I only had to see five minutes of the History Channel’s new “reality” show, Expedition Africa, to know something was seriously wrong. The show sends four Americans to follow in the steps of 19th Century explorers Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone, who opened up the interior of Africa to European exploitation.
The first episode opens with a montage of the four American adventurers whom the show follows through “wild Africa” exclaiming their enthusiasm for traveling in the footsteps of Stanley, who they say was a “hero” and the “the ultimate explorer.” Their goal is to “resurrect the spirit of Stanley.” These clips are spliced with scenes of African animals and (in another segment) clips of a couple of tribespeople. Then, the narrator takes us to “the exotic island of Zanzibar” with “its clear beautiful water and dark past … as the Mecca of the Arab slave trade.” (Cue image of dusky woman in a niqab and statues of Africans chained together by their necks. Then more shots of crocodiles and snakes.)
My jaw was gaping in disbelief by then. Even aside from the shameless and exploitative portrayal of Africa as a timeless land of passion and danger in need of penetration by white explorers, the premise of the show — following in the footsteps of King Leopold II’s man on the ground in Congo — is seriously offensive. After exploring Central Africa and tracking down the missing Dr. Livingstone as a “journalist” for the New York Herald, Stanley was hired by Leopold to help the murderous king obtain land in the Congo, build a railroad and establish the network for a brutal rubber exploitation operation. He relied on violence in his travels. Even in his initial expedition, Stanley shot his way across the continent with a small army. He wrote that “the savage [African] only respects force, power, boldness, and decision.” His reliance on force continued later, and helped spawn much worse: Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, estimates that during Leopold’s 1885-1908 pillaging of the Congo, ten million Congolese died, depopulating the region by 50 percent.
Expedition Africa‘s celebration of Stanley (with no mention of the unpleasant aspects of his work) is like setting adventurers loose in Libya in honor of the legacy of Erwin Rommel and making a TV show about it. Sure, Rommel was a skilled military commander, but he was a Nazi military commander, and we would never honor him. Stanley is no different; he worked in the service of a project every bit as odious as the Holocaust. The fact that our popular media remains in awe of such an individual — and willfully ignorant of such violence — is an embarrassing reflection of the United States’ continued lack of knowledge about Africa. African countries have now been free of direct colonial control for decades; they are developing their own economies and media and power. But with shows like Expedition Africa, the West continues to enslave Africa with images.
Thankfully, I don’t think this will be possible for too much longer. With the growing strength of African media, the day is not far off when people in countries from Kenya to Sudan to Nigeria will be telling their stories directly to American audiences. Until then, shows like this remind us — even as we spend our time on the academic nuances of certain debates (see this blog) — that the prevalence of stupidity about Africa is still extremely stark.
Oh, and here’s a portrayal of Leopold that I prefer.