Black Livingstone:
A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo
Pagan Kennedy
Viking, 237 pages, $24.95

Pagan Kennedy's Black Livingstone reads like a swashbuckling fantasy, the work of a novelist's romantic imagination. But amid the scenes of jungle exploration, big-game hunting, international political intrigue, and even courtroom drama, readers will discover a tale stranger than fiction.

In 1890 the segregated Presbyterian Church in the U.S. sent William Sheppard, a young African American born in Virginia near the end of the Civil War, to "darkest Africa" as a missionary. And it insisted on assigning him a white companion, since the denomination would never send a black man to Congo alone and unsupervised.

Samuel Lapsley, the white son of an Alabama plantation owner, was naturally expected to oversee the mission. Yet the two men traveled through the African wilderness as yokefellows, sharing a tent, meals, and clothing, not to mention occasional fears, triumphs, and sorrows. Crossing a racial divide to forge a friendship improbable in their time, the missionaries became partners in the dangerous effort to take Christianity into the largely unexplored Congo.

A sad collaboration between colonialism and the church also is part of the drama. The deceitful efforts of King Leopold II of Belgium, who summoned Lapsley to offer advice about where to set up the mission, come across as particularly hair-raising.

"Once the missionaries had helped to westernize the territory—building roads and schools, teaching the people English—Leopold would expel them," Kennedy writes. "Then he'd send in traders and make a fortune. Though they little suspected it, the missionaries would work for the king."

Equally improbable is the understated ...

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