Adult readers of history have to unlearn many of the things they remember from their schooldays. This is especially true of quotations of famous people because before the invention of tape recording virtually anything they said from the Old Testament onward was almost certain to be misquoted unless they wrote it down themselves.
The correction of misquotations is often a relief. It is good to learn that the Duke of Wellington could not have made the foolish remark that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”: apart from the absence of evidence, the school’s fields were not used for organized sports when he was a schoolboy in the 1780s, and in any case he never played on them. But sometimes it is sad to find that well-remembered sayings—pithy, pungent, and redolent of the speaker—were never uttered, that Oliver Cromwell did not dismiss the Rump Parliament with the words “Take away these baubles,” that he never told the painter Peter Lely to depict him “warts and all.” These are the historical equivalents to learning that Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson,” or that Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca does not say “Play it again, Sam.”
Now comes an even greater shock. In his impressive, revealing, and well-written biography of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Tim Jeal argues that the most famous greeting in history was never delivered. As a child I saw an engraving of the meeting between Stanley and David Livingstone above the caption “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” I loved both the greeting and the picture of the two strangers, surrounded by Arabs and Africans, solemnly doffing their hats on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. More impressed than I am now by the virtues of being laconic, phlegmatic, and English, I admired the formality and sangfroid of men who, after long and hazardous journeys, had finally met in “darkest” Africa. The later discovery that Stanley was a Welshman pretending to be an American, and that he had prepared a greeting in the style of an English gentleman, added pathos as well as absurdity. So did the knowledge that the greeting swiftly became a joke in London’s music halls.
Yet according to Jeal, nothing memorable was actually said, and Stanley invented the words afterward when he wanted to infuse the occasion with a striking phrase. Thus he was forced to cut out the pages in his diary that described the encounter. But he could not censor Livingstone’s letters, which record the meeting in detail to various correspondents, and do not mention any such greeting. One of the many ironies of Stanley’s life is that he is remembered more for a remark he did not make than for his career as the greatest explorer of the nineteenth century.
Stanley was born in Wales in 1841 and christened John Rowlands, though it is not known whether a man called Rowlands was in fact his father. His mother, Elizabeth, who was eighteen …