Jeremy Hilton’s latest book offers ‘an exploration in prose and verse of the life and works of Emin Pasha’. It provides a portrait of the nineteenth-century explorer and naturalist via a biography in prose, extracts from his journals, and in a long poem.
Emin is probably best remembered as the man H. M. Stanley crossed the Congo to try to rescue in the late 1880s. He was born Eduard Schnitzer, in Upper Silesia in Prussia, but spent much of his life in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, working as a doctor and diplomat. He adopted the name Emin, meaning ‘trustworthy’ or ‘faithful’, to facilitate integration into Ottoman society.
His major passion in life was natural history, especially birds. He was an extraordinary individual, tirelessly observing, documenting and collecting. He corresponded with many scientific editors and contributed specimens of flora and fauna to natural history museums across Europe. He was also a man of humanitarian sentiments and interested in the lives of the people he lived among.
In 1876 Emin arrived in Sudan, where the British were supporting Egyptian (Ottoman) rule. Here General Gordon, the senior local official, appointed him governor of Equatoria province in the south of the territory. Egyptian/British control of Sudan collapsed in the 1880s in the face of an Islamist-led nationalist revolt. Emin and the people under his protection were forced south towards the largely unexplored Lake Albert region. The outside world lost track of him and this led to Stanley’s disastrous, and much written about, expedition. Emin eventually met a brutal death in the Congo rainforests in 1892 at the hands of Arab slave traders.
The three narrative threads of Hilton’s book – biography, poem, journal extracts – run in parallel columns down the page which is large format (A3 landscape). The text is illustrated with maps, and with photographs of some of the birds and other creatures Emin recorded in Africa. The journal entries in particular give a strong sense of Emin’s intellectual inquisitiveness and energy, and are an interesting read. The biographical material, on the other hand, seemed to me over long. The information provided is readily available from other sources, and a shorter introduction to Emin’s life, sufficient to elucidate the poem, might perhaps have been enough.
The poem itself draws on Emin’s writings, collaging material to convey his passions and travails. Much of the poem focuses on his time in Sudan and central Africa. There are 45 stanzas, each of eight lines. The meeting between Stanley and Emin is described in stanza 33 which begins:
close to the lake two men meet in a tent
men of renown, rescued and rescuer, roles reversed
one weary from hundreds of miles of his forces dying
hearing the groans and cries in a forest with no light
the other riding his steamboat with fresh supplies
The poem overall conveys a strong sense of physical hardship, of armed conflict, sickness, food scarcity, as well as of a landscape teeming with wildlife. Stanza 30 reads:
out of the river dream the mystery spreads
growing into our very lives, the too soon deaths
pushing back the frontiers of our unknowing
hills and mountains to traverse, rivers to wade
forests to scramble through, stealing venom of snakes
roads leading skyward among the arrows and falcons
all down the drought-threatened flyways, flash
of a kingfisher in front of lakeside crags
and drown into the earth of an ancient hallowing
Using Emin’s words has its drawbacks, as the poem inevitably becomes inflected at times with a nineteenth-century colonialist language. In stanza 18 Emin wonders:
how is this throbbing
chaos, this crunch of bright and dark visions
tropical lightning sheeting crazy malarial nights
to be governed, to be granted the music of peace
Specific experiences are generalized to ‘Africa’, creating an image of a continent ravaged by tribal wars, famine and disease – a benighted place needing the civilizing influence of colonial authority to bring order. There certainly was conflict, disease (including smallpox introduced by Europeans), food shortages in particular areas in particular periods, an active slave trade, but these need contextualizing. Gordon, who was a fierce opponent of the slave trade, soon realised that the task he had been given in Sudan was hopeless. With large lucrative slave markets in Cairo and Constantinople there would always be people trying to supply the demand. The wealthy Ottoman elite for whom Gordon, and Emin, worked, and who were supported by Britain, benefited from this trade. This perspective is largely missing from Far World From Silesia.
In a postscript Hilton tells us that he has never been to Africa. He confesses, with characteristic honesty, to a ‘large degree of humility, indeed embarrassment’ that he should attempt such a work. He voices some criticisms of Emin in the postscripts, recognizing that he was a colonialist with a somewhat paternalistic attitude to Africans, that he helped facilitate the trade in ivory – but he argues that Emin’s life and work as a naturalist deserve our attention.
Knowing Jeremy Hilton, I have no doubt at all that he is motivated by humanitarian and environmental concerns. If the book prompts readers to seek out more information about Emin and the events he witnessed, it will have served a valuable purpose. Most people in Britain remain ignorant of the realities of our historical relationship with the continent, with the so called ‘anti-woke’ brigade determined to try and keep it that way. This book could have done more to puncture some of the myths, but Emin’s contribution to surveying the flora and fauna of Africa, thereby helping to lay the foundations of modern-day conservation work, is well worth knowing about. This was his enduring legacy and Hilton is right to celebrate it.
Simon Collings 27th November 2022