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Post "Livingstone Lied"? Tim Butcher and "Blood River"; from Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 09/11/16 3:48 AM

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"Livingstone Lied"? Tim Butcher and "Blood River"; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA, 09/11/16 3:48 am)

Gary Moore writes:

Richard Hancock's new story (Sept. 9), telling of the mind-reading drunken gringo and the cowboy ethnologist (@*%$#), makes such wry comment on the puzzles of synchronicity that obviously it needs reply. But I find I've been pulled off track by other ghosts...in the African Congo.

The phrase "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," has caught me as I read Blood River, the 2007 "ordeal travel" book by Tim Butcher, Africa correspondent for The Telegraph. Butcher made a supposedly impossible crossing of the vast, war-ruined Congo no-man's land that now covers Africa's heart, intricately chronicling how decades of chaos, causing millions of deaths almost ignored in the US, have plunged a major section of the globe back into Joseph Conrad's primeval, roadless, lawless Heart of Darkness. Interesting to contrast this with the Abolish-the-Police movement now swelling in Manhattan. A city without police? Try Kisangani--a haunted shell with a million people living without a road to the outside world.

Butcher (his serendipitous name counterposing doomed ordeal journalist Philip True) retraced the 1870s route of explorer Henry Morton Stanley (another "ordeal" journalist), in connection with the still-more-distinguished missionary-turned-explorer Dr. David Livingstone--whose disappearance into the great blank spaces Stanley solved on Nov. 10, 1871, by finding Livingstone half-dead with fever and marooned in a jungle slaving terminus called Ujiji. This immortalized the probably-apocryphal phrase: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." But months earlier, on July 15, 1871, Livingstone had survived an iconic moment, the Nyangwe massacre by slave-trading agents tied to the great Arab slave mart of East Africa: Zanzibar. Perhaps 400 natives were mowed down in what was not really a straightforward raid for slaves, but apparently a punishment of one slave-trading faction by another, with innocent women at a large outdoor market as symbolic sacrifices (and slaves dragged off as available). As I learned how Nyangwe had helped make Livingstone an epic crusader against slavery (pivotal in the closing of the Zanzibar nexus in 1873), I thought that here might be a research portal, a concrete focus for learning about the East African slave trade generally, with its great Muslim counterpoint to the Middle Passage, the enormity on Africa's other side, facing the Americas.

However, such an intellectual expedition soon hit the predictable malaria. As I dug into Nyangwe, using the magnificent hip-pocket tools of our hurtling era, Google soon was showing me that "Livingstone Lied" about the massacre. One after another impressive Web post said so, solemn and institutionally endorsed. I know now, after only a day of furious digging--with the Web shruggingly serving up the actual documents from the 1870s--that I had in fact hit one more grand Cyber-Hoax, which had made its big splash at a specific moment, on Nov. 1-2, 2011. Subsequently it has hung on in eternal Web tracks, without ever being specifically debunked, but instead being allowed to subside quietly into mystery, as it shelters under issues too large to awaken: the monstrous demise of Africa, as shown by its "Broken Heart" (Butcher's phrase), the 80-million-strong Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The hoax is this: an obscure academic, with a genius for using cyber-advances in technology to get giddy institutional funding, announced that a never-before-applied use of spectral analysis had salvaged Livingstone's old journal entries, revealing information edited out of the published versions, and allegedly showing that Livingstone had, sort of, like, well, maybe, felt complicit in the Nyangwe massacre, and maybe covered up participation by his own expedition members. Part of the genius in this reworking was in its press release, which enabled certain eager gatekeepers--in the media and in febriley enthused institutions like the public relations office of UCLA--to buy into the dream headline, with its phrase that any idiot would recognize, even without knowing Africa: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume"--but now converted into the catchy "Livingstone Lied." Anyone caring to take a quizzical Web journey into the real diaries--even as presented by the genius engineer of all this illusion--will become increasingly confused, because the originals don't show any of the purported duplicity. It's all a loopy, media-geared speculation projected onto the blank slate by the happy recipient of grant funding, publicity, and academic glitz.

Here is yet another generic pitfall of the Virtual Reality Age, to be placed alongside Sentimentalizing Blindness that I described in earlier posts. The "Livingstone Lied" techno-illusion could crow that it has "rewritten history." By 2011, honest writer Tim Butcher had left The Telegraph, and that newspaper simply ran the misleading 2011 press release verbatim as an article, coyly giving no author, while UCLA also ran it verbatim, exactly the same, so that they inadvertently cross-confessed. It now floats in top Google entries, to be taken up by anyone caring to use it for distorted ideology. Buried far beneath all this dross is cultural avoidance. What is the real story of Africa? What has happened--in the great grim journey from Nyangwe to now? Butcher's 2007 book uses the hook of exotic adventure-travel (rather than easier hoax) to introduce the reader to the stunning answer. As the Wall Street Journal said in a review of Butcher, the Congo is not all of Africa and some countries have been run better, so the Congo's gigantic demise is not simplistic indictment. But that caveat, too, is clearly one more wan disclaimer--such as Butcher also used to cover his moral flanks--in order not to be a messenger slain for the sheer size of the message.

JE comments:  This is the second hoax involving UCLA we've seen this week.  (Earlier we discussed the confusion surrounding Carlos Castaneda's doctorate.) 

This CBS piece describes Dr Adrian Wisnicki, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, head of an "international team of academics" who made the discovery.  I could find no smoking e-gun that his work is a hoax.  How do we know this, Gary?

Dr Wisnicki is now at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


I've been to conferences at both Nebraska-Lincoln and Indiana U, PA--twice, in the last instance.  Still more synchronicity?  Granted, I've attended a lot of conferences.

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  • The "Livingstone Lied" Saga; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 09/13/16 3:46 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    Regarding my "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" post of September 11th, lamenting that the large crisis
    of Africa has been complicated by a small historical illusion out to the side, I've been asked
    to recap a bit with links, so WAISers can judge for themselves (This gets abstruse--a big reason
    why I didn't get into the details before: only the consummately intrigued need enter this jungle.)

    To recap, the subject found me through the 2007 book Blood River, in which Tim Butcher, Africa correspondent
    for The Telegraph crossed notoriously impassable war zones, cannibalism areas and ghostly ruined cities
    in the Congo--while being helped by many admirable locals--as he retraced the 1877 Congo exploration
    route of Henry Stanley, the journalist and adventurer who located a long-disappeared fellow explorer
    to give us the deathless line, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." Butcher's 2007 intercutting of that history with
    his post-millennial observations caused me to Web-search the Nyangwe massacre, a shocking 1871 killing
    of villagers by Arab slave traders, witnessed by Dr. David Livingstone during his years cut off from the
    outside world. Reading Butcher, I thought Nyangwe might provide a concrete focus for researching
    a subject otherwise elusive, if not obfuscated: the Muslim side of the slave trade.

    But when I tried, I found the way cluttered--or almost blocked--by prominent Google entries with
    headlines along the lines of "Livingstone Lied" about Nyangwe. Since partisan illusion often intrudes in
    the accounting of atrocities, I was then forced--if I wanted to get any picture of Nyagwe at all--to find out
    what these allegations were all about.

    All of the hits were dated November 2011. Four notable ones paint the picture: 1 and 2) headlines in two
    British papers, The Telegraph (Tim Butcher had left there by 2011) and the Daily Mail; 3) a public relations website at UCLA; and 4) a public relations site at a smaller school, the University of Indiana in Pennsylvania.

    The last one was involved because in 2011 it was home base for a professor who had put together
    an impressive package of big-bang, transatlantic funding and cutting-edge technology, in order for his equally
    impressive team to spectrally scan and de-mystify previously unreadable journal entries from Dr. David Livingstone.
    In retrospect, this effort might be viewed as two-layered. First, the illumination of the documents and subsequent
    placement on the Web for the public is an obvious historical service--but unfortunately the second layer brings
    the hitch.

    A press release of November 1, 2011, carried information that sought to take this effort into the stratosphere
    of public sensation, as if mere elucidation of the journal were not enough, and spectacular revelation about a mendacious
    colonialist were needed. Certainly the idea of a colonial standard bearer distorting the truth has been seen before,
    but as I dug for concretes, the sensational allegations about Livingstone seemed to dissolve in the fine print, in a blizzard of "mights"
    and "could have beens" and "theory"--though the maze was so enticing that at least two large British newspapers were
    hooked in, on the bet that any reader would know the line "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," and so could find juicy resonance
    in a new one: "Livingstone Lied."

    The Telegraph served up the press release information without any author's byline. The Daily Mail at least did minimal
    journalistic diligence, though this was buried unobtrusively at the end of their story, wherein they contacted an independent
    expert, Livingstone's biographer, Tim Jears, who certainly has not been viewed as an obfuscationist for Livingstone.
    Jears's polite reply--"I don't think the proof is there"--was not only buried by the Daily Mail but spun so that it looked like
    he was merely stumped by new evidence--when really there was no new evidence along the lines promised. By fudging this,
    the newspaper could salivate over its irresistible headline theme: "Livingstone Lied."

    The original press release was apparently a joint effort of UCLA and University of London/Birkbeck, carrying the key paragraph:
    "Dr. Wisnicki anticipates that the publication of the 1871 diary will change the way history interprets Livingstone’s legacy. ‘Instead of the saintly hero of Victorian mythology,
    the man who speaks directly to us from the pages of his private diary is passionate, vulnerable, and deeply conflicted about the violent events he witnesses, his culpability, and
    the best way to intervene--if at all.’ "

    This is gobbledygook. History had long since concluded that the less-then-perfect Livingstone was "passionate, vulnerable,"
    and yet still a heroic figure who made respectful connections with the Africans he met, rather than the sneering white-hunter standard.
    The spectrally enhanced journal entries are now available on the UCLA Library Digital Collections website, and if a reader takes the effort
    it will be found that the new entries present pretty much the same Livingstone as had long been known--without any spectacular
    new secrets revealed. Here was a media whirlwind par excellence.

    The "Livingstone Lied" idea has been imposed on top of the actual
    recovered journal entries, indeed by a kind of spectral intervention, but more like Cotton Mather's spectra than those of science:
    a demonizing of Livingstone for a puzzling form of publicity aggrandizement.

    A secondary proof is in the silence following all this. "Livingstone Lied" didn't seem to become a part of historical
    discourse, but was left discreetly in its Web burst of November 2011--where it still waits to beguile any searcher who
    might wish to grab some ideological ammunition. It was not a big enough issue for academia to engage in bloody battle,
    but still a very serious demonstration of how a certain kind of adroitness can make a mockery of supposed scientific
    confirmation in a highly charged field (in this case, the struggles of Africa). The idea of deception is such a sexy issue
    that it often attracts a maelstrom of deceptions-about-deceptions (as WAIS saw recently on another front),
    making post-mortems on mendacity doubly dicey.

    To put it in the kind of language that this case seems to warrant:
    It does seem that "Livingstone Lied" is itself a lie.

    1) The Telegraph, Nov. 2, 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8863964/Dr-Livingstone-lied-in-famous-account-of-slave-market-massacre.html
    [Notice how even in the slide from headline to subhead, the flat assertion "Livingstone 'lied," somehow changes to "may have lied"--
    and then the circus gets worse from there. This is a dismal use of a drpress release citing itself as authority, with the story jumping
    through hoops to rationalize its riveting anti-Victorian headline: "Livingstone lied"]

    2) The Daily Mail, Nov. 2, 2011

    "Dr. Livingstone lied, scientists presume"

    3) The newly recovered Livingstone journal entries, 1871, as shown by spectrally enhanced imaging
    [Go to page CXLVI of the recovered 1871 Field Journal]

    4) The old Livingstone narrative on Nyangwe as published in 1874
    pages 135-136: “but it was done by Tagamoio’s people, and others of his party, headed by Dugumbé...”

    5) Only one Web site seemed to directly challenge the 2011 whirlwind, though in an eloquent way:

    6) The press release of Nov. 1, 2011, from UCLA/University of London-Birkbeck is preserved here:
    (The Web also contains a PDF of the original press release as sent out, confirming that the above is the original version
    that was then used by the press.)

    JE comments:  It would seem that the hoax was not about the science, but rather the hermeneutics:  Wisnicki read more into the reconstructed Livingstone diaries than what was actually there.  Gary Moore's thoughtful review of the events convinces me, especially regarding the episode's historical "legs":  nobody took up Livingstone revisionism after the original 2011 press release.  And given the passion in Academia for smearing European explorer-colonizer types, there would be no shortage of candidates eager to put Livingstone through the wringer.

    Information on the 'Web is like mushrooms after the rain.  They (information and mushrooms) are available in abundance, but you have to be knowledgeable and extremely careful about which ones to eat.

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