Only a novelist like Charles Dickens could fully imagine the twists and turns in the life story of Henry Morton Stanley, whose great expectations probably were realized. The man most associated with African exploration was born in Denbigh, Wales, adopted an American name, and later obtained English citizenship. In his life he would evolve from a reporter of great stories to become a maker of great events.
Baptized “John Rowlands, bastard,” Stanley was the illegitimate son of a farmer known as a drunkard and a butcher’s daughter who worked as a domestic servant. Stanley never knew his father and was given to the care of his grandfather and other relatives as a baby. He spent his formative years (1847-1856) in the St. Asaph’s Poor Law Union Workhouse, where he learned to read, write, and draw, and acquired a respect for authority administered with applications of corporal punishment.
At the end of 1857, he shipped to New Orleans as a cabin boy aboard the American packet ship Windermere. Befriended there and unofficially adopted by a mercantile agent named Henry Hope Stanley, the teenager acquired some business experience and later became a shop assistant in Cypress Bend, Arkansas. (A bout with malaria there probably inured him to more serious consequences from the disease in Africa.) With the outbreak of the American Civil War, he was pressured to join a Confederate regiment of volunteers, the Dixie Greys, and took part with them in the Battle of Shiloh (1862) in Tennessee. Captured by Union forces, Stanley secured his release by pledging allegiance to the North and donning a new blue uniform. Dysentery kept him from further active military service.
Stanley’s journalistic career began aboard the Union warship Minnesota off the coast of North Carolina in January 1865, when he wrote an eyewitness account of the ship’s relentless bombardment of Fort Fisher for Northern newspapers. In 1867, he was a special correspondent for the Missouri Democrat, reporting on Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s western campaign against Indians, which he criticized, and about an intriguing character known as Wild Bill Hickok. Stanley’s dispatches were syndicated in such papers as the New York Herald, which were clamoring for frontier news. Later that year, James Gordon Bennett Jr., editor of the Herald, sent Stanley on a trial basis as an exclusive reporter to cover the British rescue of imprisoned missionaries and envoys in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Stanley’s successful scoop for his New York boss won him a permanent position with the newspaper as a foreign correspondent.
After receiving his instructions from Bennett personally in Paris [see box above], Stanley first had to cover the opening of the Suez Canal and then report on other happenings in Crimea, Odessa, Tiflis, Tehran, and India. He finally landed in Zanzibar on 6 January 1871 to begin the search for Dr. David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer whose whereabouts in central Africa had become a question of international concern since his last letter of 30 May 1869.
Within a month, the novice explorer had outfitted his expedition with the best of everything. He prepared for almost every contingency—except failure. He divided his men into five caravans and sent them out on a staggered schedule. Through bouts with fever, hostile encounters, and the deaths of two of his caravan leaders, Stanley trudged toward Ujiji on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, where a sick and weak older white man was rumored to reside. The journey lasted 236 days. On the morning of 3 November, with an American flag flying on a pole, Stanley led his remaining fifty-four men down a mountain toward a lake and his historic meeting with Dr. Livingstone. [map of the expedition]
Stanley’s dispatch about the event took eight months to reach the coast by messenger. From Zanzibar it traveled to Bombay, where it was telegraphed to London, then relayed to New York. On 2 July 1872 the front page of the New York Herald informed the world that Livingstone had been found. With Stanley’s care and attention, Livingstone regained his strength, and the pair spent four months together, bonding almost as father and son.
Stanley returned to Europe to a hero’s welcome, though he had to contend with accusations that the Livingstone letters and journals he brought back were forgeries; members of the Royal Geographical Society wanted to ignore the American who had found “their man” in Africa. But he received the gratitude of Livingstone’s family and official thanks from Queen Victoria. The public’s appetite for his published story was voracious. When word of Livingstone’s death came in 1874, the New York Herald and London’s Daily Telegraph teamed to send Stanley back to Africa as the “ambassador of two great powers.” In command of an “army of peace and light,” he would solve the remaining problems of the geography of central Africa and investigate and report on the haunts of slave traders
Back in Zanzibar in September 1874, Stanley began quickly organizing his expedition. The procession that departed from Bagamoyo (Tanzania) on 17 November 1874 stretched for more than half a mile and included dozens of men carrying sections of the Lady Alice, the boat named for his seventeen-year-old fiancée, with which Stanley intended to explore Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika and Livingstone’s Lualaba River. During the next two and a half years, the expedition would struggle in temperatures reaching as high as 138 degrees; the powerful Emperor Mtesa of Uganda and the Wanyoro chief Mirambo would consume a great deal of Stanley’s time and test his diplomatic skills; he would have to negotiate with a notorious Arab ivory and slave trader named Tippu-Tib for safe passage of his men through the great rain forest; and he and his men would fight more than thirty skirmishes and battles on land and water against hostile tribes.
The geographic prizes Stanley achieved on this expedition were unparalleled. (See the two Stanley maps.) He spent almost two months circumnavigating Lake Victoria, confirming that the only outlet was at Ripon Falls and hence establishing for good, he thought, the source of the Nile. He scouted Lake Albert, then moved south and west to Lake Tanganyika, which he also circumnavigated, proving it had no connection with Lake Albert. Stanley then solved the remaining geographical puzzle, determining that the Lualaba was not part of the Niger or Nile rivers but ultimately flowed into the Congo. He reached the Atlantic Ocean on 9 August 1877, after a journey of more than seven thousand miles, in utter exhaustion. Back in London, he learned that Alice had not waited for him.
Between 1879 and 1884, Stanley secretly helped King Leopold II of Belgium establish and “claim” the Congo Free State by creating commercial stations along the Congo River (Vivi, Léopoldville, Kinshassa). (Belgium’s rule would be marked by incredible brutality and the exploitation of the native population in order to extract ivory and rubber.) Because he taught his men how to wield a sledgehammer effectively, Stanley received the title of Bula Matari, “breaker of rocks,” from the Vivi chiefs. And there would be a final, high-profile mission in Africa for the explorer: the rescue of Emin Pasha, the German-born physician and naturalist, then governor of the Egyptian province of Equatoria in southern Sudan and under siege by Sudanese led by a Muslim mystic known as the Mahdi. This 1887-1889 expedition went up the Congo, through unexplored deep jungle, to Lake Albert, then south, around Lake Victoria and onward to the coast with the reluctantly rescued Emin Pasha, ending in Zanzibar. Amid numerous disasters and much loss of life, Stanley discovered Lake Edward and the snow-capped Ruwenzori range of mountains, Ptolemy’s “Mountains of the Moon.”In 1895, Stanley was elected to the House of Commons and later retired with his wife, Dolly Tennant, to a country estate in Surrey, where he died at the age of sixty-three. Stanley’s desire to rest beside Dr. Livingstone in Westminster Abbey was thwarted by the dean of the church, who felt such an honor was unsuitable for a man who had “blood on his hands.” An auction of the explorer’s huge collection of artifacts, objects, and books took place in London in October[September?] 2002. Not unexpectedly, the top-selling item was the water-stained map, with his handwritten notes, that Stanley had used on his 1874-1877 expedition across the heart of Africa and down the uncharted Congo River.