African highlife music


Going to Africa is still an exotic trip, but not an impossible dream. African safaris are highly popular and tourists from all parts of the world come to see lions and elephants in their natural habitats. But travelling to the continent some 130 years ago, with little financial means and without any previous experience must have been a bold deed. But Dr Emil Holub, a 19th-century Czech traveller succeeded. And he's the man Alena Skodova will be talking about with Dr Josef Kandert from the Naprstek Museum of Asian and African Culture in Prague.

Dr Kandert told me that Emil Holub became a prototype of a traveller for the Czech nation, leaving for Africa for the first time in 1872 and staying there for seven years. During his first visit he undertook three journeys from the southern parts of the continent up to the Zambezi River and he returned with rich natural, archaeological and ethnographic collections. Immediately after his return he published his first travel book, which was a resounding success, being immediately translated into German, English and Hungarian. The proceeds from the book enabled Emil Holub to set out on his second trip to Africa, in 1883, when he tried to travel through the whole continent again from South to North, but this time he did not succeed - he ended up in Zambia, after a violent encounter with the warriors of the Iloo tribe. But again, he richly documented the cultures of all nations he encountered and returned with collections that he then donated to major European museums.

"The biggest collections are in the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna, the second most important are in Prague, in the Naprstek museum. Also after his second journey Holub published a travel book called "From Cape Town to the Land of the Mashucalumbas" but this book was not available in any foreign language until the 1970s, when it was translated into English. Emil Holub is an internationally respected figure, his name is on the UNESCO list and his significance lies mainly in the fact that he was one of the first reporters who described the cultures of South and Central Africa between the 1870s and 80s."

Although there were more travel books on Africa available at that time, all of them were rather superstitious. Holub, however, worked systematically thanks to his education in natural sciences and to his profession of a physician. But how was the whole journey planned and materialised, and with whom did he travel?

"During his first trip he was travelling by himself, using just local people, because he was relying on his own financial resources. The second trip, however, was planned thoroughly because it was a kind of state-sponsored journey - he received money from the Austro-Hungarian authorities. What is really remarkable is the fact that for his second journey Holub took with him his 18-year-old newlywed wife. In the 1880s women were still seen as rather defenseless creatures fully dependent on their husbands, but Mrs. Holubova was an excellent marksman and during the battles with the Iloo and Mashucalumba tribes it was she who protected the expedition with her gun at the most critical moments."

Other expedition members were chosen through a newspaper ad, and Holub received over 700 offers. He concentrated on craftsmen, specialists in various fields. Finally, he chose six men - two Czechs, one Austrian and one Hungarian. Among them were a butcher, a cook and a carpenter. But they came to a bad end in Africa: one died of yellow fever, one was killed and another one heavily injured, so only two of them and the Holubs returned safely to Bohemia. So how was Emil Holub welcomed back in his homeland?

"It was a terrific welcome. Czech people saw a first class traveller in him, and this description lived on for more than another 100 years. Holub came back from his first journey by train from Britain via Germany, so his enthusiastic fellow countrymen went to meet him in the border town of Decin. Then the train went through Bohemia, and Holub's comeback was celebrated in many Bohemian towns. The second time there were similar scenes on his return, and Holub also scored a great success by organising two major exhibitions - one in Vienna and one at the Prague Exhibition Grounds - because neither of these two cities had ever seen such a big display of items from Africa."

"Holub would have liked to see an African museum built in Prague hosting all his collections, but the political climate in the 1880s - when the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy - was not favourable enough for such an idea. Nobody was willing to build such a museum - which Holub wasn't at all happy about - and as a result he divided his collections into several parts."

The biggest part of Holub's African collection is in the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna. Quite understandably, because the Emperor Franz Joseph II himself provided a substantial sum of money for Holub's second African trip. The second biggest part is in the Naprstek Museum in Prague, because ethnographer Vojta Naprstek, the founder of the museum, supported Holub during both of his journeys and himself organised an exhibition of Holub's collections at Prague Town Hall, where he was a councillor. Holub's ethnographic and archaeological collections met a better fate than those related to natural science: they are to be found literally in all the world's major museums - in Prague, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Copenhagen, Munich, London, Paris and in the United States. On the other hand, the natural-scientific collections are dispersed, Holub handed them out freely literally all over the Austro-Hungarian empire.

I was interested to find out what was Emil Holub's position in an international context at this time - how far had Africa been explored back in the 1880s? Dr Kandert again:

"The Czech nation considers Emil Holub to be a great explorer, but all in all he wasn't so good at discovering blank spots on the map of Africa. He proceeded along the routes that had been used before by English or Boer traders and tradition has it that the great example for Holub was professor David Livingstone. Holub planned to discover new things but he failed, and never crossed the whole African continent. What's really important about him is that he discovered Africa for the Czech nation, in this respect he has been unique. His universal significance is that he discovered African culture to an extent that no one else before him had."

At those times, Europeans looked at Africa as very distant, a kind of collection of curios, a nation of cannibals. Nobody thought of carrying out research on African culture. In this respect, the findings of Emil Holub were incomparably important during the 1870s and 80s. Ten years later, classical African ethnology and anthropology started to develop, but Holub was unique due to his interest in so-called non-material culture - philosophy, history, music and myth. He carried out all his documentation with extreme diligence and brought back to Europe thousands of items. His two travel books are still popular among Czech readers and his bravery and personal discipline still have a lot to say to people to this day.