Subtitle: “The impossible life of Africa’s greatest explorer.” No kidding! Quite an amazing life indeed. Courage, toughness, grit, and defying the odds – that’s my impression of Stanley after reading this book.
John Rowlands was an illegitimate child in Wales. His mother wanted nothing to do with him; he was raised by his grandfather until the age of five when the grandfather died. The extended family wanted nothing to do with him either, so he was sent off to be raised in the workhouse (orphanage / poorhouse of Victorian Britain; think Dickens). The young man, when grown, understandably wanted to get as far away from his sorry situation as he could.
He first ended up in New Orleans and worked as a shopkeeper’s assistant. When the Civil War erupted, he joined the Confederate Army, not out of any sense of duty or sympathy for the cause, but simply because everyone else was doing it. After the Battle of Shiloh, where he saw combat and was captured, he decided a life of soldiering was not for him. He was offered release if he would join the Union Army, which he did and then promptly deserted.
Somewhere along the way, he started calling himself Henry Morton Stanley. He invented a story that grew with the years of being adopted by and thereafter taking the name of a Henry Stanley in New Orleans. Years after, when he became famous, this lie came back to haunt him as he got caught in a web of contradictions. But he stuck with it – no way would he want to return to the status of an illegitimate, unwanted Welsh boy.
Stanley wanted adventure. Inspired by the likes of Richard Burton, he and some friends traveled to Turkey, intent on exploring, adventuring, and then writing about their experiences afterward to get rich and famous back home. Things did not turn out – their supplies and horses were captured and the group was arrested. Luckily they were able to talk their way out of the situation, and made it home. Stanley got a job basically as a war correspondent for a newspaper, traveling around the hot spots of the world.
The newspaper job led to the event which made him famous: discovering Dr. Livingstone in Africa. (His famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” is almost surely something made up for the newspaper readership.) A grueling expedition to be sure, but no where close to the length or severity of the others he later made. He was inspired by Livingstone’s anti-slavery convictions and manner. Writing about Livingstone for the press back home, Stanley covered many of his faults and inflated his good attributes. Ironically, this had the effect of creating the impression, still in effect today, of Livingstone as a saint but Stanley, due to later “bad press” surrounding his later expeditions, as a ruthless imperial oppressor.
After Livingstone died, Stanley wanted to go back to Africa to finish Livingstone’s geographical work on nailing down the source of the Nile River. Setting out from Zanzibar on the East coast (the same point at which the Find Livingstone expedition started), and after circumnavigating Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, Stanley traveled to the Lualaba River and followed it until it became the Congo, not the Nile as Livingstone had thought. Traveling down the river was no picnic due to hostile tribes and numerous cataracts that made boat travel difficult. But Stanley made it all the way to the mouth of the Congo, on Africa’s West coast.
Stanley was again hailed as a hero. He tried to get Britain interested in setting up a series of trading posts and eventually a colony in the Congo Basin (convinced that this was the only way to save the Africans from the Arab slave traders), but with no success, probably because he was not very diplomatic with members of the Royal Society and also because he was thought to be an American. The Belgian king Leopold eventually hired Stanley to go back, setting the foundation of the Belgian Congo. In later years, Leopold’s greed and the brutality of Belgian officers in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s (after Stanley had left the king’s employment) unfortunately cast a dim shadow on Stanley, even though Stanley was seen by all who knew him as a compassionate, fair, and good leader who admired Africans and Europeans alike.
Stanley has a bad rap as being harsh to Africans, even though he was actually more fair and respectful than many of his contemporaries. Part of the blame is Stanley himself embellishing accounts of his expeditions. If he had to shoot an African, then he wrote that he had shot 17 Africans, because that’s a more exciting story, by Jove! (He was a newspaperman, remember?) His African name, Bula Matari, means “rock breaker”. Kind of sounds like a strict dictator … but actually he got the name by working side by side with the black laborers to break rocks in constructing some of the first roads in the Belgian Congo.
A few years after the work for Leopold, Stanley headed up another expedition, this to rescue Emin Pasha, leader of Equatoria. Stanley and co. this time crossed Africa from West to East. Although Stanley’s conduct was admirable, that of some of his European officers was not. (One of them bought a slave girl and gave her to cannibals, just to see how they would eat here.) Stanley took the blame for a lot of the disaster that came upon this expedition. To make matters worse, Emin Pasha was not very grateful for his rescue and was kind of a shady figure himself.
After the Emin Pasha Expedition, Stanley married Dorothy Tennant. He had fallen in love with her before the expedition, but she turned him down. Harshly. After trying to win the favor of another (married) man, she heard word that Stanley had emerged successfully from Africa, more famous than ever. She won back his affection after telling him how fervently she had prayed for his safety for the three years he was in Africa. After their marriage, she nixed any further ideas of Stanley returning to Africa as an official in the British East Africa Company, a position he desired and was offered several times. She instead forced him to run for Parliament, which he won, but disliked very much. Despite his marriage (can you tell I am less than impressed by his choice of woman?) he found peace and joy in his adopted son.
Stanley was quite a tough cookie. I’m impressed at his determination and stoicism – he was often sick with malaria or other tropical diseases and endured numerous privations. But he loved what he did and thought he was doing something positive for the world. I liked Jeal’s book, especially his conclusions about Stanley’s motivations. A lot can be explained by his origins and temperament.