The Last Expedition

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In 1885 fanatical Islamist armies led by a prophet named the Mahdi wrested control of the Sudan from Egypt. The heroic defense of the Egyptian outpost at Khartoum by Charles Gordon, an English soldier and adventurer, stirred European interest. The British sent a force to relieve Khartoum, but it arrived too late. Gordon died a martyr. This failure outraged public opinion. When word arrived that one of Gordon's lieutenants, a German who had adopted the Turkish name of Emin Pasha, still held out in the far south of the Sudan, a group of investors organized an expedition to rescue him. In addition to humanitarian concerns, they hoped to open up trade in East Africa. The man chosen to lead the expedition was Henry Morton Stanley, the most famous living African explorer. Stanley had found Dr. David Livingstone and had built a string of trading stations in the Congo for Belgium's King Leopold.

Stanley's dream of another personal triumph turned into a nightmare. Because hostile kingdoms blocked access to Emin Pasha from the east, Stanley approached from the west, up the Congo, and through the uncharted Ituri Forest. Most of his men perished, killed by hunger, disease, and attacks by hostile tribes. Emin Pasha himself proved reluctant to be “rescued.” Only a renewed Mahdist assault, stimulated by news of Stanley's expedition, induced him to leave.

By the time Stanley and the remains of his force reached European outposts in East Africa, nearly three years after he started, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had died along his line of march. Inevitably, questions arose about both the morality and the practical value of such ventures. Stanley's last expedition marked the end of an era in African exploration. Less glamorous but more responsible men would follow in Stanley's footsteps.