Books that Time Forgot: Across Widest Africa

I have an awkward confession to make. As a bookseller, it's generally expected that I'll be on top of the new releases—that I'll know all about the new campus novel and the new World War II novel, and the new nonfiction release about how Donald Trump is either the worst president ever or the best president ever. 

But new books just don't really do it for me anymore. Instead, I've been working my way through a series of out-of-print public-domain ebooks of the kind that you'd be lucky to find used. I don't know what initially drew me to this. Maybe it's my natural contrarian streak, maybe it's the thrill of making rare discoveries (a thrill that's almost entirely imaginary at this point, when almost anything can be found and acquired for free online without getting out of bed). Probably it's because I like to get stuff for free.

One such find that has fascinated me is Across Widest Africa by Arthur Henry Savage Landor, published in 1907. I can't remember now what attracted me to it. Maybe it was the author's incredible name. Landor was a British portrait artist and author of many travel narratives (including one about his journey across Tibet with two cats). Commissioned to paint Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, Landor took the opportunity to devise a trip across Africa from Djibouti to Cape Verde, a journey of seven or eight thousand miles which took him an entire year.

Landor affects a tone of casual aloofness towards the land and people that he encounters which has been described as witty, but which more often than not is sanctimonious and cruel. However, it helps to create a sense of ironic distance from his behavior when it's accompanied by a host of absurd quack beliefs and superstitions of his own. These range from classics of pseudoscience like phrenology to such eccentric ideas about health and medicine that it's amazing he survived his journey at all.

Rejecting the “mosquito theory” of malarial transmission, Landor peppers his account with “evidence” to prove that his fevers are caused by “bad air”, and at one point cuts a hole in his mosquito net because he's too hot to sleep. Likewise placing no stock in the dangers of direct sunlight, he travels for hours on end beneath the beating sun of equatorial Africa without even a hat on his head to protect himself. And when he does come down with any ailment—no matter what it might be—the only treatment he places any faith in is to “purge” himself with doses of castor oil. One is left with the image of a real-life Colonel Blimp, a superior and self-satisfied Englishman, wandering across the African countryside, weak and dehydrated from sunstroke and self-inflicted diarrhea. It makes you wonder how much of his story was hallucinated.

But although Landor himself is a joke, there's nothing funny about colonialism in Africa, and Landor's treatment of Africans is often virulently racist. A particularly appalling moment occurs on his arrival in the Belgian Congo, where he takes unusual pains to assure the reader of the locals' excellent treatment at the hands of their colonial masters and the fairness of the levies that were imposed on them:

“If anything, they have really more independence than people in Europe or America, and no comparison can be made between the taxation levied upon them and that of people in Europe and the United States.”

Bear in mind that the famous Casement Report on the horrific crimes in the Congo was published only three years earlier, detailing years of atrocities including beatings, kidnapping, murder, and most iconically, the widespread chopping off of hands for a bounty. It's impossible to know now what Landor actually saw on his visit to the Congo, but it's clear that he chose to connive in the colonial attempt to bury one of the most infamous human rights scandals in modern history.

This is not a book that one can read without a critical distance. But despite—in fact, because of—the author's many flaws, Across Widest Africa remains a fascinating read. Like the recreated text in Borges' classic short story, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", the passage of time has transformed a simple travel narrative into something like a postmodern novel, from its unreliable narrator to its postcolonial subtext. In this sense it's the quintessential example of the kind of bizarre reading material that I love to discover in the depths of Anyone can write a book, but only being forgotten for a hundred years can produce a book like this.

If you're interested in some more up-to-date reading about Africa, there is no end of books to choose from. Below is only a tiny handful. Sound off in the comments with your favorites!