Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  11 (1885–86), 546–58.

Africa's Awakening

David Ker


Essay, Travelogue

Relevant illustrations:



Exploration, Imperialism, War, Railways, Engineering, Wonder, Agriculture, Politics, Navigation, Physical Geography, Ancient Authorities, Race, Education, Political Economy, Comparative Philology, Climatology, Progress, Futurism

People mentioned:

Ismail Pasha , George B Wolseley , Georg A Schweinfurth , David Livingstone

Publications cited:

Ogilby 1670

    Reflects on the 'great tidal wave of civilization which is now bursting into the Dark Continent', and discusses recent proposals to open up Africa's 'three great natural highways [...] the Nile, the Niger, and the Congo'. Noting that among the 'countless blessings of war must be reckoned its power of teaching geography and its aptitude for developing railways', suggests that the 'historian of the twentieth century will class' the presently incomplete Suakin-Berber and Upper Nile Valley railways as 'among the most important achievements of the nineteenth century'. (546) However, the scale of even these projects 'sinks into insignificance compared with the rival enterprise advocated [...] by no less an authority than Sir Samuel Baker', who proposes 'raising the level of the Nile so high as to annihilate all its cataracts' thereby 'fertilizing with the rich deposit of its waters a desert as large as the combined area of France and Germany'. The scheme 'might well appear startling even to a generation which has hewed its way through the isthmus of Suez', but 'its feasibility is obvious to any one who remembers [...] the real sources' of the Nile's 'yearly overflow' high up in 'Africa's Switzerland, Abyssinia' (547). The main purpose of the plan drawn up by Baker, the 'greatest living authority on the Nile and its capabilities', is to transform the 'Nubian and Libyan deserts into cotton fields' which will 'render England independent of America' (547–48). It will also 'make the great river navigable from its mouth right up to Gondokoro [...] sweeping away at one blow the multiplied obstacles that broke Romolo Gessi's heart'. Observes that while the Niger is 'passingly mentioned by Herodotus, and located with tolerable correctness by Strabo and other classic geographers', it was not until 1869 that its 'head-waters [were] fully explored by Winwood Reade, a relative of the famous English novelist, whose vivid picture of African life in one of his later works probably gained much of its force from the graphic details of his younger namesake'. Also discusses French plans for the improvement of the Niger valley, but suggests that 'M. de Lesseps's imaginative scheme for flooding the whole Sahara into a small Atlantic [has] apparently but one drawback, viz., that of being impossible'. (551). Expresses a more sanguine view, however, about German plans for the last of the 'great watery highways' of Africa to be developed, the Congo (554), but claims that to give a full account of 'the Congo's commercial future would be to write Mr. Stanley's latest work over again', and instead quotes large passages from the book (556). Observes in a footnote that a 'Zulu translation of the Pilgrim's Progress shown me by the late Bishop Colenso' contained 'several Zulu words' that are identical to the 'dialect of the lower Congo' as well as words 'used by Cetywayo's spearmen on the opposite side of the continent', but demurs that it is 'a coincidence which I leave to the consideration of better philologists than myself' (556n.). Concludes that there are men 'still alive among us whose fathers could remember a time' when America itself was merely a land of 'pathless forests, haunted by murderous savages', and suggests that Africa may likewise 'advance with ever-increasing rapidity'. Indeed, the 'close of the twentieth century' may witness some African 'Ki-Nshasha Motley [i.e. John L Motley]' completing the 'last volume of his Rise of the Congo Republic [i.e. Motley 1856]', or a 'show of British and American manufactures at the Leopoldsville Industrial Exposition of the year 2001' (558).

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