Book Review: Rewriting History – Tim Jeal’s Stanley

by Sam Bright

jealMark Twain, a man who knew a thing or two about recognising a great tale of adventure, said in 1878, “Stanley is almost the only man alive today whose name and work will be familiar one hundred years hence”. Ironic, that. Mr Twain evidently underestimated his own import. Even in Little Old England, I would happily bet that more people would be able to link Mark Twain with his most famous creations, than can link Henry Morton Stanley with the navigation of the Congo, or the Emin Pasha relief expedition.

Reality contrives to be crueller still. Before picking up Tim Jeal’s stupendous biography of one the greatest Welshmen, I knew perhaps three things about the explorer: (obviously) that his name was Henry Morton Stanley; he uttered the immortal phrase “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”; and his adventures inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Having now put down that biography, I realise: I was wrong on all counts.

From a European perspective, the latter half of the 19th Century was a time of great exploration, colonisation and wealth generation. Africa was at the heart of much of this. Once a source of European wealth through the slave trade, Britain’s belated (if resolute) determination to stamp this out did not spell the end of Africa’s ability to enrich its colonisers and ‘trading partners’. Its wealth lay both in its flora and fauna – palm oil, timber and beautiful ivory – and, as later discovered, in its vast mineral deposits.

From a more objective perspective (and even more so from an African perspective), this period became one of unprecedented pillage on a truly industrial scale. There is some truth in the proposition that Britain could have been a far worse colonial master than it in fact was; two famous exceptions to this being (amongst others) the Boer war, where our great nation may have pioneered the ‘concentration camp’, and the atrocities committed during the Mau-Mau uprising. Yet even the (relatively) enlightened governance of the British, seen in the most favourable light possible, was in many ways disastrous: ignoring the undoubted deliberate acts of violence against local Africans, we most certainly have also contributed heavily to the extinction (or near extinction) of many of our world’s most extraordinary creatures, not least through the ivory trade, and unknowingly caused immense suffering through enabling the spread of disease on our travels across the continent.

This however is to be set in contrast to the wilfully destructive and sickening ‘rule’ of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo basin. He was arguably more reckless of human life than any of the 20th century’s infamous dictators; and surely no less racist than Hitler. The black man was worth nothing to him, except what he could produce in ivory or rubber. It is impossible to find an accurate estimate of deaths during his decades-long exploitation of central Africa, but it is agreed by all to run into the millions, possibly up to 15 million. At a time of relatively smaller populations, this figure is even more unimaginable than it would become in the European atrocities of the 20th century.

Stanley was the King’s own explorer. He grew up as  a de facto orphan in Wales, abandoned by his mother to St Asaph’s workhouse. His name was not Henry Morton Stanley – for how American does this sound? – but rather John Rowlands. He did not adopt the name he is now known by until his later emigration to the United States of America. In a theme present throughout Jeal’s biography, we see Stanley, desperate to impress, to be accepted and praised, and to hide his sad and impoverished origins, rewrite his own life story. He took the name of a local cotton trader (Henry Hope Stanley), by whom he would claim to all – including his relatives – to have been adopted in New Orleans. Under this name, he would then fight for both sides in the American Civil War, desert, return to Wales (via a misbegotten adventure in modern-day Turkey) dressed in a fake naval officer’s uniform – again to impress his family – and ultimately be taken on by the New York Herald, having impressed in a spell as a war reporter for a smaller newspaper during the Civil War.

It was in his role as a reporter that he managed to convince James Gordon Bennett Jr, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, to fund an expedition to track down his hero, David Livingstone. Doctor Livingstone was already a British national hero, with a bit of a reputation for intolerance and a lack of empathy, but widely perceived as both a great explorer and committed missionary. Yet it was not until Stanley’s reports of his encounters with the ‘saintly Doctor Livingstone’ that he became truly lionised.

It is a sad irony that Stanley’s unprecedented expedition – fast, relatively humane, and ultimately successful – that located Livingstone in the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in late 1871 is responsible for two untruths. The two untruths are that, firstly, Doctor Livingstone was a flawless, saintly missionary-explorer; and that Stanley uttered perhaps the most famous four word phrase in history.

It was always in Stanley’s interest, both personal and professional, to write of Livingstone as a saint. From a personal perspective, the man he had travelled through the harsh, disease and danger-riven African wilderness was his hero, and was to become a father figure to this fatherless young man. There was real affection between the two adventurers, extending far beyond the fact that he was one of the few whites the Doctor had seen for quite some time. Beyond that, however, Stanley was a storyteller and a reporter. Ultimately, it was a far better story for him to have discovered a devout, unblemished, beatific missionary-explorer in the heart of Africa, who had been working tirelessly to bring the Gospel to the heathens, than it was to have found someone who inevitably exhibited more human weaknesses.

Most surprisingly, however, is how Jeal shows that it is highly likely Stanley never said those four famous words. At the time, the phrase “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” was much mocked for its ridiculous presumptiveness. Is this really what you would expect a hungry, weakened, set-about explorer to say to the man he idolised, whose continued existence had often been called into doubt, and in search of whom he had trekked across inhospitable terrain, amongst defensively violent locals, dicing with death near every day? Such an absurd phrase would likely have been recorded not only in Stanley’s own diary, but also in Livingstone’s writings and correspondence. Yet the relevant pages of Stanley’s diary have been torn out and discarded – most likely to hide his true account of what was said – and Livingstone never once mentioned being greeted in such a bizarre manner.

The sad truth is, Jeal argues, that Stanley invented this greeting. The invention would have been born out of his own insecurity. As stated, he was born into the most deprived of circumstances, and had been driven from an early age to impress both his real relatives and, now as a reporter, his public. Wishing to identify himself with the British officer-class, whose adventures could be read both in fictional and journalistic writings, he seems to have settled upon a stilted caricature of English formality as being the appropriate welcome to the intrepid Doctor Livingstone. In doing so, he subjected himself to much contemporary disdain – even if this phrase is the one thing that has truly kept alive the story of his own life in the 21st century. To this extent, then, perhaps he was more prescient than Jeal gives him credit for: his sad inventiveness has ultimately helped achieve for him the fame he so sought when he set off on his great expedition. And thus is debunked the second fact that I knew about Henry Morton Stanley.

My third piece of knowledge was that Stanley was the inspiration for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This could not be more wrong, based on dates alone. In Jeal’s words, this claim rested “on the mistaken assumption that Conrad had spent his six months on the Congo between 1879 and 1884 – rather than in 1890, five years after Stanley had ceased to be the king’s Chief Agent in Africa”. Conrad’s book was based, rather than upon Stanley’s own actions, upon the description of those whose acts Stanley in fact detested in the articles of his great friend, Edward Glave.

The crimes Stanley is often thought to have been responsible for relate to his expeditions in the Congo basin. These expeditions, in most respects, were far greater feats of intrepidity than was his discovery of Doctor Livingstone. Hundreds of his men were killed, either by cannibal tribes or by the carnivorous Congo basin itself. The effects of tropical disease, at a time when medication remained relatively primitive, were truly horrific. Immense ulcers all over the body – including, at times, on the feet, thus preventing any possibility of walking – fevers, malaria (which could strike a man dozens of times in the course of an expedition), all took their toll. Stanley’s personal nemesis was gastritis, and he often found himself bed-ridden for weeks at a time. The book (and recent film) of the Life of Pi portray a fictional floating island of meercats, paradise by day but flesh-devouring by night. The Congo basin, for European explorers, was much like this – only it was always night, and every moment posed a fresh risk of death.

All the while, he had to coordinate the discipline, movement, and sustenance of hundreds of men in an area where trading for food was at the least a challenge, and at times impossible. On one expedition – the fairly doomed Emin Pasha relief expedition – he carried with him some 15 miles of cloth to trade for food and the like. Many other explorers responded to these challenges through horrific – if comprehensible – violence: mercilessly pillaging tribal villages, killing their inhabitants, and stealing what food they could. Natives were treated like wild dogs or hyenas: terrifying pack-hunting animals to be shot on sight, lest they should launch an ambush or a midnight raid.

By examining the accounts of his closest contemporaries, Jeal convincingly shows that far from behaving in such a savage manner, Stanley was truly progressive (certainly for his time) in his attitude towards Africans. There is no doubt that he was responsible for killing a number of Africans. These deaths include, on very rare occasions, the execution of one of his own expedition, guilty of stealing guns or food and deserting – to set an example for others. Yet in a context where not only was that man anyway almost certain to be killed either by native tribesman or hunger before reaching safety, and where every gun or box of biscuits stolen likely meant one foot closer to the grave for the rest of the expedition, and where both corporal and capital punishment were accepted in both the military and civilian arenas, this seems understandable and, perhaps, forgivable. More controversial are incidents in which he was responsible for the unnecessary deaths of local Africans who stood in their way. Stanley himself wrote at his sadness of having to defend his column with lethal force against tribesmen who frequently attacked them, very often on the mistaken belief that Stanley led a troupe of the murderous Arab-Swahili traders who had so devastated central Africa prior to its subsequent Belgian rape. He regularly discouraged the maltreatment of Africans, and at times shocked his white officers for insisting that they be treated in a similar manner to the African members of their expedition. He ordered his white Dr Parke to give medical treatment to their African colleagues in Stanley’s absence (he was ignored). He was not aware of the infamous incident where James Jameson, heir to the eponymous whiskey empire and officer in Stanley’s expedition, purchase an 11 year old girl and fed her to cannibals, so as to sketch the way in which they dismembered and devoured her; had he known of this, there is no doubt, based on his regular written expressions of disdain for how his white colleagues behaved towards Africans, that he would have been beyond horrified. He treated his African expedition members, so far as was possible in an environment where all, including himself, were to be relentlessly marched ever onward, through disease, starvation, and the threat of murder, fairly and humanely, and avoided the death of natives wherever possible.

Stanley saw his explorations as being an essential element to bringing about the end of the slave trade, which he thoroughly detested – all the more so due to the anti-slavery writings of his idol and inspiration, Doctor Livingstone. The opening up of the Congo basin to European trade was necessary, so as to allow local chiefs to trade raw materials in return for European goods, instead of trading slaves with the Arab-Swahili slavers who were otherwise their only contact with the non-African world. Indeed, he accepted his notorious commission from King Leopold II of Belgium on the basis of what the King himself told him: that the purpose of opening up the Congo basin was humanitarian and aimed at helping progress African development.

The Belgian King deceived not only Stanley, without whom his rule over the Congo would likely have been impossible, as he would have been beaten to it by de Brazza’s French expeditions, but also great British philanthropists such as Baroness Burdett-Coutt’s, who helped fund the King’s expeditions. Indeed, at the time it was truly received wisdom that Leopold was Europe’s greatest philanthropist (in financial terms), losing untold sums on his ‘humanitarian’ explorations of the Congo basin. Only gradually, as seen through Jeal’s exposition of his journal entries and letters, did Stanley come to realise that the King’s aims were primarily commercial; and it was not until he himself had left the Congo that news began filtering out of the utter contempt for Africans shown by the King and his Belgian officers acting as his agents in the Congo.

Jeal brilliantly demonstrates, on the basis of previously unread correspondence to which he gained access at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa in 2002, that Stanley was far from being a model for Conrad’s Mr Kurtz. His beliefs were progressively humanitarian, and he was greatly concerned with the well-being of the African’s he ‘discovered’ living in the Congo basin. His greatest ambition, once he had discovered Livingstone, was to play a role in bringing about the end of the slave trade. He was, as Jeal notes and very much like the Doctor, a paternalist in his attitude to Africa. He dreamt of Britain usurping King Leopold and establishing an enlightened protectorate over the Congo, able to bring to the heart of the Dark Continent the light of Western civilisation. A naive, and probably unrealisable ambition; but one based primarily on worthy and humane sentiments that should be commended more than disparaged.

Why then has Stanley been so discredited, both in his time and subsequently? There are perhaps two main reasons.

Firstly, we have, until recently, been denied access to much of his correspondence. In light of the way in which he was treated by the British establishment at the time, his adoptive son and grandson kept this correspondence out of the public domain. It was not until some hundred years after his death that Jeal became the first historian to gain systematic access to these records.

But secondly, sadly, ironically, it is Stanley’s own reporting that has led to his bad reputation. Much as with the “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” incident, many facts and figures in his newspaper reports were either invented or exaggerated to make for a more exciting read – and, in his eyes, to make Stanley seem more like the rugged, somewhat callous, officer-gentlemen he had read about in adventure books growing up. One African killed might be reported as a glorious battle in which dozens were shot down by STanley’s mighty forces – in reality, those forces consisting of a few under-armed men relying primarily on the ability to inspire fear with the sound of their guns. He regularly misstated the size of his expeditions, perhaps by a factor of two, to make it appear as though he was extremely well-funded and equipped, the goal being to portray himself as a mighty, all-conquering explorer, rather than being the quite ingenious, intrepid individual who managed to get by on relatively shoe-string budgets and against all the odds. Whereas in reality he was progressive (for the times) in his treatment of Africans, he often came across in his reports as the stereotypical imperial invader, valuing the black life far less than that of the white man.

Jeal’s book is an exhilarating read. It has been near uniformly praised in reviews elsewhere, and was the Sunday Times Biography of the Year 2007. It is important not only in its restatement of the life of a misreported adventurer, certainly one of the greatest to have been born on British soil, but also in helping understand the deeply distressing situation in which the Congo basin finds itself in the present day. I cannot recommend it enough for anyone seeking to understand more about central Africa’s historic destruction by the Arabs and the Europeans, and for helping put in context the crimes which are now being committed by Western multinationals and local governments. Crimes of both variety have form, and can be traced back to the actions of local rulers and European exploiters throughout at least the last 150 years.


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