so long is one man’s life span—by a brash young man named Winston Churchill. By the end of the century the Nile was known and was open (controlled, incidentally, all the way to Central Africa by Great Britain), and the great age of exploration had just about come to its close.
The White Nile , by Alan Moorehead. Harper & Brothers. 385 pp. $5.95.
Yet somehow it is what happened afterward that is most particularly interesting. The world today looks very different from the way it looked in 1900, and nowhere is the difference more striking than in Africa. Awaiting final exploration, Africa, as far as any man could tell, was simply one more sizable portion of the earth which Western society would first examine, then control, and at last exploit; and it went without saying that the exploitation would benefit not only Western society but the Africans themselves. Africa would be given the blessings of modern civilization, its age-old evils would be reformed—contemplating the atrocious slave trade, Dr. Livings tone called down Heaven’s blessing on any outsiders “who will help to heal this open sore of the world”—and in the not-distant future the whole continent would be enfolded in the dynamic and forever expanding system of the Western world.
The men who played their parts in the whole operation were almost fantastically unlike one another, but they did have one thing in common: a deep sense of mission, of destiny, of certainty. They might have had doubts about what they would find when they reached the sources of the Nile, but they had no doubts at all about either the Tightness of what they were trying to do or the permanence of the new regime which, in one way or another, they were bringing to this newly opened country. The old vitality which had transplanted Western institutions to the New World and had asserted control over the Orient was still at work; what had happened in other places would assuredly happen here. Africa would be a useful and rewarding member of the European community.
As it turned out, Africa had other ideas. So, in the course of a few decades, did the European community. The Nile is indeed open, but it is not under the sort of control which the explorers envisaged. The serene confidence that this immense continent would provide new bases for empires has all but entirely evaporated; if Western man today can be said to have a settled thought in regard to Africa it can be expressed in the simple question: “What on earth is going to happen next?”
It would of course be a violent over-simplification to say that the limitless energy with which Western society went about the business of shaping the world to its own liking ran thin just because the age of exploration ended and the map was filled in to the last remote township. A good many things happened to that energy. A great deal of it was exhausted in the terrible convulsion of the First World War, and more of it was dissipated in the confused and frantic generation that followed. Opening the dark places of the earth, Europeans and Americans gave to the people living in those places a new notion of how life there might be transformed; a new notion, and a certain aptitude for having a try at it. Without realizing that they were doing it, the Westerners released more energy than they could control; at the same time the West came to see that it had problems at home which were immediate and pressing enough to absorb all of society’s vital forces for some time to come. If the broad expectations of the last of the great explorers and exploiters came to much less than was anticipated, there are solid reasons for it.
Yet no one will ever again see what the early navigators saw when they ventured without charts into seas which might contain unimaginable marvels and mysteries, what the weary explorers saw when they first looked on the sources of the Nile, on the empty plains beyond the Missouri, or on the lonely river that goes north from Great Slave Lake; and because no one will ever look at anything on earth in just that way, something behind the eye of the beholder has undergone a subtle change. Where does the sense of wonder come from, and what does it do when it possesses a man? What happens when it leaves? Does energy then die?
Cause and effect, or just happenstance?