“Venture to the Interior” by Laurens Van der Post – travel in Africa during the 1950s

Venture to the Interior by Laurens Van der Post was written in the early 1950s and tells the story of a trip he made into the area of Africa which is now Malawi but at the time was Nyasaland. He was asked by the British government at the time to travel to these areas in a British colony which were not well known in London although it is not at all clear what the purpose of the trip was or what information the author was supposed to collect, especially as he met various British officials resident in or near the area he was asked to look at who could, presumably, have provided information to Britain. The author had returned recently from his imprisonment by the Japanese and an extended war and the recent conflict is a recurring theme in the book which doesn’t just look at the landscape and people of the area but includes the author’s thoughts about the modern world and civilisation.

The book actually takes a while to get to Africa. The start of the book describes the experiences of the author’s family who had grown up in Africa and their love for the continent. The next part is where the author describes his trip out to Africa in various aeroplanes. This gives an insight into the very early days of commercial flying and is fascinating – they eat a lot of meals ! I suspect, however, that only a few people could travel this way.

By the time we get to the author’s mission and the place he is investigating we have a fair idea what he thinks about Africa and its people. He loves the continent and is fully in favour of British rule in the area. When he talks about the area’s history he considers that it starts when the British came to stop the slave trade and that the continent’s history before that was chaotic. He thinks of races and nationalities in terms of stereotypes – “Orientals” behave one way and Europeans another. Africans, he tells us, are always happy unless they have had a university education when they become unhappy and unsettled (he mentions this twice in different places in the book). He thinks that Africans need a “firm hand” and are often unreliable but he admires the fact that they have a “savage” and “basic” nature. He thinks that Europeans are more likely to be unhappy and violent because they have cut themselves off from their savage self and their recognition of this is why they are racist against Africans. I don’t find any of these views acceptable and nor do I think that his theories are particularly coherent or consistent but they do infuse the book and the more modern reader will find themselves occasionally startled by a comment or attitude in the text.

The actual landscape of this area of Africa does feature eventually when the expeditions into the less inhabited areas start and the author describes well the difficulty in travelling (although all the equipment and food is carried by local “bearers”). The two areas explored are plateaus or raised areas and it takes time and effort to reach them. We have glorious descriptions of views and of the local landscape but the author concentrates more on the people he meets. These are nearly all Europeans with local people living in separate locations or acting as servants. There is also a tragic accident which involves the death of one of the officials that he meets.

I read this book for this theme expecting more about the landscape of the area but the author is more interested in the people who live there. This makes it a different book than I had been anticipating. It is still interesting to see how Africa appeared to a white traveller at the time when it was written. I did find the dated attitude towards Africa and its people by the author to be unsettling and it means that I probably wouldn’t read another book by him although I believe that he wrote many.

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