Monday, July 14, 2008

Joseph Thomson

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading a book I had been reading for two weeks, Joseph Thomson and the Exploration of Africa by Robert I. Rotberg. It is about a lesser known Victorian explorer. A little while ago I read a couple of books about exploring Africa in the 1800's and was a bit dismayed by the brutal tactics employed by the "heros." One of the books referred to Joseph Thomson as a different sort of explorer, a more humane one, so I put this biography on my list. It was written in 1971 and remains the most thorough study of the man. It covers all of Thomson's life, including his six African trips. (Maps were provided to help one follow the text.)

During his first journey Thomson was the young understudy of another explorer in East Africa. That explorer died enroute and Thomson had to take over. He decided, partly out of necessity, to take a gentler approach to exploration and make every effort to loose neither a porter's life nor a native's life in his quest. He did this mostly with understanding and a bit of humility. His motto became, "He who goes slowly, goes safely, he who goes safely goes far." His first trip to the surprise of everyone ended within its budget and without any needless loss of life.

During this trip and the next one Thomson seemed to be truly interested in the native way of life. He didn't see the natives as the savages like most explorers of the era did. Unfortunately as his life progressed Thomson became disillusioned and bitter. His views became more racist and he embraced colonialism. Thomson constantly sought out new African adventures that would increase his fame as a great explorer. He went on four other expedition before he died at age 37, but none was seen as truly ground breaking.

I enjoyed Rotberg's biography. Some reviews saw it as overly sympathetic of Thomson, but I didn't find that to be the case. With a just few surviving letters and Thomson's two novels and travel books Rotberg was able to create a description of the man that I found detailed enough to get a good sense of who Thomson was. He's a man I came to pity as much as I was inspired by him. I only wish Rotberg's book was written in more modern times when reproducing more photographs is more commonplace for biographies.

In the future I hope to get a change to see a documentary of Thomson's 2nd voyage that I found online, Through Maasailand: In the Footsteps of Africa's Greatest Explorer. It is supposed to be converted to a book someday as well. I think either would give me a better visual sense of his life's work.

Found: 2 pennies (both at Sovereign Bank)