Review by Bryan Glass, University of Texas at Austin
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer Tim Jeal, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 570 pages
When most people today think of Henry Morton Stanley, they mainly remember his famous question “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Out-shadowed by Livingstone, Stanley often remains forgotten by most of the world as one of the major explorers of the nineteenth century. Those who do study exploration usually view Stanley as a cruel, domineering imperialist who would do anything necessary to achieve his overarching goal of opening the heart of central Africa to western exploitation. Tim Jeal’s new biography of Stanley aims to reverse the perception of Stanley while introducing him to a wider public unaware of his vast contributions to exploration and globalization.
Jeal’s unlimited access to Stanley’s documents gives the reader a glimpse into his disadvantaged upbringing and his lifelong desire to gain acceptance and, perhaps most importantly, love. Henry Morton Stanley grew up in a humble background. Stanley was born John Rowlands in Wales to an unwed mother. He spent his first five years living with his grandfather. Jeal claims that these were happy years. When his grandfather died, John found himself in a Welsh workhouse because both his mother and father rejected their bastard son and refused to provide him with a home. John left Britain for the United States and a chance to reinvent himself when he turned eighteen. By 1867, after having fought in the Civil War, first for the South and later for the North after being taken prisoner, John began his career as a full- time journalist with the Missouri Democrat in early 1867. Concurrently, John was busy indulging his need for adventure and hoping to secure funding for an expedition within Africa. On 16 December 1867 Henry Stanley, the name he adopted while in the United States to distance himself from his workhouse upbringing, waltzed into the offices of the New York Herald for a meeting with its proprietor James Gordon Bennett Jr. He left the meeting with an agreement that he would write freelance articles for Bennett in Africa, and if they were well-received, a permanent position would follow. Stanley’s tenacity and speed in telegraphing information to Bennett about Britain’s war with Theodore, Emperor of Ethiopia, so impressed the press baron that he offered Stanley a permanent post with the paper. Henry’s larger goal of finding Dr. David Livingstone, the great British explorer of central Africa who had been out of contact with the western world for many years, now appeared closer to reality.
In January 1871, after over two years of preparation, Stanley arrived in Zanzibar to begin his long-awaited quest to find Dr. Livingstone. Stanley’s meeting with Livingstone at Ujiji on the eastern banks of Lake Tanganyika in early November 1871 has captured the imagination of generations not for the hardships Stanley endured to find the great missionary doctor but for the phrase the former used to greet the latter. Stanley’s “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” first appeared in the New York Herald on 2 July 1872 and brought both participants everlasting fame. Stanley would use this fame to write the book How I Found Livingstone, which changed the perception of the western world towards the doctor. Stanley portrayed Livingstone as a saint, although his diary entries on the same encounter show the doctor as a completely different man incapable of forgiveness and with a vindictive streak. Immediately following the great discovery of Livingstone, Stanley decided that his true passion in life was to be an explorer and not a journalist.
Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone provided him with the financial backing and celebrity to arrange his great journey through the middle of Africa, in which he confirmed that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile and the Lualaba River fed the Congo. The success of this mission would lead to Leopold II of Belgium’s infamous interest and eventual takeover of the Congo for his own personal gain, but at the time, according to Jeal, Stanley saw his journey as a boon for science and part of the greater “white man’s mission” to bring civilization to the “barbarous” tribes of the continent while helping to end the slave trade. Stanley’s journey to rescue Emin Pasha is also outlined by Jeal in detail and the facts of this expedition also work to change the widely-held perception of Stanley as a cruel imperialist. In outlining these expeditions, Jeal presents voluminous information to show Stanley’s compassion for Africans and their continent and his utter disregard for European high society and its leaders. Stanley obviously held paternalistic beliefs towards Africans, but given that he was a product of the Victorian era his egalitarian treatment towards every member of his various expeditions proves surprising.
The complicated yet marvelous life of Henry Morton Stanley makes for an epic biography. Jeal’s unfettered access to the Stanley archives in Brussels provided the author with a golden opportunity to tell the real story about his maligned subject. Jeal does not disappoint. This is a fine biography that should be on the reading list of anyone interested in exploration, Africa, or the British Empire. Jeal deserves the highest praise for bringing his character to life in this captivating read. Hopefully, Stanley will now be able to emerge from the shadow cast over him by years of verbal and written abuse from uninformed critics. The real Stanley emerges in this book and he is a man to be respected if not admired.