Beautiful, beautiful. Infatuated with this story; if I should live a life like this one..
As a boy, Joseph Conrad pointed to a map of Africa – a space still as blank as it had been nearly 400 years earlier- and declared in the youthful spirit of adventure, “when I grow up I shall go there.” As for all 19th century Europeans hypnotized by the vast uncharted expanse looming beneath them, it was the Congo River – still Africa’s last great unsolved enigma – which above all else epitomised the atavistic mystique of the ‘dark continent’. The Congo River, that ‘place of darkness’, seemed to reach back to ‘the earliest beginnings of the world.’ From the moment H.M. Stanley, impelled by the prophetic words of Dr. Livingstone (“go west, go west, my son, you’ll find a large river”), set off to map it and in doing so triggered the Scramble for Africa, it was unrivalled as the grand myth of the Victorian imagination.
In June 1890, Conrad arrived in the Congo. He travelled upriver on a steamboat, enduring illness, exhaustion and disillusionment, the romance of his boyhood dream collapsing into melancholy as he lay under the stars at midnight and “felt very lonely there”. He returned to London and published Heart of Darkness nine years later, and, in doing so, taught almost a century of Englishmen to see the journey up the Congo as the way into Africa’s dark heart. The myth of the Congo River as the last, impenetrable unknown was bequeathed to the 20th century.
Redmond O’Hanlon, perhaps more than anyone else, has inherited this myth. Obsessed by Conrad and the Congo, he was fired from his teaching post in the Oxford English Faculty for teaching the wrong century, so infatuated was he with the minds of the Victorians. In 1981, O’Hanlon and his wife Belinda had lived outside Oxford for 15 years, never having spent a night apart. He had been in the grip of depression since finishing his doctoral thesis on Conrad and Darwin. Two years later, he was on a plane to Borneo, embarking on an odyssey into the unknown, unaccompanied but for the poet James Fenton and the words of those 19th century natural historians and explorers who had inhabited his thesis. In 19846, he published Into the Heart of Borneo, which immediately made his name as a writer and eccentric: Alfred Russell Wallace born 200 years too late.