Sunday, June 23, 2013

Taunt of 'Congo' -- Navy Lt. in Africa

by Bill Doughty

“Congo: The Miserable Expeditions and Dreadful Death of Lt. Emory Taunt, USN” by Andrew C. A. Jampoler, soon-to-be released by the Naval Institute Press, is a fascinating safari into the history of Africa and the adventures and “misadventures,” as Craig L. Symonds calls them, of a naval officer more than a century ago, a mere two decades after the Civil War.

Symonds, author of "Battle of Midway" and "Lincoln and His Admirals" writes in his review note, “In 1885 an otherwise undistinguished U.S. Navy lieutenant named Emory Taunt embarked alone on a journey up the Congo River into what was then still called darkest Africa. Soon Taunt was seeking to parlay his presumed expertise into a lucrative contract with businessman Henry Sanford, and when that didn't pan out, to convince President Cleveland that he should be named U.S. consul to the Congo State. This history of Taunt's misadventures is a window into the curious and conflicted U.S. relationship with Africa in the late Victorian era, and especially with the Congo basin."

SECNAV cover letter, 1887.
Jampoler retraces Taunt’s journey down the Congo River to “Banana Point” and the Atlantic Ocean in the book’s epilogue.  In the preceding chapters he ponders the hard life of native porters, the effects of slavery, the influence of business and religion in the 1800s, the dangers of malaria and yellow fever, and Taunt’s and others’ political schemes and dreams. 

The narrative pivots on taunt’s spotty record in the Navy, culminating in a court-martial for unauthorized absence due to intoxication, a case that led to a clemency appeal and involvement by Commander-in-Chief President Grover Ceveland, and one of the most interesting excuses for incapacity due to alcohol.

Taunt contended his UA was due to a previous trip to Africa.  Jampoler recounts what Taunt told The New York Herald

“I returned from the Congo broken down with fevers, liver troubles and malaria, and I have not felt myself at all ... I did not mean to disobey orders, and I was not drinking anything stronger than some wine which my doctor ordered for me.  My mind is a blank as to what transpired...”

Map of Taunt's expedition down the Congo, Navy History and Heritage Cmd.
Divorced and resigned from the Navy, Taunt lobbied successfully for an appointment as commercial agent in Boma, Congo with a paltry annual salary of $4,000.  His success brings to mind the so-called Chinese curse, “be careful what you ask for, you may get it.”

Rather than achieve wealth and immortality, Taunt, continued to contract diseases in the Congo, died at the young age of 39.  His adventure did manage to bring attention to Belgian atrocities in Africa.

Jampoler introduces us to some colorful characters in the late 1800s.

Sen. George Edmunds helped establish and fund the position Taunt would fill in Boma.  The senator was best known for his sponsorship of the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, a law prohibiting polygamy and de-incorporating the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, pushing Mormon practitioners, including Mitt Romney’s grandfather, to seek foreign sanctuary in Mexico.

Sen. John Tyler Morgan, “former Confederate general, and emeritus Grand Dragon of the Alabama Realm of the Ku Klux Klan, (who) stood on the front rank of those few American politicians engaged in Congo policy making near the end of the century.” Morgan supported a drive to repatriate American blacks to Africa.

Jampoler writes about legislator and gifted Renaissance man George Washington Williams of Pennsylvania, who “just missed being appointed the American minister to Haiti; the post went to Frederick Douglass instead.” Williams indicted King Leopold directly in strong language for “deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding,” etc. in Congo.

Finally, Emory Taunt is tied with British author and former merchant seaman Joseph Conrad, whom he met in Congo.  Conrad is best known as the author of “Heart of Darkness,” which was first published in 1899.  Jampoler opens “Congo” with an excerpt from “Heart of Darkness”:

“Going up the river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.  An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.  The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.  There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine.  The long stretches of the waterway ran on deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.  On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side.  The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -- somewhere -- far away -- in another existence perhaps.”

The Congo River is described as having 15 times the runoff of the Nile, providing perspective and scope for the exploration and exploitation that occurred centuries ago.

Andrew C. A. Jampoler
“Congo” flows between bits of history and personality insights and includes links to the War of 1812 and Napoleon and the aftermath of the Civil War and naval history from Peru to Samoa and from the East Coast of the United States to western Africa and King Leopold ll’s documented abuses of native people in Congo.

Jampoler documents how other authors weighed in on Leopold’s crimes.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, perhaps America’s greatest writer, reported on the atrocities and lobbied for progressive change and reforms to President Theodore Roosevelt.

Naval Institute Press of Annapolis has published another winner in “Congo,” a good summer -- or fall -- read.  NIP offers a list of other reading recommendations this week in its 2013 fall catalog.

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