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Post The "Livingstone Lied" Saga; from Gary Moore
Created by John Eipper on 09/13/16 3:46 AM

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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 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2056528/David-Livingstone-Discrepancies-explorers-account-Zanzibar-slave-massacre.html "Dr. Livingstone lied, scientists presume"

3) The newly recovered Livingstone journal entries, 1871, as shown by spectrally enhanced imaging http://livingstone.library.ucla.edu/1871diary/transcriptions.htm [Go to page CXLVI of the recovered 1871 Field Journal]

4) The old Livingstone narrative on Nyangwe as published in 1874 https://books.google.com/books?id=S_dgAAAAcAAJ&dq=david+livingstone+Tagamoio&q=Nyangwe#v=onepage&q=july&f=false 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: http://justicemusings.blogspot.com/2011/11/dr-david-livingstones-character.html

6) The press release of Nov. 1, 2011, from UCLA/University of London-Birkbeck is preserved here: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/dr-livingstone-s-lost-1871-massacre-218211 (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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