Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire by Claire Pettitt

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Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire by Claire Pettitt

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jacqueline Kay
Reviewed by Jacqueline Kay
Summary: This short book explores Stanley's famous "discovery" of Dr Livingstone, its entry into the popular culture of its day and its remarkable endurance as a legend ever since.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861977281

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When Henry Morton Stanley first coined the immortal words "Dr Livingstone, I presume" he could not have predicted the enduring response they would have. The story of the American journalist, sent out to Africa to seek out the missing-presumed-dead "English" missionary-cum-explorer, David Livingstone, has been told and retold many times, capturing the imaginations of several generations on both sides of the Atlantic. The latest retelling is by Claire Pettitt and is one of a series of books produced by Profile Books exploring iconic events in history.

I have to confess that I was initially dubious about the potential value of yet another addition to the extensive literature on the subject, but I embarked on my reading with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised. Right from the start of the Introduction it was clear that the scope of the book (although quite short) would be very broad. It concerns itself, not so much with the details of Livingstone's missionary travels nor Stanley's journalistic pursuits, as with the manner in which they have each been popularly perceived and presented, both at the time and since.

By providing background information, many details of the tale as it is commonly told are debunked. For example, I already knew that Dr Livingstone was born in Scotland but if I had been asked about the location of Henry Morton Stanley's initial childhood and upbringing my guess would have been a few thousand miles out. I knew about Dr Livingstone's anti-slavery stance, but not about his earlier collaboration with Arab slave traders.

Claire Pettit examines sensitively in turn what is known or can be derived about Dr Livingstone's relationships with his family, with his servants, with the African peoples amongst whom he lived and with the organisations back in England who sponsored his trips. Stripped of the heroic veneer, a cold judgement can be made about his actual level of success as a missionary, as an explorer, as a representative of his country at the height of its Empire, and as a family man; and yet, this judgement has to be balanced with the fact that he has been an inspiration to many both during his lifetime and since. Claire Pettitt's calm narrative helps us to understand both the man and the enduring hero.

The meeting with Stanley, she asserts, was 'one of the first international "celebrity" moments in history'. She traces the changing role of the press through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, examining the effects of events such as the laying of the transatlantic cable on the nature of reporting, tracking the development of the "special relationship" between the US and UK and the growth of celebrity culture through to the current day.

A large section of the book focuses on the lives of Dr Livingstone's servants both before and after Dr Livingstone's death. It was thanks to their loyalty and devotion that Dr Livingstone's mummified body was returned to England for burial. Their visits to England were in many ways as courageous as Dr Livingstone's journeys to Africa but are far less well known. Perhaps the time has finally come for them to be heard. I was particularly interested to learn that they had stayed at Newstead Abbey, a place I have also visited, quite unaware of its connection with the Livingstone family.

In the final section Claire Pettit applies the same analytic scrutiny to Stanley's career both before and after the meeting. The Stanley brand has not fared quite as well over time as the Livingstone one for a number of reasons which are discussed in detail but his influence has arguably been just as great.

There is quite an extensive guide to further reading including some online resources. I've had great fun surfing on the University of Kent Political Cartoons database as a result of one recommendation. The book is also very thoughtfully illustrated throughout. The only minor disappointment for me was the quality of the maps at the beginning. I felt frustrated that they did not show the direction of any of the plotted travels undertaken.

If reading about an exploration event has made you want to travel to other unknown parts in your reading then you could try In Search of Kazakhstan.

Buy Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire by Claire Pettitt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire by Claire Pettitt at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire by Claire Pettitt at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?: Missionaries, Journalists, Explorers and Empire by Claire Pettitt at Amazon.com.

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