Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn (1992)

Frank McLynn

McLynn, 80 this year, has made a very successful career as an author, biographer, historian and journalist, having written some 30 books. He clearly aims to produce enjoyable, accessible and non-scholarly histories and biographies for a wide audience. This is suggested, among other things by his use of casual and rather boys’ own adventure story diction:

  • It was the Moors who had done for Major Houghton. (p.16)
  • His plight was grim. His horse was on its last legs. (p.16)
  • The Landers shook the dust of Badagry off their shoes with gusto and plunged into the wilderness… (p.27)
  • The master of the Thomas proved to be a blackguard. (p.30)
  • Speke would not have to fear the supercilious basilisk eye from a superior beetling brow, as with Burton, every time he wandered off to slaughter a few dozen of Africa’s wildlife.
  • Once again the expedition came within an ace of disaster… (p.104)
  • Meanwhile the Upper Nile was proving a hell on earth… (p.119)

I found McLynn’s book about the Mexican Revolution very useful, accessible and gripping, and was impressed by his talent for shaping the complicated facts into a compelling narrative. But that book had the advantage of telling the story of a huge social upheaval through the lives of just two legendary figures who are central to the entire drama, which itself only covered a period of about 20 years.

Here the challenge is the reverse: there were hundreds of European explorers to Africa, most of them undertook more than one expedition, many stayed for years carrying out complex sequences of explorations, and the total period of Western exploration lasted about a century (from 1788 to around 1890). In other words, there’s a lot more subject matter to cover and so it’s harder for this book not to feel more scattered and diffuse.

Brief history of exploration up to the European era

The ancient Greeks and Romans probed into Africa but never crossed the barrier of the Sahara or managed to penetrate far up the Nile. From the seventh century, Muslim Arab traders explored the east coast of Africa, set up numerous settlements and established a lucrative trade in black slaves. From the 1480s onwards the Portuguese created stopping off points on their circumnavigation of Africa to reach India. But McLynn tells us that the accepted date for the start of the ‘modern’ exploration of Africa is 1788. For it was in this year that the African Association was set up in London by a dozen London businessmen led by Sir Joseph Banks, the noted botanist who accompanied Captain Cook on his journeys to the South Seas.

The African Association (to give it its proper name, The Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa) sponsored a series of expeditions throughout the 1790s, then activity went into abeyance for the duration of the wars with France (1793 to 1815) before being revived once peace returned. As soon as you google this subject you discover it is extremely well covered online and there is a recognised and much repeated canon of early explorers, namely:

Pre-Napoleonic war explorers

  • John Ledyard, set off 1788, died in Cairo aged 37.
  • Simon Lucas, departed Tripoli 1788; forced to abandon expedition south by tribal wars.
  • Daniel Houghton, 1790, penetrated deep up the river Gambia in West Africa before being robbed and murdered aged 51.
  • Mungo Park, 1795, penetrated further into West Africa than any European to date, discovering that the Niger flowed east, but died in the attempt to travel the length of the Niger by canoe, murdered or drowned it’s not clear to this day, age 35.
  • Friedrich Hornemann, 1797, set off from Cairo to travel across the Sahara to Timbuktu and was never heard of again; if he died around 1800, he would have been 28.

Post-Napoleonic war explorers

  • Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish, first European to reach Timbuktu in 1826, being murdered by Tuareg soon afterwards, aged 31.
  • René Caillié, son of a convict (!) first explorer to visit Timbuktu (in 1828) and return to tell the tale, before dying of ill health and tuberculosis aged 38.
  • Heinrich Barth, considered one of the greatest of the European explorers of Africa for his scholarliness and commitment to learning Arabic, spent five years living in Sudan, crossing the Sahara to West Africa, first person to visit remote Timbuktu since Caillié (in 1853).
  • Charles John Andersson, explored south-west Africa from his base in Cape Town, at one stage was a war lord to the Damara tribe, died of fever aged 40.
  • Karl Mauch, son of a Bavarian carpenter, taught himself and scraped the money to travel to South Africa, where he worked to earn the funds to pay for an expedition up into south-east Africa. He discovered the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in 1872, but was ignored when he returned to Germany and died in poverty aged 37.

General conclusions

McLynn draws a handful of conclusions from these early pioneers:

1. Exploring Africa was a young man’s game.

2. All the explorers fell ill, very seriously ill, multiple times, and a high percentage, even of the young and fit, died.

3. This didn’t stop the obsessive ambition of many of the most successful ones to be ‘the first man to see’ whatever feature they had been sent by the Association to discover: the fabled city of Timbuktu, the origins of the river Niger, various waterfalls and so on.

4. African exploration was connected to low birth. It presented an opportunity to people condemned to lifetimes of lowly obeisance in Britain’s class structure, to make a splash, to make a name for themselves, to achieve wealth and status. Simon Lucas was the son of a vintner. David Livingstone was one of seven children who grew up in a tenement in a grim Scottish mill town and was sent aged ten to a cotton mill where he and his brother John worked twelve-hour days as piecers, tying broken cotton threads on the spinning machines. Henry Morton Stanley was abandoned by his mother and spent ten years from the ages of 6 to 16 in a remote Welsh workhouse.

5. Many of the explorers were Celts, outsiders to the English establishment: Mungo Park and David Livingstone came from lowly backgrounds in Scotland, Stanley from a wretched workhouse in rural Wales. Hugh Clapperton from Annan, Dumfriesshire (died of dysentery in Sokoto, aged 38). Richard Lander, son of a Truro innkeeper (died on the Niger river, aged 29) and so on.

6. Expeditions do not bring people together. Many of these trips are notorious for the extreme hatred and bitterness they engendered between the protagonists. Most notorious is the tremendous falling out between the famous Arabist Richard Francis Burton and the big game hunter John Hanning Speke on their 1858 expedition from Zanzibar into East Africa, during which they mapped Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria, which lasted after they returned to England and pursued a feud against each other in the press right up till the day of Speke’s death (or suicide?) in 1860.

A blizzard of names and dates

McLynn plunges straight into accounts of these early expeditions, telling them in pared-down, summary style with the result that I felt bombarded by names – of European explorers and of the countless villages and towns they discovered/arrived at, and the plethora of Africa tribes with their kings and sheikhs who they encountered, traded with, fought against and so on. I soon realised I was never going to remember.

Much more interesting and enduring are the broader points he makes about Africa in general and the perils of European exploration in particular.

The African scene

Pitiful agriculture

Most African cultures lived right on the breadline, on the border of starvation (p.146). This was caused by poor soil, poor climate and erratic rains which, in the tropical regions, fell almost constantly all year round. Many Africans lived on a very basic diet of yams, manioc, corn, supplemented by berries and fruits, only rarely fish or meat protein. There was rarely the kind of guaranteed agricultural surplus which had allowed for the creation of complex civilisations in the Fertile Crescent and then across the Middle East and Europe for millennia.

Therefore, even a slight incursion by outsiders, let alone domineering white men leading a train of 300 porters, could upset delicate ecological balances and plunge villages and entire regions into famine. In fact the explorers regularly came across whole regions which were in famine conditions, where the locals were starving and where, therefore, no food could be bought for their huge trains for any amount of calico or beads (e.g. pp.217 to 219)..

And this explains many tribes’ fierce protectiveness of their territory and the often hostile response of African leaders to the arrival of the explorers and their huge hungry trains.

Tsetse flies

Tsetse flies were a menace to humans and livestock in Africa. They are to this day.

Tsetse flies, through the cyclical transmission of trypanosomiasis to both humans and their animals, greatly influence food production, natural-resource utilization and the pattern of human settlement throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that the annual direct production losses in cattle alone amount to between US$6bn and $12billion, while animal deaths may reach 3 million. (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)

Lack of pack animals

There was a lack of pack animals or domesticable animals such as had underpinned the development of civilisation across Eurasia, which was home to oxen, cattle, donkeys but above all horses, which had performed a key economic function for millennia.

The evidence was overwhelming that all domesticated animals, whether oxen, camels, mules, horses or camels, succumbed very soon to the effects of climate and disease once taken north of 5°N. (p.132)

Later on he links the lack of pack animals to one central factor, the tsetse fly which transmitted the trypanasomes which caused ‘sleeping sickness’.

It was the tsetse that has barred passage to black Africa by killing off the Arabs’ horses and camels. The fly also kept the technology of black Africa primitive, since, deprived of animals, the African could hand plough only small plots of land, had no transport and lacked a source of first class protein. (p.240)

Lacking any kind of pack animals, most sub-Saharan cultures were primitive in the extreme. (The importance of domesticatable animals and of the wide range of edible grasses to the rise of Eurasian civilisations is explained in Jared Diamond’s 1997 classic Guns, Germs and Steel.)

Hundreds of porters

Therefore, an enduring feature of African exploration was simply that humans had to carry everything. (McLynn does describe a handful of explorations which experimented with horses, donkeys and even elephants, but in every case the animals wasted and died, leaving the human porters with even more to carry.) Hence native porters numbering in the hundreds. McLynn reports that of all the different tribes the Nyamwezi were head and shoulders the most reliable, foresightful and organised of porters. On the east Africa coast, at Zanzibar and the vital coastal town of Bagamoyo, huge numbers of porters were available and certain individual porters rose to prominence, were able to organise and manage their peers and so were hired by successive explorers and feature in accounts of successive expeditions.

Expeditions routinely included two to three hundred porters, and Stanley’s exceptionally well funded ones, up to 800! He had to be a master of organisation, man management and discipline, and McLynn gives examples of moments when European masters either a) managed to, or b) miserably failed to, maintain discipline and rank.

Lack of roads

Explorers discovered an almost complete lack of transport infrastructure. Most of the rivers were too large to be navigable or presented obstacles such as rapids and waterfalls. Roads through tropical jungle were impossible to maintain, so most people used narrow tracks.

‘The pathway seldom exceeded two feet in width, with tress and tall grasses growing up to its edges.’ (Alfred Swann, quoted on page 133)

There were few if any roads as understood in the developed world, nothing like canals and nothing remotely like Western railways. McLynn tells us Western-style tarmaced roads, and railways, didn’t really arrive in Africa till the 1930s.

The perils of European exploration

Sub-Saharan Africa remained unexplored for so long for a number of reasons.

No navigable rivers

Most African rivers debouch into sandbanks and have neither natural bays nor deep estuaries which characterise European and American rivers and allow ships to anchor and navigate upstream. If ships did anchor, water-borne explorers found it impossible to proceed far upriver because of rapids, cascades and waterfalls.

Violent humans

Anyway, chances are they would be attacked by any of the complicated patchwork of tribes and regional warlords who fiercely protected their territory. A simple motive for African violence and resentment was related to the dire poverty of most African communities but there were also continual low-level conflicts between neighbouring tribes; there are calculated to have been around 700 distinct tribes. But as MacLynn emphasises, Africans owed far more allegiance to their villages, village elders and traditions. There were hundreds of religions, mostly primitive ancestor or fetish worship.

What this amounts to in the book is a blizzard of names of the kings of umpteen different tribes and regions which the explorers pass through, most at war with all their neighbours, thus making negotiating with them for safe passage very dicey, plus all these rulers tended to want presents and dues. Hence the enormous trains of porters the explorers required to carry not only their food and weapons and tents etc, but also a sizeable treasury of Western goodies to be handed over to the series of rulers they had to mollify. The African word for it was hongo which translates as ‘tribute’ or ‘bribe’, depending on your worldview. As the (admittedly rabidly anti-African explorer) Samuel White Baker complained:

‘It is the rapacity of the chiefs of the various tribes that render African exploration so difficult.’ (quoted on page 75)

And plenty of explorers were just murdered outright by nomads, bandits, lawless tribals. McLynn gives a vivid account of the attack by the Eesa tribe on the expedition of Burton, Speke, Stroyan and Herne along with 42 porters encamped just outside the town of Berbera on the coast of Somaliland on the night of 19 April 1855. Lieutenant Stroyan was killed outright, Burton took a spear thrust through one cheek and out the other but managed to run to the beach and safety while Speke was captured, suffered spear thrusts in eleven places including right through one thigh, was tied up and threatened with castration until he was left in the care of one armed guard who he managed to knock out before also running to the sea where he was discovered by rescuers then following morning (p.255).

Violent animals

No continent has so many fierce animals as Africa. Lions routinely attacked and killed members of exhibitions. If travelling by water, crocodiles and the surprisingly aggressive hippopotamus were a peril. Aggressive birds attacked larger animals, for example camels, leaving wounds which festered and killed.


Explorers died of simple heatstroke or from the combo of heat and high humidity in forest regions.


But disease was the most obvious peril. All Europeans attempting travel into sub-Saharan Africa quickly became ill, often seriously ill. Malaria, typhoid, ophthalmia, and any number of causes of diarrhoea, afflicted almost all European explorers with devastating consequences. Half the explorers who set out were killed by disease; most of the survivors emerged severely weakened by prolonged illness with lingering debilitating effects. McLynn mentions smallpox, fever, ague, amoebic and bacillic dysentery, guinea worm, ulcers acquired when scratches (from thorn bushes or tall sharp grass) got infected and festered in the heat and humidity, bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism, sciatica, athsma, dropsy, emphysema, erysipelas, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia, filariasis, hookworm infestation (ankylostomiasis), river blindness (onchocerciasis), exanthematic typhus, yaws and leprosy.

Regularly you read that the explorers were laid up for months on end with fever and dysentery, or rendered so weak they literally couldn’t walk and had to be carried in hammocks. In fact McLynn devotes an entire chapter, chapter 11, to the subject (pages 227 to 252).

Attrition rates

Thus it was that all the expeditions suffered appalling death rates. For example, Stanley left Bagamoyo in mid-November 1874 with 4 white companions and 342 African porters. By the end of February 1875, 181 had been lost to famine, illness, desertion or attacks by tribesmen. On the Emin Pasha expedition, Stanley left Zanzibar in spring 1887 with 708 men. Two and a half years later only 210 returned (p.152). The situation was summed up by the German explorer Wilhelm Junker:

‘Famine and disease are the chief causes of the depopulation of Central Africa; in comparison with these the export of slaves is but a small item.’ (quoted on page 117)

No profit

And, despite all the rumours of treasure and secret cities and rare gems and valuable resources, it turned out to be impossible to make a profit from any of these expeditions. They were either sponsored by national geographic associations, by missionary organisations, or by wealthy backers (p.146). None of the explorers McLynn describes got involved in any businesses set up to trade with Africa, there were few if any businesses involved there. Stanley came the closest, in the sense that he was central to helping King Leopold of Belgium set up his evil and rapacious regime in the Congo, but that was more slave exploitation than a ‘business’. A number of explorers ended their days as colonial administrators, such as da Brazza, Frederick Lugard and Carl Peters. But most came home, wrote up their experiences and lived off their ublications and lectures.

The great British explorers

Having skated through the early pioneers McLynn slows down and pays more attention to the famous expeditions of David Livingstone, Richard Burton (the first European to see Lake Tanganyika, which he wrongly thought must be the source of the Nile) and John Hanning Speke whose joint expedition was sponsored by the Royal Geographic Society and lasted from 1856 to 1859.

Burton and Speke were involved in the great quest to find the source of the mighty river Nile. Speke won, showing that its main source is Lake Victoria, to the anger of the far more scholarly and conscientious Burton, who made the wrong call when he attributed the source to Lake Tanganyika. On their return to England in 1859 they embarked on a long and bitter war of words through the press and pamphlets.

And Samuel White Baker, who I’d never heard of but, apparently, was second only to Livingstone in popular fame, for his extensive 4-year-long explorations around the Great Lakes region of central east Africa (1861 to 1865).

Baker was the first European to see Lake Albert and a substantial waterfall on the Victoria Nile which he named Murchison Falls after the then-president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Roderick Murchison. Back in Blighty he wrote a considerable number of books and published articles which bolstered his reputation as the grand old man of Africa exploration and an expert on the Nile, though he was almost as famous for his extravagant big game hunting on four continents, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.

Suppressing the slave trade

Britain abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807. The actual state of enslavement i.e. slavery as a whole, wasn’t abolished, and existing slaves freed, until 1833. By the 1850s suppression of the slave trade carried on by other nations had become a major moral crusade for the British. The Royal Navy had an Africa squadron specifically tasked with patrolling the west African coast and intercepting slave ships, forcing them to return their captives to Africa.

In east and central Africa where the great competition to find the source of the Nile played out, there was a long established slave trade run by Arabs, capturing and transporting black Africans up the coast to the Muslim world. High-minded missionaries like David Livingstone raised funds and publicity by their stated aim of combining geographical exploration with steps to suppress the slave trade. Baker was another Brit who boosted his reputation among high-minded Victorians by emphasising his anti-slavery credentials, without much justification, in McLynn’s view.

Yet McLynn brings out how ambiguous the relationship between British explorer and Arab slaver could be on the ground, in reality. This is epitomised in the career of Hamad bin Muhammad bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi, better known by his nickname, Tippu Tip, which is Swahili for ‘gatherer of wealth’. Born in 1832 in Zanzibar, Tippu rose to become one of the wealthiest men of his time, based on his twin trades in ivory and slaves. Eventually he became the leading slave trader in East Africa, supplying the Muslim world with hundreds of thousands of black slaves and himself owning plantations worked by an estimated 10,000 enslaved blacks.

The point is that if you were a white man who wanted to explore central Africa from the most reliable starting point of Zanzibar, you had to reach an accommodation with Tippu who had established and ran the key trading posts, watering holes, provision stores and so on on the main routes inland from the coast to the great lakes, from Bagamoyo on the coast via the trading entrepot of Tabora, which was equidistant from Lake Tanganyika in the west and Lake Victoria in the north. And so David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, to name the most famous, were forced to forge working relationships with Tippu.

It was one thing to make grand declarations in Britain about abolishing the east Africa slave trade; it was quite another to find yourself amid rich, powerful men who ran it, who had everything to lose by its abolition, and try to reach practical accommodations with them.

Tippu Tip was famous enough to feature on the front cover of the Illustrated London News, 7 December 1889 issue.

Later, non-British explorers

After the high profile, super-publicised expeditions of Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, Speke and Baker, the narrative goes on to describe scores of lesser figures. The Big Names are big because they sketched out the really central issue of African geography, they were the ones who traced the paths of the major rivers (the Niger, Congo, Zambezi and Nile) and discovered the complex of great lakes in east-central Africa. The created the frame and established the broad shapes, like completing the border round a jigsaw.

But there was still a huge amount of work to be done to join the dots, for example to work out the order of flow between the umpteen lakes in the African lake district which eventually led into the sources of the Nile, or to identify each of the scores of tributaries of the river Congo – and this was done by a host of lesser names, most of them not British and therefore not enshrined in our national history.

McLynn notes that two other nationalities became prominent: Belgian explorers, once King Leopold had established his ‘right’ to the vast Congo basin at the 1885 Congress of Berlin; and the same event crystallised the urgency among German politicians and scientists to secure their slice of the African pie, so there was a notable upswing in the number of German explorers, for example George Schweinfurth.

This left the French who, as usual, burned with envy and at the successes of their hated rivals, the British, and spurred them on, post 1880, to map and seize as much territory as possible. The national rivalry was made plain in the individual rivalry between Stanley, who was contracted to explore and establish waystations along the river Congo by Leopold of Belgium well into the 1890s, and the lead French explorer, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who also explored the Congo basin in the 1870s and 80s, going on to become a French colonial administrator in the 1890s. The capital of the Republic of the Congo was named Brazzaville in his honour and retains the name to this day.

A body of work was done by ‘Gordon’s men’, a set of adventurers hired by General Gordon when he was governor of Equitoria province in the service of the Khedive of Egypt in the 1870s, who included Emin Pasha (despite his name, actually a German Jew born Isaak Eduard Schnitzer), Frederick Burnaby, Rudolph Slatkin, Romolo Gessi, Mason Bey, Gaetano Casati, Linant de Bellefonds, Carlo PIaggia and others. McLynn gives us brief pen portraits of these men and their exploratorial adventures.

Kenya, of all African countries the one with the climate most congenial to Europeans, was, surprisingly, one of the last to be explored, an achievement credited to the trio of Joseph Thomson, Harry Johnston and Samuel Yeleki.

The end of exploration

The era of exploration by dashing individuals drew to an end during the 1880s and may be considered over by 1890 (p.128). It was replaced by the era of colonialism i.e. the now-surveyed and mapped areas passed into the administration of the European nations which had drawn lines on maps and defined administrative areas at Berlin. Administrative regions were consolidated into ‘nations’. The map of Africa as we know it today crystallised during the 1890s and turn of the century. In most cases it was a continual process of ongoing accretion and centralisation.

To take Nigeria as an example. Britain annexed the coast region of Lagos as a crown colony in August 1861. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, Britain’s claims to a West African sphere of influence were recognised. The next year, in 1886, Britain set up the Royal Niger Company under the leadership of Sir George Taubman Goldie, which proceeded to subjugate the independent kingdoms along the Niger River, conquering Benin in 1897 and other regional leaders in the Anglo-Aro War (1901 to 1902). In 1900, the company’s territory came under the direct control of the British government which established the Southern Nigeria Protectorate. The British then moved north to subdue the Sokoto Caliphate, which was defeated at the Battle of Kano in 1903 and the British set up the Northern Nigeria Protectorate. By 1906 all resistance to British rule had ended. On 1 January 1914 the British formally united the Southern Nigeria Protectorate and the Northern Nigeria Protectorate into the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria. 46 years later, Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960.

A thumbnail sketch of how exploration passed on to patchwork colonial administration, government takeover, integration of various territories into a nation, which then fought for and gained its independence.

Bad maps

The maps are terrible. You’d have thought the people producing a book entirely about exploration would realise the importance of maps showing just what was explored, when and by who.

1. The book does contain about 14 maps but, as my vagueness implies, there is no list or index of them at the front.

2. Far worse, though, is that none of the maps have titles or numbers. So a map suddenly appears in the text but you have no idea what it’s meant to be showing. Of course, you can see it depicts a bit of Africa, but there’s no indication why, you have to deduce this from the text.

3. When I read the accounts of the first few explorers described, Daniel Houghton, Mungo Park, Joseph Ritchie, Hugh Clapperton and others, the text mentioned the African villages and towns they travelled to but none of these appeared in the map. I spent ten minutes trying in vain to find any of the placenames mentioned in these expeditions on the bloody map. There were lots of places indicated on the map but none of these appeared in the text! What?

4. Worst of all hardly any of the maps show the single most important thing you want to know, which is the routes of the actual expeditions. The first couple of maps, which show the river Niger and the region around Lake Chad appear to be there to show the first few explorations of the region in the late 1700s but there is no indication of the routes taken by the explorers named in the text. Later maps, relating to Burton and Speke or LIvingstone and Stanley, do bother to have routes marked on the maps but no title indicating whose journeys they were. In every instance a quick google of the expedition in question produced umpteen maps on the internet showing quite clearly the route you need to be able to see in order to make sense of the narrative.

The poorness of the maps is a real limitation of this book.

African words

Obviously, hundreds of languages were and are spoken across this vast continent. McLynn’s text mentions certain key words in Swahili:

  • askaris – soldiers
  • chikote – strip of hide used as a whip
  • hongo – bribes or tribute to chiefs
  • kanda – long, narrow canvas carry bag
  • karaba – a brass measure for rations
  • kitanda – litter (to carry people in)
  • madala – weights hung at each end of a pole carried over the shoulders
  • masika  – season of heavy rain
  • mukongwa – slave fork in which the slave’s head was fastened
  • pagazi – porter
  • posho – daily rice ration
  • ruga-ruga – irregular troops or mercenaries
  • tembe – camp or base
  • wangwana – ‘sons of the free’

English words

McLynn enjoys writing and is a pleasure to read. Along with his occasional boys’-own-adventure register, he sprinkles the text with recherché terms which are a pleasure to look up in a dictionary and savour.

  • febrifuge – a medicine to reduce fever
  • feculent – of or containing dirt, sediment, or waste matter
  • fuliginous – sooty, dusty
  • lacustrine – relating to or associated with lakes
  • ophiolatry – worship of snakes
  • riverine – relating to or situated on a river or riverbank; riparian
  • rugose – wrinkled or corrugated
  • thaumaturge – a worker of wonders and performer of miracles, a magician
  • the veridical – the truth


Hearts of Darkness: The European Exploration of Africa by Frank McLynn was published in 1992 by Hutchinson. All references are to the 1993 Pimlico paperback edition.

Africa-related reviews


Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Flyaway by Desmond Bagley (1978)

I awoke in daylight to find a man looking down at me. He was dark-skinned and wore nothing but a loincloth and, in his right hand, he carried a spear. Behind him was a herd of cattle, healthy-looking beasts with piebald hides and wide-spreading horns. And beyond them was a group of hunters carrying bows, some with arrows nocked to the string. I blinked in surprise and sat up and stared. The man was nothing but paint on the wall of the cave, and so were the cattle and the hunters. (p.196)

Max Stafford is head of a medium size security firm which specialises in helping commercial companies prevent industrial espionage. A sequence of incidents occur which turn his life upside down.

First, a non-descript clerk, Paul Billson, who works at one of the firms he provides security for, is reported missing; after a bit of digging Stafford discovers this ‘clerk’ was earning much more than officially recorded, but for some reason this was kept a nervous secret by his bosses. Not only that, but the clerk is the son of a famous ‘flyer’ from the 1930s, the breed that set the earliest records for flying across the Atlantic, across America etc. Seems Paul’s father – Peter Billson, known by his nickname of ‘Flyaway’ Billson, who named his planes ‘Flyaway’ – took part in a newspaper-sponsored air race from Europe to South Africa in 1936, but went missing over the Sahara. Now, 40 years later, a scurrilous newspaper article has dug up this dusty old story and accuses the long-dead Peter Billson of faking the crash and conspiring with his long-dead wife to claim the hefty insurance payout.

When Stafford goes to meet Billson’s half-sister, the slight, dark Alix Aarvik, Stafford learns that the article tipped his son, Paul, who has harboured a life-long obsession with his vanished father, over the edge: Paul cashed in his life’s savings, went to London where he threatened the journalist who wrote the article, before buying a Land Rover and assorted supplies and flying to Algiers.

Now a) after making enquiries about Billson at the newspaper office where he made his threats, Stafford is surprised to be halted in the street and soundly beaten up by three professional thugs. He is laid up in hospital for a few weeks (then again, he’s ex-Army and works in security, so he’s not as freaked out as you or I would be). b) His business partners visit and point out he hasn’t had a holiday in four years; maybe he should use this enforced interruption to delegate his workload to a new up-and-coming partner and go for a long recuperation in the sun. c) It just so happens that Stafford’s marriage is falling apart and when he comes home early from the hospital he finds another man in his wife’s bed.

Thus events conpsire to make him think: what the hell? might as well go on a wild goose chase to Africa to find this strange man as do anything else. Good practice to be out in the field again. Where’s my passport?

And so Stafford tells his directors what he’s up to, leaves contact details with his lawyer and Billson’s half-sister, and flies to Algiers.

Algeria and Innes

This fairly brief set-up has taken about 50 pages. The remaining 200 pages are all set in Algeria and south across the border into Niger and are significantly different to anything of Bagley’s I’ve read before.

This book is very like a Hammond Innes novel, in that it is really an extended travelogue in a remote and exotic location. On almost every page I was shadowed by memories of Innes’ long novel set in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, The Doomed Oasis, which also contains lengthy descriptions of the physical geography and of the strange elusive spirit of the desert.

The main difference is that this story doesn’t have one of the main characteristics of Innes’ fiction: As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, Innes’ novels often have ‘overlays’ of coincidence: main characters are related, inherit antipathies or by coincidence end up in the same place or on the same quest: Innes novels are built up by placing layer upon layer of connection and coincidence between characters like a layer cake. The effect is initially far-fetched but, when it comes off, sometimes lends a kind of mythic or archetypal depth to the story.

Bagley’s stories are completely different. They are linear. There’s a mystery. Our guy sets off to solve it. In The Tightrope Men our guys have to extract secret weapon technology which has been buried on Soviet soil: and they do. In The Enemy our guy has to find out why industrialist Ashton went on the run: and he does. In this one, our guy has to find out why so many people are concerned about a plane which crashed in the desert 40 years ago: and he does. Despite everything the bad guys throw at him.

‘You wouldn’t take the warning back in London. You had to play the thick-headed hero and meddle in things that don’t concern you.’ (p.216)

The plot

The next step in the ‘plot’ is that, soon after Stafford arrives in Algiers, Peter Billson’s former lover, Hesther Raulier (17 back in 1936) and still living there, contacts him for an interview (ie to give us important parts of the back story). She describes the kind of man Peter was, how unlikely it is he would pull a con, and recommends he contact an American named Luke Byrne in his next scheduled stop, the southern town of Tamanrassett. Byrne has been living in the area since World War Two when the US bomber he was piloting crashed in the desert and he was the only survivor. At that moment he made the decision to desert from the armed forces and has lived thereabouts ever since, making a living as a camel breeder and from the salt trade.

From the moment Stafford meets him, the novel is really Byrne’s. He knows the varied (and awe-inspiring) terrain like the back of his hand, he knows the numerous different tribes and peoples of the desert, he speaks their various tongues, he has all the kit needed to survive, from Land Cruisers to camels, and he knows how to survive sandstorms, armed attack, how to bypass police checkpoints, how to shimmy the bureaucracy in the towns: he is Desert Superman, and Stafford becomes his adoring puppy, following him everywhere and learning gobbets of Bagley-style potted information on every page. As does the reader.

Briefly: after Byrne agrees to help Stafford, they do much searching of the desert and find Paul Billson, in a remote gully, shot and left for dead. They patch him up, get him basic medical aid, then after a lot of driving round, making excuses to the police, escaping out of town, heading south, breaking down, camping under the stars, reaching another town and realising they’re being followed etc we learn a bit more.

We learn that a Brit called Lash has put a contract out to have Billson killed and it is being carried out by a sinister Brit named Kissack who, however, is screwing it up. Stafford gets to hear these two arguing among themselves, Lash obviously the brains and very irritated with Kissack’s incompetence. Meanwhile, Byrne distributes a leaflet to the desert Arabs promising ten camels reward to anyone who can give information about the missing plane.

Throughout the text our heroes (Stafford, Byrne, the patched-up Paul and a couple of Tuareg helpers) are continually on the move and the text is studded with references to new locations, gravel plains, rocky peaks, classic sand dunes, with plenty of background information from Byrne, acting as guide, about how these geographic features were formed, about the language and customs of the local peoples, about food and water and survival. For long stretches it comes very close to reading a jaunty, slangy guidebook.

Finally, our guys are tipped off by a desert Arab about a likely sounding plane wreck up north and the narrative settles into a journey from Bilma, past Seguedine (in Niger) back up into Algeria, to Djanet and up onto the Tassli Plateau, a vast plateua criss-crossed by pre-historic watercourses and home – in its many caves – to thousands of stunning pre-historic paintings and carvings.

Here our heroes finally find the wretched plane, Flyaway, which this long and long-winded quest has been about. For the record, it is a Northrop ‘Gamma’ 2-D. They confirm that Peter Billson did crash in the desert and it wasn’t an insurance scam, probably because someone sabotaged the compass in the Algiers stopover. Then they find what’s left of Billson senior’s body in a cave, along with the harrowing diary of his slow death from starvation and dehydration.

The climax

They build a cairn over his body and leave a rough plaque, then begin to ride away. At the last minute (and contrived entirely for plot purposes) Paul Billson wants to go back and take a few last photos. Moments after he’s departed, Byrne and Stafford are ambushed by the baddies: Lash the boss, Kissack the hired killer, and a couple of Arab thugs. There follows a standard series of tropes: our boys are securely tied up; every time they wriggle the knots only get tighter; but Stafford has some old pre-historic ax heads he’d found, in his pocket; they wriggle back-to-back and start to undo each other’s ropes; meanwhile, the four baddies load the plane with petrol and set it on fire, so that it blows up; they question Byrne, he refuses to answer, psycho Kissack kicks him in the ribs, head man Lash says, ‘I detest violence’ — thriller clichés going back to Dashiel Hammett and beyond.

All the time I’d been wondering where Billson was and why the narrator made him wander off just moments before the ambush – when suddenly there’s a shot and Kissack’s head explodes. Ah. Billson has returned with the rifle. Stafford makes a dive at Lash’s legs and knocks him sideways long enough for Byrne to throw off his mostly-cut-through rope shackles, to grab the dead Kissack’s gun and to shoot Lash, and also one of the hired Arabs who’s going for his gun. It’s all over in seconds. The other Arabs flee and our boys are free, albeit Stafford has collected a bullet in the shoulder. Byrne, the all-purpose action man, sets the wound, they tidy up the scene of the crime, dispose of the bodies at some distance from the still-burning plane, mount the baddies’ camels, and set off plodding back to ‘civilisation’.


So what the hell was so important about this damn plane in a desert, lost on a long-forgotten damn fool publicity air race? I was thinking smuggled diamonds, Nazi gold, any of the standard McGuffins which drive this type of book…? But no… Shall I tell you? Oh alright, then. When he gets back to London, Stafford does some undercover investigating. And when he has all the evidence, photocopied and secure with his lawyer, he confronts the Chief Baddie, Lord Brinton and tells him this story:

  • John Anderson, born Canada 1898. Comes to England, trains to be an engineer. Specialises in planes. Is engineer to Peter Billson in the famous 1936 air race. In Algiers tampers with Billson’s compass and puts sugar in the fuel tank. Billson disappears; his widow gets the £100,000 insurance payout. Anderson seduces Billson’s not-very-bright widow. Marries her in 1937, uses the £100,000 to set up his own plane construction company. Second World War, he makes a fortune, then, during the property boom of the 1950s, diversifies into property, becoming a multi-millionaire. Eventually created Lord Brinton, captain of industry, having long ago ditched Billson’s widow. She, dumped and poor, takes up with another man and has a daughter (Billson’s half-sister, Alix). Brinton discovers this and points out that, as they never formally divorced, Alix is illegitimate, and uses this threat to blackmail Peter’s widow and buy her silence for the rest of her miserable, impoverished life. It is Brinton who got Billson’s stupid son, Paul, a job at his friend, Lord McGovern’s firm, the latter acquiescing in Paul being paid more than he merited. It is Brinton who got Paul’s half-sister, Alix, a job as secretary at the same firm – the idea being they would both have nice stable jobs and never be tempted to find the truth about their father.
  • But Billson junior turns out to have been a man obsessed by his father. The random appearance of an article libelling him is all it takes to make Paul Billson pack in his job and go off on a mad quest into the desert to vindicate him. Lord Brinton can’t afford to have evidence which might incriminate him ie the crashed plane with its broken compass and petrol tank full of sugar, brought to light: so he hires Lash to cover it up, who hires Kissack to kill Paul Billson. First they beat up Stafford in London, as a warning. Then they track down and shoot Billson in the desert, but fail to finish him off. Then they follow and chase Stafford and Byrne at various points in the narrative which we’ve just read, finally cornering them by the plane – with the results described above.
  • Now, back in London, Stafford discovers that, when he left the country, his disgruntled wife sold Brinton her shares in Stafford Security. Brinton has also found out Stafford’s business partner has (the classic) personal debts and so is able to pressurise him into joining his cause; altogether they have a controlling interest in Stafford’s company and are planning to carry out far more aggressive investigations and security penetrations, generally destroying the tone and aim of the company Stafford set up. Max isn’t happy.
  • But now Stafford has photographic, documentary and eyewitness proof to verify the account given above – that Brinton’s fortune is based on murder, fraud and blackmail. Does Brinton want to go to prison for murder? At his time of life? Or will he accede to Stafford’s demands, being:
    • one and a half million pounds to go to a Peter Billson memorial trust which Stafford will administer for Paul and Alix
    • 17.5% or £262,500 for Stafford
    • Brinton to sell his shares in Max’s company back to him
  • Then Stafford will buy out his partner – the one who was betraying him to cosy up to Brinton – he’ll promote the up-and-coming man who ran things while he was away, and he will retake control of the company he loves.


It was a long, rather directionless haul in the middle – and the ‘secret’ driving the narrative always felt like it might be underwhelming, as – I think – it does turn out to be. But the sheer length of time and imagination we’ve spent in the desert with Byrne have changed us, the reader, as well as the characters. In the final paragraphs, having achieved everything he set out to do, Stafford stands in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and has an epiphany.

At the thought of Byrne I stopped suddenly and looked about me. I was in Piccadilly, at the Circus, and the lights and crowds were all around me in the evening dusk. And it all seemed unreal. This, the heart of the city at the heart of the world, wasn’t reality. Reality lay in Atakor, in Koudia, in the Aïr, in the Ténéré, on the Tassili.

I felt an awful sense of loss. I wanted to be with Byrne and Mokhtar and Hamiada… I wanted to say hello again to the giraffe in Agadez, to sit beside a small fire at an evening camp and look at the stars, to feel again the freedom of a Targui. (p.251)

Like so many Englishmen before him, Stafford has caught the desert bug, and so he decides to return give Byrne his fee in person. Although it’s only a half page of text, this moment of longing – not the rather sordid and accountant-dry dealings with Brinton which immediately precede it – feels like the true climax of the novel, a moment of deep emotional release after 250 pages of build-up, in a way the one genuine emotion in the whole book.

Related links

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

1978 Fontana paperback edition of Flyaway

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

%d bloggers like this: