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Cover image for Black Livingstone : a true tale of adventure in the nineteenth-century Congo
Black Livingstone : a true tale of adventure in the nineteenth-century Congo
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, c2002.
Physical Description:
xviii, 237 p. : illustrations, maps.
General Note:
Maps also on lining papers.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 921 SHEPPARD 1 1

On Order



Black Livingstone is the first book to chronicle the remarkable life of William Henry Sheppard. As a twenty-four-year-old African American missionary in 1890, Sheppard departed for what was then the Belgian Congo, accompanied by Samuel Lapsley, a white man who had grown up on a plantation and was the son of a prominent Alabama judge. Lapsley died of fever barely a year later, but Sheppard thrived in Africa for three more years before returning to America. Back home, Sheppard was billed as the "Black Livingstone" as he traveled the country, lecturing to packed auditoriums. Black and white, rich and poor alike came to hear his true tales of African adventure. One year later he returned to the Congo, where he witnessed and gathered testimony on the genocide being perpetrated by the Belgian government and the rubber companies, eventually helping to break their hold on the region. Pagan Kennedy unfolds Sheppard's life and times with a novelist's narrative skill and penetrates the complexity of her subject-a man who found power in the Congo but not in the Church to which he dedicated his life, who fought the persecution of Africans but never of blacks in his own country. Beautifully illustrated with archival photographs, Black Livingstonewill appeal widely to readers of books on African history such as King Leopold's Ghostand In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, as well as readers of fiction set in Africa, like Barbara Kingsolver's bestseller, The Poisonwood Bible.

Author Notes

Pagan Kennedy is the author of seven books, including her most recent novel The Exes . She was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, Britain's most prestigious literary award.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In 1890, a 24-year-old African-American and Southern Presbyterian missionary named William Sheppard left New York for the Congo. During the next 20 years, Sheppard explored that country and in the process discovered a lake that now bears his name; made the first meaningful Western contact with the Kuba kingdom, one of the last native African dynasties, and failed in his attempt to create a "utopia of African-American achievement in Africa." He also clashed with the Belgian colonial authorities, exposing their brutal, genocidal treatment of Africans and, as a result, found himself at the center of a charged, internationally monitored trial in which the powerful performance of lawyer Emile Vandervelde, the leader of the Belgian Socialist Party, overcame a claim that Sheppard had slandered the foremost Belgian producer of rubber. Kennedy (The Exes), a novelist, is captivated by her charismatic subject charisma evidenced by Sheppard's enduring presence in the oral histories of the Kuba and, like the novelist she is, offers fully developed portraits of others in Sheppard's orbit as well. She speculates with a modern feminist's perspective about the inner life of Sheppard's wife, Lucy, who saw two of her children die in Africa, and she examines the reactions to Sheppard of white missionaries, who were unable to succeed in the native culture as well as he. Kennedy also explores the irony of Sheppard, who was made a Kuba prince, facing segregation and discrimination at home. Kennedy is an engaging writer and ably captures the undercurrent of horror found everywhere in the late 19th-century Congo while honoring Sheppard's accomplishments, heroism and character. Photos not seen by PW. (On-sale: Jan. 14) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

Novelist Kennedy (The Exes, 1998, etc.) portrays the first African-American missionary in the Congo. Virginia-born William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927) wanted to spread the Presbyterian gospel in Africa, but only when a white man agreed to go with him would the church allow Sheppard to travel to the Congo. Of the two missionaries, however, it was Sheppard who had the longer and more distinguished career. He hunted hippos, discovered lost cities, and amassed the West's first collection of Kuba art at the same time that he fought tropical diseases, survived many attempts on his life, and raised international awareness of Belgian atrocities in the Congo. Sheppard was a celebrity in his own time. Nicknamed "Black Livingstone" after the famous British explorer, he drew large crowds in the US to hear his tales of danger and adventure in Africa. He is mostly unknown today, partly because in 1910 he was sent home in disgrace by the Presbyterian Foreign Missions department, which according to Kennedy was as affronted by Sheppard's advocacy of human rights as by the illegitimate African child he fathered. The author relies mainly on Sheppard's journals and letters, as well as documents from other missionaries to tell his story. There are gaps in this material, particularly concerning Sheppard's motivations, but Kennedy makes graceful use of her novelistic skills to imagine and fill in. (E.g., she speculates plausibly that his desire to work with the Kuba was prompted as much by erotic attraction as the desire to save souls.) Her portrait of 19th-century Africa is neither over-romanticized nor condescending, and she captures the excitement and complexities of Sheppard's life there. Kennedy explores only gently the paradox that Sheppard was successful in the Congo, yet suffered under segregation and prejudice in the US. A convincing brief to make an honored place for this now-forgotten adventurer in both African and American history.

Library Journal Review

Novelist Kennedy (The Exes) recaptures the incredible life and adventures of William Henry Sheppard, a submissively complex African American missionary funded by the segregated Southern Presbyterian Church in 1890 to explore unmapped regions of the Congo and win converts. When he returned to the United States, he was nicknamed "Black Livingstone" in reference to David Livingstone and spoke all over the country to raise funds for the church. But unlike that famous British explorer-missionary, Sheppard identified himself with the Congolese culture and people. When he went back to the Congo after King Leopold II sold the colony to the Belgian government, he realized that it had been turned into a company town and was in ruin, a testimony to the ravages of the rubber trade. (Adam Hochschild covers similar territory in his excellent King Leopold's Ghost, LJ 9/15/98.) Sheppard and other missionaries then worked to expose the exploitation and atrocities in the Congo. Ironically, when he finally returned home to stay, Sheppard, who fought for the rights of blacks in Africa, "lived under apartheid" at home in what was the Jim Crow era. Kennedy takes on racism and imperialism in this first book-length exploration of Sheppard and his life. For students of African American studies, Presbyterian Church history, and anyone interested in colonial Africa. Edward G. McCormack, Univ. of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast Lib., Long Beach (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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