The devil drives


I t is March 8, 1858, and John Hanning Speke is on an island in Lake Tanganyika trying vainly to hire a dhow from an Arab slaver, the better to explore the waters around him. That night, while he camps, a small beetle crawls into his ear and begins “to dig violently at my tympanum”. In terrible agony, Speke sticks a penknife blade in his ear and “applied the point . . . to [the beetle’s] back, which did more harm than good; for though a few thrusts quieted him, the point also wounded my ear so badly that suppuration took place and all the facial glands extending from that point down to the point of the shoulder became contorted . . . . It was the most painful thing I ever remember to have endured”. On July 22, 1870, Dr David Livingstone, arrives at Bambarre, a slave-trading depot, barely able to walk, his feet are so heavily ulcerated. The ulcers “eat through everything – muscle, tendon and bone, and often lame permanently, if they do not kill”. And on January 7, 1862, James Grant’s “right leg, above the knee had become stiff, swollen and alarmingly inflamed. He could neither walk nor leave his hut. The intense pain was only eased by his making incisions to release the fluid. Yet fresh abscesses would form within days”.

more from William Boyd at the TLS here.