Review: Blood River, Tim Butcher

Rating: 3 out of 5

The story of Stanley’s journey through Africa — beyond his discovery of Dr Livingstone but also through the Congo — is one of the wondrous expeditions of the late 19th century. Yet, it was a harbinger of doom for the population who soon after fell under Leopold of Belgium’s sway. It is that history which Mr Butcher tried to recreate on his journey through the depths of the Congo — perhaps one of the very few choices amongst the 19th century explorations that are more dangerous more than a century later.

Yet, insofar as this is a good book, I think the author is more successful as a historian of Congo and its statehood. The original inception of the story and the introduction of the Portuguese and their padrões was an evocative stepping stone from when the author wove a narrative to the early 21st century.

Perhaps the most interesting of the mentions of the governments that have ruled the Congo since were those of the Belgian Congo as well as interviews with the still-living colonials from that time. Yet, the author’s look into this period was not as thorough as I hoped — though of course the main purpose was to describe a present-day version of Mr Stanley’s journey.

And, regrettably, the recreation of the old expedition was the weakest part of the book. It felt, quite often, that the author revelled more in the description of the historical Congo than the present one — perhaps for understandable reasons — and this weakened the travel narrative. Yet, aspects such as the state of the roads, problems within townships, etc, came through, but they never seemed to be the focus as much as a building block until the next historical narrative.

Overall, I liked this book and I would recommend it! It manages to enhance a reader’s understanding of the African state, and in general is colourful and easily readable. I would, however, very much like the author to come up with a solid narrative history of the Belgian Congo, and I think his passion would be able to shine through even better there!

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