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Ascent of the White Nile and Other Highlights from African History and Culture, 1540-1921

Posted on 06/18/2015

The June release of African History and Culture, 1540-1921: Imprints from the Library Company of Philadelphia includes perspectives from an Irish pastor in Western Africa, the biography of a Dutch heiress who explored North Africa, and the views of an English soldier in Central Africa.

Missions in Western Africa, among the Soosoos, Bulloms, &c. (1845)

By Rev. Samuel Abraham Walker

Reverend Samuel Abraham Walker described himself as “a man unknown to fame, and of no higher standing in the Church, or the world, than the pastor of a small rural parish in Ireland.” Walker felt duty bound to become a missionary and offered this justification for choosing to work in West Africa:

It is impossible, I conceive, to overrate the importance of our West African Mission: its effects, if the Lord continues to bless it, will be gigantic. In other countries the Gospel merely calls out members of the Church; but in Africa it is enlisting whole regiments of Missionary soldiers, and sending them forth armed and accoutered, to engage in deadly conflict with the demon of superstition, crime, and death; and the facilities afforded for this particular work are among the most remarkable evidences of providential arrangement which the history of the Church of Christ supplies.

Walker’s tome tells of the peoples of West Africa, offers a history of slavery, and recounts, in Walker’s words, “What attempts have been made in modern times to make Christ known to the natives of this vast continent?”

True to his cause, Walker saw Christianity as a panacea. Expounding on the power found in the Christian will and in the word of God, Walker wrote:

It has done good for Africa before; it has effected the only good which she has received in modern times, and whatever of promise there is for the future, in the present circumstances of Africa, the triumphs of scriptural truth over native barbarity and superstition, and the loathsome effects of natural depravity, developed and fostered by foreign avarice, declare that the Gospel is the lever by which the evils of Africa will be ultimately uprooted, and the rule of moral and spiritual debasement overthrown.

The Heroine of the White Nile (1871)

By William Wells

William Wells’ biography of Miss Alexandrine Petronella Francina Tinné is one of adventure and intrigue. Miss Tinné was the daughter of a wealthy Dutch merchant who died when she was ten years old, leaving her the richest heiress in the Netherlands. At the age of 25, Tinné embarked on her first journey to Central Africa and became one of the first European women to ascend the White Nile. The journey cost the lives of her mother and aunt but did not stifle her love of the continent. In fact, she would later become the first European women to attempt to cross the Sahara.

Wells offers this description of Alexandrine Tinné:

She was truly a pioneer in African discovery, for she penetrated regions that had never before been trodden by the foot of the white race, except perhaps by some of the unprincipled slave-dealers in search of victims. She was immensely rich, and expended her great fortune in these enterprises, not so much in the cause of discovery or science, as in the desire to become acquainted with the unknown regions of the country that she had actually made her home.

From African History and Culture

Five years after her ascent of the White Nile, Tinné attempted to cross the Sahara, but her expedition ended in August 1869 with her murder, the reasons for which remain unclear to this day. Some historians argue it was simple theft, which is the theory put forward in Wells’ version.

After describing the attack and murder of Tinné and her entourage, Wells writes that the murderers “now fell upon the iron water-chests, believing that these contained her great treasures, and thus robbery was, no doubt, the main impulse to the terrible deed.” Others contend the motive was political, designed to demonstrate the inability of the local authority to protect foreign travelers.

From African History and Culture

Whether Wells’ theory of the crime is correct or not does not detract from this work about one of the first European women to explore Africa.

The Land of the Pigmies (1898)

By Captain Guy Burrows

In his introduction to this work, the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley offers high praise of both the author and his writing:

Captain Guy Burrows descends from a well-known English military family….It was therefore but a natural bent in our author to adopt the same honorable profession, and since he was gazetted to the 7th Fusiliers in August, 1880, Captain Burrows has seen considerable service….    

With regard to this first literary effort of Captain Burrows I need say but little. Its title is a fascinating one, and suggests the satisfaction of our legitimate curiosity respecting the little people whom the Emin Relief Expedition discovered in such numbers in the great forest traversed by the Aruwimi.

In describing the society, manners, and customs of several Central African tribes, Burrows also shows his admiration for, and cultural bias against, his subjects:

Fully occupied in hunting, Pigmies do not cultivate the soil, and for this reason, among others, as is the case with the Eskimo, they stand low in the scale of civilization….They are remarkably clever fishermen. With a morsel of meat tied to a piece of string, and without the aid of a hook, they will succeed in landing heavy fish, while less-skilled fishermen, with hooks and lines, may not be able to secure one.


From African History and Culture

For more information about African History and Culture, 1540-1921, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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