David Finkelstein

Name ID 1176

external link

See also

Ezard, John Key text on Africa was slanted by publisher
Extract Date: 13 Aug 2001

Key text on Africa was slanted by publisher

Ghost writer amended journal of Victorian explorer to project 'dark continent' image and promote imperial ambitions

One of the most celebrated books of African exploration was redrafted and slanted politically by a ghost writer to promote a view of a "dark continent" desperately in need of colonisation, a study of the manuscripts has disclosed.

This rewriting drastically changed the original texts of the explorer John Hanning Speke's Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, according to a comparison of the drafts. Black people were described as urgently needing Christianity and European government.

The book, a bestseller in 1863, helped to inspire the colonial "scramble for Africa" over the following 40 years.

It was "extremely influential in shaping Victorian attitudes to Africa and its people, as well as in providing political rationales for colonial expansion into the continent", the researcher, David Finkelstein, of Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh, said yesterday.

In one key changed passage, Speke said the plight of Africans in Buganda (now part of Uganda) came "purely from want of good producing soil".

His undisclosed collaborator - who had never been to Africa - altered this to read "solely from want of a good stable government". Later he added: "They require a government like ours in India; and without it the slave trade will wipe them off the face of the earth." Dr Finkelstein is the first scholar to have compared the book published under Speke's name with his original diaries - written during his three-year exploration - and the publisher's revision proofs. These are stored among the papers of the Edinburgh publisher, John Blackwood, in the National Library of Scotland.

The story of the ghost-writing is discussed in The Empire Writes Back, a Radio 4 documentary to be broadcast today, and in the current BBC History magazine.

Dr Finkelstein, who found the papers while researching a book on the publisher, also uncovered greed and panic on the Blackwood family's part. When Speke triumphantly returned to Britain from his African expeditions in June, 1863, William Blackwood wrote to his uncle and partner John: "It is evident Speke has had many an adventure, and it also, I think, indicates some plunder in store for us."

The firm saw Speke's expedition as an apt subject because it already published the conservative, pro-British empire Blackwoods Magazine.

But panic set in after Blackwoods outbid competitors and signed Speke as an author for a "2,000 advance.

Speke's early chapters were "written in such an abominable, childish, unintelligible way that it is impossible to say what anybody could make of them", John Blackwood said.

With his firm facing potential ruin, he contacted several ghost writers, finally paying the Scottish historian John Hill Burton, a longstanding Blackwoods Magazine contributor, a "200 fee.

Burton moved in with Speke and the collaboration within two months produced a 200,000-word book, which sold 5,700 copies in its first year and was translated all over Europe.

Among sections Burton cut, as too blunt for a Victorian readership, were Speke's accounts of sex with a Bugandan woman, and of venereal disease among Africans.

More substantially, he revised Speke's introduction. This originally appealed to readers "to see and understand the negroes of Africa in their natural, promitive or native state".

The result of isolation from European civilisation - according to the revised text - was an African male who "works his wife, sells his children, enslaves all he can lay hands upon, and, unless when fighting for the property of others, contents himself with drinking, singing, and dancing like a baboon to drive dull care away.

"Having no god, in the Christian sense, to fear or worship, they have no love for truth, honour, or honesty."

Dr Finkelstein said: "There is nothing as strong as this in Speke's original. This work was rewritten to fit generalised British views about Africa."

Speke died aged 37 in a shooting accident, nine months after the book was published.

The House of Blackwood, by David Finkelstein, will be published by Penn State Press in March.

Extract ID: 3174