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One Man's Crusade

BLACK LIVINGSTONE: A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo, By Pagan Kennedy, Viking: 238 pp., $24.95

January 20, 2002|BEN SCHRANK

"No man--you apprehend me?--no man here bears a charmed life." So says a frustrated agent in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Considering the genocide that occurred in the Congo at the turn of the last century, a charmless life does seem like the only option. But William Sheppard, the "Black Livingstone" of Pagan Kennedy's fine new biography, possessed just enough charm to make him the exception. His charm lay in his adaptability; he understood that a multifaceted image is everything.

"To earn the trust of the Africans, you must become protean, a shape changer, a man of a thousand faces," Kennedy writes. "You had to be a black white man." And Sheppard was that: He was an American black man who had to become a Presbyterian missionary to go to Africa. The combination of surviving in Jim Crow America and an education at Hampton and Tuscaloosa Theological Institute had already forced Sheppard to learn the skills that would help him prosper once he arrived. He only needed the church to get him there.

Sheppard's adventure begins in 1890 when, at 25, he sails out of New York with fellow missionary Samuel Lapsley, his priggish, pious and, most necessarily, white companion. Lapsley is completely taken in when he meets Belgium's King Leopold, who controlled the Congo. Kennedy skillfully shows how the "apparent coincidences" that ease their voyage exist only because of Leopold's evil schemes. In fact, King Leopold's master plan for the Congo makes him as horrifying a figure as Hitler or Stalin.

In Africa, Sheppard quickly turns into Mundele Ndom, or the black white man. Upon his arrival, he forgoes preaching and instead kills 36 hippos to feed the Bateke people, who were in danger of starvation. While the Christ-like Lapsley succumbs to the harshness of the interior, Sheppard flourishes. He makes an unprecedented journey to the secret kingdom of the Kuba. He makes friends with the Kuba king Kot aMweeky and involuntarily becomes Bope Mekabe, "a reincarnated member of the Kuba elite."

Sheppard's early life makes up Part 1 of "Black Livingstone." His is a rollicking adventure. But historical gravity comes in Part 2, beginning with the hardships endured by Lucy Gannt Sheppard, William's wife, who accompanied him in the Congo in the mid-1890s. Though Lucy dreamed that her accommodations in the Congo might be "the Ladies Home Journal house," she's plagued by difficulties and heartbreak. Lucy loses two babies to fever and disease. Sheppard becomes less carefree, though when not with Lucy he lives as "Sheppate" and takes African mistresses and fathers additional children.

In Chapter 8, "A Basket of Hands," Kennedy describes a "horrifying mission" that Sheppard was ordered to take by another missionary, William Morrison. Sheppard had to find "evidence of atrocities" in the killing fields created by the Zappo-Zap warriors, who were employed by King Leopold's Belgians. Sheppard allows Malumba, the Zappo-Zap leader, to believe that he is Belgian and is, therefore, his boss. Malumba subsequently shows him evidence of his warrior's efforts, including a basket of "eighty-one right hands" and "people with the flesh carved off from the waist down." Sheppard takes photographs of these horrors with a brand new Kodak box camera. Again, it's his ability to role-play and put others at ease that saves his life.

Kennedy deftly combines Sheppard's own concise commentary ("I said very little [to Malumba]" he wrote later. "I thought it a better policy.") with her own dramatic depictions of horrors comparable in scope to any genocide of the 20th century. She slowly and dramatically builds Sheppard's role to show how "mass media and human rights were inextricably linked." She argues that when Sheppard took on the Zappo-Zap mission, the idea was without precedent. She writes, "No one had ever launched an international human rights campaign before."

Later, the Belgians attempt to bring Sheppard and Morrison to trial, and Sheppard writes articles that condemn King Leopold's activities. Mark Twain bases his book, "King Leopold's Soliloquy," on Sheppard's writing and "mentions the hero by name." And so, "without meaning to, he [Sheppard] had become one of the world's most outspoken black critics of white oppression." Kennedy can't avoid wrestling with Sheppard's politics: When Sheppard is back in America on lecture tour as the "Black Livingstone," he is sometimes subtle in his stand against King Leopold and the Belgians, though he is clearly disgusted with their activities. Sheppard explains his inactivity this way: "Being a colored man, I would not be understood criticizing a white government before white people." Through it all, Sheppard seems to be aware that he must grapple not with his own limitations but with the limitations of others.

Kennedy chronicles Sheppard's life with a near pitch-perfect combination of sympathy, drama and historical comprehension. She transforms Sheppard's acute case of changeability into an intense narrative force. And though she often seems tempted by a hindsight view of Sheppard's activism, she errs on the side of building an admirable biography and does not try to make this incredible protean man transcend the horrible violence and political upheaval of his times.


Ben Schrank is the author of the novels "Miracle Man" and the forthcoming "Consent."

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