In colonial times, understanding of Libya (to judge from newspaper evidence) was strongly influenced by references to that region in classical and biblical literature. For the most part Libya was thought of as a vaguely defined southern region of heat and burning sands.
The travels of Herodotus included Libya and Egypt; he wrote of Libya in connection with theories as to the origins of the waters of the Nile, and noted the size and beauty of the long-living Ethiopians who inhabited the southern part of Libya. The temple of Jupiter Ammon, visited by Alexander the Great, was in the deserts of Libya, near great pillars of salt. At one time Carthage held sway from Libya to Spain. After the Roman conquest of Carthage, Libya became one of the major sources of grain for supplying the city of Rome. ‘The parts of Libya about Cyrene’ was a well-known phrase from the New Testament story of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). By ancient custom the Bishop of Alexandria had authority over Egypt, Libya and the Pentapolis (five cities with Greek origins, including Cyrene and Berenice, modern Benghazi). Some argued that, according to biblical prophecy, Russia would occupy Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya in the last stages of the power struggles before the prophesied battle of Armageddon.
Literary allusions seemed to fill people’s minds even when Africa was being opened up by exploration. A report by Dr. Livingstone (1813-1873) from Ujiji, dated 1 November 1871, mentioned Libya in connection with a story thousands of years old, that an admiral of the Pharaohs had sailed round Libya with the sun on his right hand (that is, around the south of Libya from east to west) and was not believed. (Ujiji was where Henry Stanley found Dr. Livingstone on 28 October 1871.) Present at the British Association meeting in October 1874 was ‘Dr. Schweinfurth, who returned lately from a romantic expedition into the Desert of Libya.’ Not only was Libya fabled and romantic but the expeditions that went there were likely to have an aura of romance.
When W.C. Wentworth wrote his poem ‘Australasia’ for a Cambridge poetry prize in 1823 (published in the Sydney Gazette in 1824), he lamented the convict origins of New South Wales but offered the consolatory thought that the Roman empire, which stretched ‘From Libya’s sands to quiver’d Parthia’s shore,’ had even more disreputable origins.
Libya is the focus of a poem which appeared in the Melbourne Argus in 1852. Nicholas Mitchell, in ‘The Oases of Libya,’ developed the theme that ‘Nought wholly waste or wretched will appear | Through all the world of Nature or of mind.’ There is always hope in the midst of sorrow, happiness in the midst of desolation, stars to illuminate the darkness, faith to alleviate gloom. The oases of Libya are a case in point, ‘plots of verdure’ that gladden the traveller. The very first sight of them, and the fragrance that comes on the breeze, give relief to weary pilgrims. The fresh leaves, the birds, the mossy rocks, the green grass, the trees and vines and fruits, the flowers, bring luxurious thoughts, ‘While skies more clear, more bluely seem to glow, | To match the bright and fairy scene below.’
Herodotus: Sydney Morning Herald 14/7/1863, p. 2; Australian 5/8/1842, p. 2 (Ethiopians). Temple of Jupiter Ammon: ‘Salt’, Colonial Times 10/8/1847, p. 3. Carthage: Queanbeyan Age and General Advertiser 15/6/1865, p. 4. Grain supplies for Rome: South Australian Advertiser 19/6/1866, p. 2; cf. Launceston Examiner 11/12/1850, p. 4. Pentecost: Mercury (Hobart) 13/6/1871, p. 3. Bishop of Alexandria: Sydney Morning Herald 9/6/1843, pp. 2-3 at p. 2. Armageddon: Sydney Morning Herald 8/2/1854, p. 5. Dr. Livingstone: Rockhampton Bulletin 3/10/1872, p. 4. British Association and Georg August Schweinfurth (1836-1925): South Australian Register 26/10/1874, p. 6. ‘Australasia, written for the Chancellor’s Medal, at the Cambridge Commencement, July 1823, by W. C. Wentworth, an Australasian’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser 25/3/1824, p. 4. Nicholas Mitchell, ‘The Oases of Libya’: Argus 7/8/1852, p. 4.