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The Restless Conqueror

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 and unmarried, abandoned her baby immediately and left him in the care of her father, Moses Parry. After Moses died when the boy was five, neither of the old man’s sons, both prosperous butchers, was prepared to look after their nephew or even pay for him to be boarded out for more than a few months. In consequence Rowlands was sent to the local workhouse, an institution that made conditions almost unbearable so as to discourage the poor from entering it. During his ten years there his mother never visited him except when she and two of her younger children (she had five illegitimate children in all, with three or four fathers between them) were admitted for a short period as paupers. At the age of ten the boy escaped from the place and turned up at the house of an uncle, who returned him to the workhouse in the morning.

After such a childhood, it was not surprising that the boy went to Liverpool, went to sea, and at the age of eighteen arrived in America. Nor was it strange for him to have wanted a new identity. It is voguish nowadays for biographers to write about their subjects “reinventing” themselves. But in Stanley’s case it was true: reinvention was a compulsive need, something he spent much of his life doing and redoing. In New Orleans, he told his mother some years later, he was employed, befriended, and adopted by a wealthy businessman called Stanley. Yet although the future explorer gave himself the name of this “adoptive father,” Jeal reveals that he never in fact met the cotton broker called Henry Hope Stanley. Since, however, his mother repeated the story to a journalist and a biographer, he could never deny it. As with “I presume,” he was saddled with the fib for the rest of his life. Indeed it made it impossible for him to publish his autobiography because relatives of the real Stanley could have proved that no adoption had taken place.

In 1861, when he was living in Arkansas, Stanley felt obliged to enlist in the Confederate Army because someone had sent him a petticoat, implying he was a coward. Captured the following year at the Battle of Shiloh, he was taken to Chicago to a federal prison camp and subsequently released on condition that he join the Union Army. But while stationed with the artillery in West Virginia, he was prostrated by dysentery and left in the local hospital when his regiment moved on. Although he later claimed he had been discharged, he had actually been told to rejoin his unit when his health improved. His refusal to do so thus turned him into a deserter.

Stanley soon returned to England, briefly resumed the name of Rowlands, and went to Wales to see his mother, who was now the landlady of two taverns. Despite a childhood and youth of continuous tribulation, not even he could have expected her welcome. After upbraiding him for being “a disgrace” to her in the eyes of her neighbors, this brazen woman ordered him never to come back until his circumstances were a lot better. Her son’s reaction was to return to sea and in 1864 to enlist once again in the Union cause—this time in the navy—and once again to desert it. Yet he was still pathetically keen to please his mother. Two years later, after a bizarre and foolhardy adventure in Ottoman Turkey, he went back to Wales dressed up in a fake naval officer’s uniform. This time he was permitted to stay for more than half a night and found it unnecessary to record further comments from his mother. After this visit he did not bother much with his relations although, when he became famous, they soon bothered him, his mother and various drunken cousins often clamoring for money.

On his return to America in 1867, Henry Stanley finally discovered what he was good at: describing battles and other adventures in the newspapers. During a year in which he reported for the Missouri Democrat on expeditions against the Cheyenne and on negotiations between the Plains Indians and the government, Stanley got to know Wild Bill Hickok, Colonel George A. Custer, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, who later told him that his journey to Livingstone was a greater feat than his own “March to the Sea.” His success as a journalist convinced James Gordon Bennett Jr., the proprietor of the New York Herald, to hire him to cover a British expedition to Abyssinia, to write about the 1868 revolution in Spain, and, more famously, to “FIND LIVINGSTONE,” an injunction that, as Jeal points out, was much dramatized in Stanley’s account of the negotiations.

David Livingstone had made his reputation in Africa first as a Christian missionary and later as an explorer, the man who, during his great trans-African journey between 1853 and 1856, had discovered Victoria Falls. But his reputation had suffered after a disastrous expedition to the Zambezi River a few years later, during which his wife had died, and in the late 1860s he seemed to have disappeared while trying to trace the source of the Nile. Stanley’s “discovery” of him in 1871, sick and hungry in a village on Lake Tanganyika, succeeded in restoring his reputation. As Jeal observes, Stanley created “the myth of saintly Dr. Livingstone.” It was a myth that survived long enough for a president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, to call the doctor black Africa’s “first freedom fighter” and for a Scottish historian to observe that he was “the one imperial figure of the nineteenth century to be honoured in the independent Africa of today.” Yet at the time he was found by Stanley, Livingstone was regarded as a failure—as Jeal showed in his own excellent biography of the Scottish explorer, published as long ago as 1973.1

As a Christian missionary Livingstone made one convert, who lapsed. As an explorer he claimed that the Lualaba River was the source of the Nile when it is (as Stanley discovered) the headstream of the Congo. And as a “visionary” he persuaded the British government to fund a disastrous expedition to open central Africa to commerce, Christianity, and civilization. The Zambezi River, he believed, would become the Mississipi of Africa (it was unnavigable), the interior would become cotton fields (an illusion), and millions of the British poor would risk malaria and the tsetse fly to migrate there (they preferred to go to America, Canada, and Australasia).

Of course Livingstone had virtues, notably his determination to help stamp out the East African slave trade, but in his book, How I Found Livingstone in Central Africa, Stanley made him virtuous in everything he did. The doctor became the “Friend of the African,” the prophet in the wilderness selflessly dedicating his life to the suppression of evil. In Stanley’s long search for a father figure, Livingstone turned out to be the best candidate of all. According to the biographer Frank McLynn, the two men were similar characters—“notoriously difficult and prickly individuals”—who managed to form “their most (one is tempted to say ‘only’) successful human relationship.”2 Neither of them was a racist, unlike other contemporary explorers, and both preferred to be with Africans rather than with European colleagues, whom they often treated badly.

In his afterword Tim Jeal reflects that “saintly Dr Livingstone” remains one “immutable stereotype” just as “brash and brutal Stanley” is another. The creator of both stereotypes was Stanley himself, who played many roles in his life, most consistently that of his own worst enemy. A persistent fault was his habit of exaggeration, which, although intended presumably to magnify his importance, instead diminished both his achievements and his credibility. After his time in New Orleans he preferred to claim Henry Hope Stanley as a father figure rather than James Speake, a kindly grocer who had employed him and who was the first person to show the youth any sympathy since the death of his grandfather. In Africa he had a mania for exaggerating numbers—of the people on his expeditions, of the battles they fought, and of the men they killed along the way. While he may have thought such exaggerations enhanced his importance and his prestige, they merely made him seem less heroic and more brutal than he actually was.

  1. 1

    Andrew C. Ross, David Livingstone: Mission and Empire (Hambledon and London, 2002), p. 239; Michael Fry, The Scottish Empire (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001), p. 150; Tim Jeal, Livingstone (London: Heineman, 1973).

  2. 2

    Frank McLynn, Stanley: The Making of an African Explorer (London: Constable, 1989), pp. 152, 185.

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