Comparative textual narratives of environmental change

The reports provide a comparative European view of African environ- ments, settlements and types of agriculture, indicating the fertility of the soil, among others. Explorers started from different points, moving from the coast of East Africa into the interior. The regions they traversed varied from tropical forests to deserts and savanna grasslands, and from marshes, swamps, river valleys and thickly vegetated bushlands to desert borders, to mention but a few.’' We may use a few more examples here.

James MacQueen’8 describes the vegetation of the area in the metaphors of European landscapes: ‘the vegetation around had completely changed, and the trees and foliage here were like those of Europe, and continued ranges of hills began to cover the country in all direction.’ The European landscape represents an image of a perfectly managed land. Others described varied landscapes paying more attention to the geographical features in their reports, from which one would be able to deduce if the described features might be designated as undesirable or not. Bushy landscapes that impaired the passage of the travelers were described in negative terms and open, grassy areas in favorable terms.

Some of the environments were compared with paintings by famous European painters. William Walter Augustine Fitzgerald,’9 while journeying from the coast into the interior, commented: ‘For half-an-hour’s tramp the country was again park like in appearance, with short grass and clumps of bush.’ The ‘park like’ evokes images of European landscapes. It represents the aesthetic aspect of nature to the European imagination and thoughts. Further into the interior, the observation of Joseph Thomson60 is even more revealing. ‘The scenery around Pambete is picturesque in the extreme. Seen from a distance, the place has the appearance of a pretty landscape modelled in relief and set in a niche cut out of the surrounding mountain.’ Here, we have an interpretation of the landscape through the eyes of a painter doing a painting. Sometimes, the explorers asked readers to imagine what they were observing, signifying that there was no better way of appreciating what was reported. We return to the report of Joseph Thomson.61 He states, ‘Let the reader figure to himself a forest of the densest nature, formed of colossal trees, with deep green shady foliage, among which that prince of African trees the mparamusi or yellow-wood ... rises prominently in stately grace.’ By inviting his readers to ‘imagine,’ the author helps them to create an impression of nature, in which the central feature is an indigenous tree species that he has christened a ‘prince’ of the tropical environment. The narratives of African cultural landscapes were even more imaginative.

 
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