Sex in the Jungle: Experiences of Victorian Explorers

Explorer John Hanning Speke, the first Europea...

John Henning Speke. Wikipedia

Speke and Grant, on their return from Africa

Although 19th century explorers wrote on any number of topics about their African experiences, sex was not one of them – either about their own experiences or observations amongst groups whom they visited.  Euphemisms, however, were common – such as the following in which Speke’s translator, Bombay, has an intrigue with a girl:

Bombay acknowledged he had tried to get the girl, for they had been sentimentalizing together for several days, and both alike wished to be married.

… he went to his work again like a man, and consoled himself by taking Sangizo’s sister to wife on credit instead of the old love, promising to pay the needful out of his pay, and to return her to her brother when the journey was over.

Bombay. Source: Royal Geographic Society

John Henning Speke, Journal of the Discovery of The Source of the Nile. 1863

During these long treks, which commonly lasted over two years, porters and other workers were (as above) said to have ‘married’ local girls.  These girls generally came along as camp followers for the duration of the trek, after which they might be returned to their families.  In the above instance, it is the girl’s brother (who worked for the caravan) who is responsible for her, and the ‘marriage’ fees paid by Bombay would go to the brother and hence the father.

There are no instances of which I am aware that discuss either ‘sentimentalizing’ or ‘marriage’ by explorers with local women.  The closest suggestive incidence (I have found) is about Speke’s travelling companion, Grant, who is shown in a woodcut dancing with one of the women of the petty chief, Ukulima, during an evening celebration:

Marching slowly, as my men kept falling sick; I did not reach Grant again until the 11th.  His health had greatly improved, and he had been dancing with Ukulima [i.e., with his women], as may be seen by the accompanying woodcut.

I recently read a research article about Speke and Burton, which states that Speke was very much in love with a local girl, but that it came to nothing.  So, perhaps Speke was not so much of a staid, British type as some past writers claim.

John Henning Speke, Journal of the Discovery of The Source of the Nile. 1863.

Grant Dancing. Source: Speke, Discovery of the Source of the Nile

Although these examples are from the same book, they reflect the general attitude towards relations with local women that is found in books about African exploration of the 19th Century.

An exception is the explorer, linguist, and general iconoclast Sir Richard Burton, who touched the topic of sex in several books or documents – albeit with disapproval by his publishers and/or his wife:

Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa, Somaliland – an annex on female circumcision – written in Latin to assuage the publishers.  This did not work; the appendix was not published for the general public.

Burton, in the Azores – a short document on hermaphrodism, which was published.

Burton, A translation of the Arabic by  Sheikh Nefzaoui: The Perfumed Garden,

Burton, A translation of the Arabic by Sadi, Golestan.

(I can send links for the above to anyone interested.)

There are a number of articles and several books published over the last decade that seek to analyze these and other issues relating to 19th century explorers (and ethnologists).  One that has been very favorably reviewed and that I wish I could obtain here is the following:

Fabian, J., Out of Our Minds. Reason and Madness in the Exploration of Central Africa, Berkeley

Explorers and ethnographers in Africa during the period of colonial expansion are usually assumed to have been guided by rational aims such as the desire for scientific knowledge, fame, or financial gain. This book, the culmination of many years of research on nineteenth-century exploration in Central Africa, provides a new view of those early European explorers and their encounters with Africans.

Out of Our Minds shows explorers were far from rational–often meeting their hosts in extraordinary states influenced by opiates, alcohol, sex, fever, fatigue, and violence. Johannes Fabian presents fascinating and little-known source material, and points to its implications for our understanding of the beginnings of modern colonization. At the same time, he makes an important contribution to current debates about the intellectual origins and nature of anthropological inquiry.

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