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.

As Jeal observes, all explorers in Africa, even the saintly doctor, had at times to use violence. If some of their followers deserted, stealing guns, food, and ammunition, they had to be captured and punished—usually by being given a beating and put in chains. Leniency would have encouraged others to follow their example, all lives would have been imperiled, and the expedition would have disintegrated. Explorers also had to use violence in self-defense if attacked by hostile tribes whose territories they were passing through. Stanley understood that Africans who had never seen guns or Europeans might think his expeditions had an aggressive purpose, but he could not often stop to explain that his intentions were pacific. The choice might simply be between fighting and being eaten by cannibals. As a British missionary put it, Stanley “had to fight in self-defence, or walk quietly to [the Africans’] cooking pots, and submit to dissection and the processes of digestion.”

Yet although practically all explorers act aggressively to protect themselves, only Stanley was honest and naive enough to write openly about it. General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, the future “hero” of Khartoum, was appalled that anyone should mention the killing of Africans in print: “These things,” he remarked, “may be done but not advertised.” Perhaps Stanley reasoned that, as readers of the Missouri Democrat had enjoyed his accounts of Americans fighting the Cheyenne, his new audiences would appreciate descriptions of his battles against “savages” and the casualties (greatly exaggerated) that he inflicted. It was a serious error, catastrophic for his reputation both at the time and ever since. Uniquely among the great African explorers, the phrase “callous brutality” is applied to him.

For Tim Jeal this is unfair, though he acknowledges it is largely Stanley’s fault for exaggerating everything: in a conflict on Lake Victoria, Jeal observes, the explorer killed one or possibly two men but claimed in print that he had killed fourteen. In the catalog of colonialist evils, the author rates Stanley’s deeds as fairly humble. Gordon and his men committed atrocities in China and the Sudan. Edward Eyre, the governor of Jamaica, hanged hundreds of black “rebels” and was applauded by Dickens and Carlyle. Frederick Lugard, the founder of Uganda and Nigeria, was considered a humane man but, according to Jeal, he was responsible for more African deaths than Stanley. Moreover, as the author reminds us more than once, the age was a violent one, a period in which floggings were common, soldiers could be shot for desertion, and public hangings had only recently been abolished. As in other passages in his book, Jeal’s arguments are convincing but have the tone of a defense lawyer.

On his return to London after finding Livingstone, Stanley was snubbed by the Royal Geographical Society and attacked in the British press. It was even alleged that he was an impostor who had never met Livingstone and had forged the letters the doctor had written for the New York Herald. Only confirmation from Livingstone’s son that the journals handed him by Stanley had indeed been written by his father scotched these charges. Assisted by a gift from Queen Victoria and an invitation to visit her in Scotland, Stanley’s reputation recovered, and he was able to persuade the proprietors of the Herald and the Daily Telegraph to sponsor the most ambitious project of his life, an expedition carried out between 1874 and 1877 to cross Africa from coast to coast.

Making this journey was one of the greatest of all exploratory feats, putting Stanley in the same league as Christopher Columbus and Captain James Cook. It solved at last the puzzle of the central African watershed, proving that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile. By tracing the Lualaba River along its entire length, he revealed that it was not the Nile but the Congo. It was also an epic of courage and fortitude, lasting 999 days and covering seven thousand miles, a journey that began in Zanzibar, ended at the Atlantic, and included the first circumnavigations of the great lakes of Victoria and Tanganyika. Among many other hazards were malaria, dysentery, pythons, puff adders, crocodiles, and cannibals shooting with bows and blunderbusses from canoes and taunting the party with persistent cries of niama, niama—“meat, meat.” Then there was the water itself, especially the cataracts of the Lower Congo, which drowned Stanley’s English friend Frank Pocock and swept his closest African followers away.

The explorer’s last two African journeys were even more controversial than his previous ones. He would have liked to return to the Congo to set up trading posts under the Union Jack. But the British were not enthusiastic: already overextended in Africa, they were in any case reluctant to back a man they thought was an American. So Stanley accepted employment from Leopold II, the King of the Belgians, an aloof and avaricious monarch who, while professing a philanthropic interest in the Congo, was obsessed by the thought of founding colonies. Once it was known what Leopold’s ambitions really were—and the cruel methods he would use to pursue them—Stanley was found guilty by association. He came to be regarded as the brute of the Congo, a ruthless exploiter, a prototype of Conrad’s Kurtz, although the author of Heart of Darkness did not have him in mind.

But in the 1870s Stanley did not know what Leopold would do in the 1890s. Nor did anyone else. The explorer went back to Africa in 1879, to build roads and trading posts, because he believed in the King’s plans to bring civilization to the Congo. He did not realize Leopold wanted to found a colony, although he later acquiesced in its creation because he saw that only a recognized state could thwart the incursions of Arab slave traders. Nor did he expect the monarch to close the Congo basin to free trade or turn the whole enormous area into a personal fiefdom. He was appalled when he heard later about the Belgian atrocities.

Yet historians have accused Stanley of being the agent of the King’s evil schemes. A recent biographer, who admits that his subject was “not responsible” for “Leopold’s forced-labor policy,” claims however that Stanley “duped” over three hundred chiefs into renouncing sovereignty and the ownership of their land.3 But Jeal demonstrates that Stanley did no such thing and that in his treaties with the chiefs he “did not try to alienate land from [them] or claim to exercise jurisdiction on their behalf.” In fact Leopold became so exasperated by the mildness of his subordinate’s treaties that he handed the task to harsher men and declined to make Stanley the Congo’s first governor general.

The explorer’s last journey across Africa was brave, quixotic, and rather absurd. After the forces of the Muslim religious leader called the Mahdi had overrun most of the Sudan and killed General Gordon in 1885, British public opinion demanded that an expedition be sent to save “Emin Pasha,” whom Gordon had appointed governor of Sudan’s Equatoria province. The excitable public did not know that the Pasha was a German adventurer who had fled Europe to escape his mistress or that he had no wish—or indeed need—to be rescued. Stanley, however, dutifully fulfilled his mission, bringing Emin and his motley group of followers from Lake Albert to the Indian Ocean in 1889. But the cost had been enormous. Stanley had been at his best, humane and considerate with his own men, and in the words of an English subordinate “wonderfully patient & long suffering [with local tribes].” He had even had time to make some important discoveries about the Ruwenzori Mountains and the source of the Semliki River, a substantial tributary for the Nile. But the loss of four hundred of his followers naturally made him doubt the value of the enterprise. It also made commentators in Europe wonder whether such expeditions were civilizing missions or extended acts of piracy.

Stanley shared Livingstone’s dream of opening up Africa to commerce and abolishing the slave trade. Both men had been instrumental in ending that trade in Zanzibar in 1873, and Stanley continued to work for the suppression of slavery elsewhere. He had seen many terrible things in Africa and hoped that European penetration would at least remove the lines of human skulls that decorated the paths of tribal villages. But he did not want to exploit Africa for Western purposes and he was no admirer of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of what became Rhodesia. “Africa is practically explored,” he wrote in an American magazine in 1895, “and the intelligence of its inhabitants demonstrated…. What we want now is to develop the country, not so much for the white man, but for the natives themselves.”

After his rescue of Emin, Stanley was still under fifty and looked forward to further African journeys. But in 1890 he married Dorothy Tennant, a younger woman who had rejected him four years earlier. Since she believed that London was the only place worth living, she kept him in the city by making him become a Liberal Unionist MP. When he showed signs of restlessness, she cajoled him into staying with talk of a child they were both desperate to have. As he predicted, Stanley hated the House of Commons and, like all imperial figures who ended up there, he did not shine in Parliament. Nor did he and Dorothy have the child they craved though they adopted an illegitimate grandson of his half-sister, whom they called Denzil and whom they adored.

After Stanley’s death in 1904, a funeral service was permitted—but the burial itself denied—in Westminster Abbey. Informing the King’s private secretary of the reasons for the snub, the dean of the abbey wrote that “one of our highest geographical authorities” had lain “stress on the violence and even cruelty, which marked some of his explorations, and contrast[ed] this with the peaceful successes of other explorers.” Fifty years later, the anniversary of the explorer’s death went uncommemorated in Britain, an omission that persuaded Denzil and his family to sell Stanley’s papers to Belgium, which had celebrated the date with enthusiasm.

The consequent sales in 1982 and 2000 had an unfortunate effect on Stanley’s reputation. While the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale was cataloguing the papers—an extremely lengthy process—it prevented two biographers, Frank McLynn and John Bierman, from consulting them. While both admitted in their books that Stanley was the greatest of African explorers, they might have written more sympathetically about his character if they had been allowed to read some of the documents—his correspondence with Dorothy, for example—in the Musée’s possession.

Tim Jeal has had both the good fortune to see the papers and the skill to construct a new interpretation around them. He recognizes Stanley’s feats and views them in the context of his age rather than ours. Moreover, he adds new layers to his subject’s character so that the “perfect porcupine,” the “pathological liar,” the obsessive explorer also becomes “an unexpectedly self-effacing man, who was generous and loyal to his friends….”

Musing on Stanley’s life as an explorer, Dorothy Tennant was perplexed. A woman who found Surrey too remote (she needed “hansom cabs,… handsome policemen, and the jostling multitude”), she could not understand her future husband’s “incentive. What is the fuel which makes the water boil, the steam rise and the paddles move? Why do people do the things they do?”

Yet the quest for Stanley’s incentive is not as difficult as it may seem. After the age of five he never had a home. Abandoned by his mother, spurned by his family, and condemned to the workhouse, he needed to be far away, and went to America, then to Asia, and then to Africa. His restlessness had one large goal: to find himself and to acquire some self-esteem. He was driven not by the desire for wealth or for power, both of which he could have acquired, but by an inner goad, which allowed him peace only in the wild, in the rituals of camp life, under the stars, beside the fire, listening to the tales of his African followers.

  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.

  3. 3

    John Bierman, Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley (Knopf, 1990), pp. 239, 353.