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Juan Maria Schuver's Travels in North East Africa 1880-1883. Wendy James, Gerd Baumann, and Douglas H. Johnson (eds.). London: The Hakluyt Society, 1996. pp. 392. Cloth: $ 63.00.
The youthful Juan Maria Schuver's detailed descriptions of the Sudanese-Ethiopian border region in the early 1880s constitute an extremely valuable and exciting new contribution to the travel literature of late nineteenth-century Africa. Published by The Hakluyt Society, this lengthy volume is a sort of "recueil de textes" assembled, introduced, annotated, and, in some cases, translated by the editors with great care. They most appropriately dedicate the book to Richard Hill, one of the great scholars of modern Sudan.
The editors open with an essay of a hundred pages. They introduce Schuver, provide political and geographical background about the regions he visited, describe his almost embarrassingly self-conscious efforts to make his mark as a major traveler with a blockbuster of a story to tell, and situate him in his time. Shorter items follow presenting Shuver's texts and manuscripts, a concordance to guide the reader through their various versions in various languages, an outline chronology, a glossary of Sudan Arabic, notes on ethnic and place names, and biographical sketches of major historical figures in Sudan at the time. Several of Schuver's maps are also reproduced to illustrate his text, but because they are not enlarged, they are not very useful (between pp. 52-53, 180-181, 255).
Schuver's two major texts are entitled Between the Two Niles and On the Abyssinian Frontier. Written in English and French, and meant to be two versions of a single account, they appear here for the first time in their totality, although abridged versions were published in German the year of Schuver's death (Gotha: Justus Perthes, 1883). The tale of their modern discovery is the stuff of historians' fantasies. Long lost, they were found in Amsterdam in 1985, in a space above folding doors which pierced thick double walls between the dining and living rooms of a house belonging to a son of Schuver's cousin, Jan Schuver (pp. xiii-xiv, 361).
In addition to these accounts, editors James, Baumann, and Johnson have assembled a third book, Last Journey South, from extant letters written by Schuver in the course of his final and fatal expedition to the White Nile region. The volume also includes eight appendices made up of Schuver's shorter texts-letters, journal entries, vocabulary lists for languages that remain even today little-known, along with record books, and autobiographical materials--either written to geographical societies in Europe, or found among his papers in Cairo and elsewhere.
Schuver's Travels are valuable for several reasons. First, he visited the volatile border region between the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and Ethiopia during a very critical few years. In the early 1880s, the region lay between the sphere of English and Egyptian authority, and that of the expanding imperial Ethiopian empire. Aware of this "big picture," because the support of the Anglo-Egyptian authorities in Khartoum and regional centers was vital to the success of his expedition, and yet attentive to the realities of local power, because his survival depended upon it, Schuver offers numerous examples of how local chiefs and warlords maneuvered to maintain their independence, while at the same time avoiding retribution by Sudanese colonial authorities. Indeed, Schuver walked the same tightrope-identifying himself with the "Turkish" (or Sudanese) authorities when it was required, and condemning them when it helped him to gain access to a chief or a region otherwise off limits. Schuver also records specific examples of tactics adopted by Ethiopian rulers and their local governors to extend their authority over the Oromo (Schuver's Galla) in the Blue Nile region. Ethiopian incursions set the stage for the incorporation of the area into the Ethiopian empire in the years that followed.
In addition, Schuver traveled "between two Niles" during the years when the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist movement called the Mahdiyya in central and western Sudan increasingly threatened Anglo-Egyptian rule. The Dutchman records the comings and goings of Mahdist emissaries--usually Islamic clerics--who brought news of the Mahdiyya's successes in the west and encouraged local people and their chiefs to reject Anglo-Egyptian authority. Finally, the traveler documents the abandonment of vast areas by people fleeing the "ghazzias" of slave raiders, includes vivid mini-biographies of slaves given to him by his hosts or purchased during his travels, and estimates that slaves "constitute at least one half of the population" (p. 11).
Second, Schuver's writings are of interest because they offer several examples of how he strategized to make his mark as a professional traveler. A young man, Schuver was ambitious and eager to identify the errors of his elders: "The larger animals have disappeared from these parts during the last 20 years. [...] I do not disbelieve travelers, if they affirm to have seen lions in parts where they may be found, as is the case on the banks of the Blue Nile, but I know Matteucci cannot have met one between Beletava and Fadasi, because there are none in the whole Berta country" (p. 14). Or: "The forest is nowhere heavy; notwithstanding the enthusiastic descriptions of some of my predecessors in these parts, there is nothing in this quarter of Africa to rivalise [sic] with our splendid Northern oakforests" (p. 23).
During his travels, Schuver also clearly sought to pave the way for the eventual publication of his account. He wrote letters to the major European geographical societies--usually in their national languages; furthermore, he exchanged "notices" and letters with their officers and prominent members. He also may have tailored the various versions of his "récits" to different European audiences. A comparison of the English and translated French texts of "Between the Niles" and "On the Abyssinian Frontier," for example, suggests that Schuver adopted a much more dramatic style in French than he did in English-perhaps because he thought it more appealing to his Romance readers. Of many, I cite but two examples; the first in English: "However, I had made it a principle never to furnish the natives with means of destroying each other. The Arabs import into Central Africa the most loathsome of diseases; shall it be said that the European makes himself the apostle of the demon gunpowder?" (p. 39). The second is in French: "[...]of the one Beelzebub, who will survive all the believers in invented demons, of the great Satan who has the name 'The Powder,' of the infernal God adored by all oppressors and the ambitious, of him who reigns over the unhappy human species he calls his cannon fodder?" (p. 59).
Finally, a letter written to the Royal Geographical Society in 1880, and included in an appendix, demonstrates Schuver's efforts to acquire the training deemed necessary for a successful explorer: "Dear Sir, I wish to receive instruction in practical astronomy, which might enable me to be of some use during my intended protracted journeys through Asia Minor & Mesopotamia. Could I be allowed to receive this instruction from the R. G. Society's instructor?" (p. 251).
The third major reason that these writings are valuable is because they offer a clear example of European ambivalence about Africans. To Schuver, local, non-Muslims were, in turn, docile infants, ignorant savages, and trusted fellow travelers. He writes in defense of the Amam (probably today's Mao-speakers or Kwama-speakers): "Let me just correct a few others of his hallucinations regarding these poor, calumniated negroes. They are not 'the Patagonians of Africa'. [...] They do not 'prefer raw meat.' [...] "They do not wear loincloths of human skin ..." (p. 48). Shortly thereafter, however, he denigrates African intelligence: "But neither the penetrating cry of the muezzin, nor the disciplined exercises and almost military appearance of the Muslims have generated in the negro's heart the need to search for more clearly and strongly formulated ideas about supernatural powers than the fainter notions he already has" (p. 62).
Moreover, Schuver's antagonism towards Muslims and Islam is palpable. This antagonism also was shared by many fellow travelers. Such scorn and xenophobia characterized the French in particular; hence, it is not surprising that Schuver's French account is particularly virulent:
Juan Maria Schuver's Travels in Northeast Africa should find a prominent place in the library of European travel literature on the continent. However, this authoritative edition is useful not only for understanding a pivotal period in the region's past, it is also relevant to the contemporary world. The editors underscore this point in the preface: "As the editorial work progressed and the translation became more lucid our fascination grew for the way in which Schuver's writings evoke a North East African past which resonates in so many striking ways with the present" (p. xx). Researchers at Human Rights Watch/Africa and Amnesty International would undoubtedly agree.
Dennis D. Cordell
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