White Nile, The

by Alan Moorehead (1960)


One of the books on writing I read cited this book as the greatest travelogue ever written; I’m disinclined to argue with the assessment. Moorehead doesn’t just give the history of the Nile’s exploration, he crafts a story out of it, with protagonists and character arcs and conflict and tragedy. He writes with lyricism and deep empathy. He virtually transforms the story of the Nile into an epic poem. Here’s a prime example:

There is a fated quality about the events of the next six months, an air of pure and certain tragedy that lifts the story out of time and space so that it becomes part of a permanent tradition of human courage and human helplessness. It can be repeated just as a Shakespearean tragedy can be repeated, and it never alters. The values remain the same in every age, and the principal characters are instantly recognizable; we would no more think of their playing different roles from the ones they actually played than we would dream of withholding death from King Lear or of rescuing Hamlet from his hesitations. Each of the three main protagonists — Wolseley coming up the Nile with his soldiers, Gordon waiting and watching on the Palace roof in Khartoum and the Mahdi with his warriors encamped in the desert outside the town — behaves precisely as he is destined to do, and it is wonderfully dramatic that these three men, who were so perfectly incapable of understanding one another, should have been thrust together in such desperate circumstances and in such an outlandish corner of the world. Each man is the victim of forces which are stronger than himself. The Mahdi, having raised a holy war, is bound to assault Khartoum. Gordon, having committed his word to the people in the town, is bound to remain there to the end. And Wolseley, the soldier, having received his orders, is bound to try and rescue him. None of these three really controls events, none of them can predict what will happen. From time to time they feel hope or despair, confidence or uncertainty, but in the main they simply hold on to their predestined courses and they are like the pilots of three ships in a fog that are headed for an inevitable collision. 261-2

If you like that quote you’ll like the book. By the end I found myself actually a little disappointed that the region was “discovered” so quickly — just a few decades passed before the age of explorers was supplanted completely by the modern era. I wanted the history to last longer because it was so enthralling.

The one knock you might make on this book is that despite Moorehead’s comparative empathy toward native Africans and even the Arabs, the book is heavily eurocentric, with period-condoned racism at several points.  The racism is unfortunate but one could argue that the eurocentrism is necessary just because it is a history and thus based solely on available historical documents (written exclusively by white folks).

But still, it’s good to keep reminding yourself while you read that the story of light people discovering lands inhabited by dark people is maybe not the most relevant perspective to take. For this reason it’s so tantalizing when Moorehead spends longer passages on African kings like Mutesa and Kabarega — I wish they had been given a bigger part of the story though I’m not sure if it was possible given Moorehead’s constraints. Overall I would recommend this to most people.

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