Recent decades have been rather hard on the intrepid Victorian explorer. Symbols of imperialism, colonialism, paternalism, oppressors of the worthy, destroyers of culture, robbers, pirates, murderers—this is how they appear to us now.
Some of them undoubtedly were all this. Others had higher ideals but lost them quickly when faced with danger and the opportunity to profit. And some were genuinely good.
Henry Morton Stanley has always been seen as the great white explorer of the worst stripe—a gallivanting, self-aggrandizing journalist who found Livingstone only for his own glory; an explorer who had no trouble killing defenseless Africans; a reckless leader whose poor decisions led to the deaths of others; a willing participant in King Leopold’s ravage of the Congo. And above all else, a liar.
Tim Jeal, in his sympathetic biography Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, sets out to save Stanley from himself. For many of the negatives that have built up around Stanley were of his own doing—he told lies that he thought made himself look better, but these lies trapped him and made him look much worse than he was.
Stanley’s real name was John Rowlands. Born in Wales in 1841, he was the illegitimate child of a careless teenage girl who quite willingly gave him up to relatives (she kept her other children and eventually even married the father of one of them). They in turn brought him to the workhouse at age six. Rowlands stayed there until age fifteen.
He was an intelligent, sensitive child who was acutely aware of being abandoned and unloved. A runaway overnight visit to a cousin’s house gave him a glimplse of family life that was almost painful in its attractiveness and left him longing even more. His mother came to the workhouse for a while, with another of her children, and when they saw each other, she turned away from him—not for the last time either.
When Rowlands left the workhouse, he bounced around as orphan boys tended to do in those days, with the inevitable decision to go off to sea leading to a new life in America. Here’s where he began to reinvent himself.
Rowlands landed in New Orleans, where he was taken in by a wealthy merchant, Henry Stanley. The American taught Rowlands about business, took care of him, introduced him to his family, and finally adopted him. In gratitude, Stanley took his name. Or this is what Stanley wanted you to believe.
In one of his many detective jobs throughout the book, Jeal untangles the true story behind Rowland’s adoption of the Stanley name. Using Stanley’s autobiography, rough drafts and diary entries (many of Jeal’s new conclusions about Stanley come from his being the first biographer to have access to the Stanley family papers that were sold and landed in Belgium’s historical collections), and some sleuthing in New Orleans history, Jeal discovers that not only was Rowlands not adopted by Stanley, he probably had never met him. Rowlands had been taken in by a shopkeeper named Speake, but when he decided to reconstruct his identity, he seemed to have decided that he wanted to show that he had become part of the family of someone more wealthy and powerful. Rowlands—Stanley from now on—clung to this lie so insistently, that at the end of his life, when he tried to write his autobiography, he even traveled to New Orleans and looked through the cemeteries to try to find someone dead with the right name and date to fit his story and back it up.
Stanley’s lie would come back to haunt him, as his mother leaked out the truth of his background, much to his humiliation; his story that he was an American also got him in trouble. After each of his adventures, whenever something went wrong and he began to receive negative publicity, Stanley often found himself in a difficult position: if he criticized British officers who traveled with him, or British officials who had been uncooperative, he came off as a brash American who had no right to be criticizing British gentlemen; if he came out and said he was British, his own background as an impoverished Welsh boy from the workhouse would be revealed. In Stanley’s mind, being written off as an upstart American was much better than showing his lower-class origins. In the 19th c., an American who came from nothing and made a fortune and a name for himself would have impressed, but in class-conscious Britain, the focus would have been on the workhouse—how dare someone insignificant like him try to join the world of lords and landed gentry?
Because of this class-consciousness, Stanley made history rougher on him. When writing (and rewriting) about his voyages in his journals, he bragged that he traveled with larger expeditions than he really did. While today we would understand it as a more remarkable achievement to have traveled the distances and protected his crew from hostile tribes with a smaller, support group, Stanley thought that saying he had a larger group made him seem more important and more like the well-off gentlemen explorers of the era. He was advanced less money for supplies and hiring than he listed. Though it would seem that someone would brag about doing more with less, Stanley believed that saying he had more money than he actually had would aggrandize him because wealthy and powerful men had been willing to give him such sums.
Stanley never got over feeling inferior to the upper-class. It’s long been thought that the idea for the search for Livingstone came from James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich editor of the New York Tribune; Stanley actually had the idea, but let Bennett take the credit, feeling that he owed it to Bennett and that it should come from someone like Bennett, not him. Stanley generally tried to hire men who came from backgrounds like him—poor young men who were trying to rise in the world; but on the Emin Pasha Rescue Expedition, he brought British gentlemen, and never felt comfortable around them. His anxiety around them caused him to close up and cut himself off from them. When things went wrong, predictably, they didn’t stand by him, and blamed him for failures. Stanley found he couldn’t protect himself from these attacks, whether from the survivors or their families—if he let their stories stand, then he had failed as a leader, but if he pointed out the men’s failings, then people questioned why he had made such poor choices for his crew.
The thing that Stanley was most famous for was also a lie, and also a product of his class-consciousness. He never said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” when he finally found Livingstone. It’s not clear what actually he said, but as he wrote about the meeting afterwards, he struggled to invent words that would present him in the best light. Impressed by the coolness and insouciance he had observed in a certain kind of upper-class British man—the stiff upper lip, old boy, on the fields of Eton type—he decided that he had to come up with something that fit that profile. His misread his audience, though, and upon the release of his account of his journey, his far too cool words became a source of ridicule, something that even the lowest of the lower classes parodied. He would no doubt be dismayed if he knew that today that line is what most people remember about him.
Stanley’s miscalculation of his audience got him into even more trouble. When traversing the heart of Africa in an effort to fully navigate the lakes and rivers, he and his men ended up in an unnecessary scrum with one African tribe. After the first skirmish, Stanley decided that he had to make himself seem like a better fighter, and upped the number of Africans he had killed. He compounded the problem by coming back and attacking the same group and killing more Africans,, even though this time he was unprovoked. Jeal speculates that the reason Stanley had first upped the number of those killed and then came back for more was that he hadn’t wanted to seem like he had been beaten by a group of Africans, people who were seen as being even lower class than him. The fact that he publicized it at all was another mistake; in America, he had worked as a reporter covering the Indian wars in the West and found that American audiences enjoyed tales of American soldiers beating back savages. The British, though, seemed to regard it as something “not done” by gentlemen. With that, Stanley acquired the reputation of a cold-blooded killer, the most ruthless of white explorers. Jeal doesn’t quite excuse him, but tries to defend his actions by noting that many other explorers of the time had killed many, many more Africans; they just didn’t write about it. Even the sainted Dr. Livingstone had let his support crew get so out of hand that he allowed them to commit their own atrocities on other Africans.
Stanley was always looking for someone to love him and Livingstone was one of the father figures he sought throughout his life. Jeal, a biographer of Livingstone, too, writes that Livingstone’s spotless reputation is in many ways, partially due to Stanley’s awed description of the man he met at the end of his first journey to Africa. While erasing the warts off Livingstone, though, he only succeeded in making himself look worse.
Livingstone, though, did have a positive influence on Stanley; a fierce opponent of the Arab slave traders in Africa, Stanley also explored Africa with an eye towards ending the slave trade. Although it seems domineering and paternalistic now, Stanley and Livingstone were fervent believers in civilization, the British type; they felt that they could defeat the slave traders if they could industrialize Africa and help the Africans create their own trade. The idea that British civilization was the best way and all others were inferior is condescending, but those were the times and the world these men lived in. At least Stanley respected and thought highly of many Africans (as shown in his journal writings) and thought he was helping. While working in the Congo for King Leopold of Belgium, he made a point of negotiating treaties with various tribes, not conquering them. Nevertheless, when the atrocities committed by Leopold’s men (with his tacit permission if not encouragement) were revealed, Stanley was considered complicit, even though he had been pushed out of the Congo by Leopold years before; the king didn’t think he was as ruthless a leader as he required (and was too concerned about the interests of Britain, as well).
Livingstone was one of the many “ideal men” Stanley sought, but was disappointed by many. He was just as unlucky in love. Desperate from a young age to find someone to love him and build a family with, he failed in numerous romances. The woman he most loved and who was best for him was unfortunately married. When he finally did find a wife late in life, it was under rather bitter circumstances, though he didn’t know the full truth. Dorothy Tennant refused his first proposal, but after he came back a hero from the Emin Pasha Rescue Expedition, Dorothy decided to go after him again; after all, she was getting past marriageable age and Stanley now had the kind of high social standing she craved. She never told Stanley that she had spent the years he was away chasing after another man, who she really loved. Dorothy and Stanley got along well, and made a good appearance of a marriage, but were in reality poorly suited for each other: she loved the city, he wanted to be in the country; he wanted to continue exploring, she forced him to stay home and run for Parliament, which he hated. But eventually they found one thing in common, and that was their love for an orphan of one of Stanley’s cousins, a boy they adopted and raised as their own. Stanley died when his son was only eight, but he was the delight of Stanley’s life.
Jeal’s book is meant as a corrective for Stanley’s reputation, and as mentioned earlier, a lot of the destruction he works to undo is the result of other authors not having access to the best materials, only the lies constructed by Stanley, and later his well-meaning widow. The book is a model of research, with an impressive amount of notes and sources that leave little doubt as to the authenticity of anything; Jeal doesn’t let his imagination fill in many blanks, as too many biographers are tempted to do. I also appreciated the fact that there were no footnotes cluttering the pages—if a fuller explanation of a statement is necessary or urgent, Jeal helpfully puts a notation next to the endnote number telling readers to look for it. I appreciated this.
The main problems I have with this book is that Jeal seems almost unable to criticize Stanley in any way; it’s almost like the more he discovered about him in contrast to his reputation, the more protective he became. But biographers often become protective of their subjects, and I can’t say I would do any better. My other complaint is that the only maps in the book were placed in the beginning after the table of contents. In a book of such geographical intensity, where places and distances are so important, it’s incredibly inconvenient to have to keep flipping back to the beginning. And only four maps isn’t really enough for the story of the mapping of practically a whole continent.
Other than that, I highly recommend this book. Stanley may not have been perfect, but he was no worse, and certainly a great deal better than some of the other Africa explorers. Jeal psychoanalyzes him a great deal, and finds a number of ways to attribute his mistakes to being unloved and abandoned as a child. This may seem like an easy excuse, but Stanley’s actions seem to give it weight. Always looking for companionship, friendship, and love, Stanley took dogs with him on his expeditions and seemed to care for them a great deal. Alas, none of them made it out alive, as Africa in the 19th century was no country for pet dogs. But Jeal notes that Stanley typically got his dogs from the Battersea Home for Dogs, an early animal shelter. It seemed that Stanley could not resist trying to rescue orphans, as he understood their plight.