Behind Africa’s explorers, Muslim empires on the make

How Tripoli, Egypt, and Zanzibar rode 19th-century European expeditions to profit

by Dane Kennedy, Boston Globe

In June 1857, the British explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke set out on what would become one of the legendary quests in the history of exploration: to find the source and map the course of Africa’s White Nile. Their point of departure was Bagamoyo, a coastal town in present-day Tanzania, then ruled by the island sultanate of Zanzibar. Over the next 21 months and a journey of hundreds of miles, they became the first Europeans to discover two of Africa’s great lakes: Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria, which would prove to be the principal source of the Nile.

Burton and Speke’s expedition was just one of 19th-century Europe’s efforts to penetrate the African interior, efforts that left a lasting impression on the cultural memory of the West. Burton and Speke, like many ­explorers of their era, became heroes at home, remembered for promoting the spread of commerce and Christianity, filling in the blank spaces on the map, and exemplifying national greatness.

But to someone actually observing this storied British expedition, it would have been hard to tell precisely how “British” the effort was. Burton and Speke were accompanied on their journey by nearly a hundred guides, porters, and other personnel recruited in Zanzibar and supervised by an Arab official selected by Zanzibar’s sultan. The sultan also contributed eight of his soldiers to guard the expedition and supplied it with a letter of safe passage and access to credit from Arab traders in the interior. The two Englishmen may have been ostensibly in charge, but the caravan making its way across the plains of East Africa flew the red flag of Zanzibar. Was this a British expedition staffed with Zanzibari helpers, or a Zanzibari one that cleverly made use of British financing?

In conventional Western accounts of African exploration, Europeans stand at the center of the story. European explorers and their promoters tended to portray Africa as the Dark Continent (a phrase popularized by the Anglo-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley), a mysterious and savage land exposed to the light of civilization only through their own heroic efforts. Whether seen as heroes pushing the frontiers of knowledge and humanitarian values—or, as critics complain, as exploiters of African lands and people—those white explorers are still seen as the lead actors in the drama.

But it is also possible to see something else at work: competing empires in Africa using these expeditions for their own ends. Europeans were not the only ones with imperial ambitions in the continent. Some African states, especially the Muslim states of Zanzibar, Egypt, and Tripoli, had similar interests. Each was eager to expand its markets and authority in the African interior. And although they contributed their knowledge, power, and prestige to European expeditions, their own agendas have been all but ignored in popular Western accounts of African exploration—both because they tarnish the image of the explorer as the autonomous hero and because they challenge the notion that Europeans alone are responsible for opening Africa, for good or ill, to the outside world.

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