Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal, abridged by Libby Spurrier

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Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal, abridged by Libby Spurrier (2011). Dir. Joanna Green. Perf. Alex Jennings. BBC Radio 4 Extra, 23-27 February 2015. BBCiPlayer to 29 Mar. 2015.

This Book of the Week provided a vivid account of the exploits of seven explorers, including Sir Richard Burton, John Hanning Speke, Samuel Baker, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley to discover the source of the White Nile.

In Alex Jennings's atmospheric reading, we were given a recreation of the appalling conditions they endured, the help given to them by locals, the praise meted (or not meted) out to them when they returned to Britain, and the sheer spirit of discovery that drove them on. At heart, however, "Explorers of the Nile" was a tale of human vanity, as some of the explorers sought to take credit for their own feats of bravado while denigrating their rivals. This was especially true of Burton, who came across as fundamentally self-interested, even to the extent of minimizing Speke's bravery. Likewise Stanley seemed most concerned with the publicity value of his efforts; having re-encountered David Livingstone (and not said "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," as history erroneously informs us), he embarked on an expedition of his own, accompanied by a retinue far in excess of what he actually needed. The sheer size of his venture was sufficient to attract the interest of the New York press.

What was most evident in this program was a basic contradiction - although author Jeal insists that the explorers made their ventures in the interest of discovery, of making the world a better or more accessible place, there is little doubt that they were colonizers at heart. They might not have been as wantonly exploitative as their counterparts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they were still out to increase the global prestige of their countries of origin at Africa's expense. The locals were treated as subservient, even the chiefs who could determine the explorers' future. "Explorers of the Nile" came across as the verbal descendant of one of those Hollywood epics of the Thirties and Forties, with the clean-cut white heroes triumphing over adversity to achieve their goals.