African Studies Quarterly

QUEST FOR THE JADE SEA: COLONIAL COMPETITION AROUND AN EAST AFRICAN LAKE. Pascal James Imperato. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998. pp. 332. Cloth: $35.00.

The exploration of the Lake Rudolf (Turkana) area receives little attention in studies of colonialism. The wars between Ethiopia and Italy, Britain and the Mahdi State, and the competition between Britain, France and Belgium over Equatorial Sudan are usually cited as the determining factors of the colonial scramble of the region. Nevertheless, at the end of the nineteenth century Lake Rudolf was the subject of many expeditions which "reflected misguided colonial judgments about its economic and strategic importance and its presumed relationship to the Nile" (p. 2). In his chronological overview of this frenetic activity, Pascal Imperato draws a sharp distinction between expeditions that originated from geographical concerns (identifying the course of rivers, especially the Nile) and those with explicit political goals (claiming territory). He believes the first expeditions were oriented to science and sport, although their original impetus might have been political (e.g. the interest of Crown Prince Rudolf in the Teleki expedition, 1886-88). Only from 1896, in the enterprises of Bottego, Marchand, Bonchamps and Macdonald, does Imperato detect clear political aims. The subsequent 1899-1900 British expedition of Harrison and Whitehouse was the first to claim territory and draw borders. The book ends with a brief sketch of the actual demarcation expeditions and the more recent history of the region.

Imperato is far more confident when discussing the personal, logistic and geographical aspects of the expeditions than their political backgrounds. In the introduction he expresses his admiration for these "bold, resourceful, and unorthodox" adventurers (p. 6). His book is a straightforward and accessible account of these "glorious ventures." Although Imperato, is a doctor specializing in African tropical diseases, he acts here as an amateur historian at his best. He has researched a plethora of archives, sometimes in obscure places, and interviewed descendants of the explorers, which enables him to reveal many colourful details about such enterprising or eccentric men as Teleki, von Höhnel, Donaldson Smith, Bulatovich, Leontiev, etc. His open perspective also saves him from ideological or theoretical blindness. He thus understands colonial competition as a complex, interrelated history. Enterprising men and indigenous powers played an important role next to colonial powers and underlying socio-economic forces. He gives due attention to the hesitant, sometimes indifferent position of the British government and the expansionist policies of Menelik as determining the political relevance of later expeditions to the Lake Rudolf region.

Imperato's approach, however, begs for a more systematic, critical analysis of political contexts and consequences of colonialist exploration. It is unsettling that the author wraps up his story at the moment of actual demarcation between Ethiopia and British East Africa. Imperato seems aware of more profound and long-term aspects (e.g., the changes in the demography and ecology of the area caused by the expeditions) but refrains from elaborating upon them. His introduction takes issue with recent, postmodern studies of nineteenth-century travel accounts that seek to uncover Eurocentric, imperialistic attitudes and appropriation of local knowledges. He warns against anachronistic judgments and concludes positively that these studies have allowed us to understand better the cultural and social references of the travellers. But in this book, there is very little trace of even this weakened version of a critical approach to colonialist exploration. The travel accounts are taken at face value, so that stories of "treacherous local traders," "deserting porters,"and "hostile tribes" are uncritically rehearsed.

Imperato is more critical of the extensive and enthusiastic shooting of game, particularly of the expeditions led by Neumann (1895) and Cavendish (1897). Cavendish is also reproached for his harsh treatment of the Boran and Turkana, but this critique only stems from other accounts of that expedition. Imperato does not expand beyond his archives by incorporating indigenous oral histories of the region or by approaching the travel accounts in a discourse-analytic way. As for the one 'indigenous' side in this book, it is useful that Imperato does discuss Ethiopian expansionist politics and he treats Ethiopia as a major player alongside Britain and France. But the discussion is also somewhat rhetorically attenuating for colonialism in general. There is a blatant imbalance between the recurrent emphasis on the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian expeditions and the largely uncritical reliance on the Western travel accounts. One would at least expect a contextualization of Ethiopian politics as a reaction to European invasion, just as Britain reacted to the Ethiopian expeditions.

In sum, I consider Imperato's book to be a well-researched overview of nineteenth-century geographical exploration in that little-studied region around Lake Turkana, rather than a critical analysis of the political context of those expeditions. Its clear style and rich details will appeal to a wide audience.

Chris Bulcaen
Department of English
University of Gent, Belgium