Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
By Tim Jeal
Faber & Faber | 496 pages | ISBN-13: 978-0571221028 | £25

Many people, I suspect, only know of Sir Henry Morton Stanley because of his dramatic meeting with another explorer, David Livingstone, in the heart of the “dark Continent” and for his supposed address on that occasion: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” Tim Jeal, who wrote a biography of Livingstone in 1973 which is still in print and who has also written a life of Lord Baden-Powell, is thus knowledgeable about the muscular Christianity that was a pervasive feature in the lives of outstanding Englishmen in the Victorian period.

Stanley has been unlucky with his posthumous reputation. When he has not been neglected he has been seen as a colonial freebooter, a “conquistador”, partly responsible for atrocities in the Congo, a man who invented or played with the facts, even a latent homosexual. Jeal, who was given generous access to much new material from the Belgian archives, was first drawn to him by reading a note Stanley had written on one of his travels, imploring for supplies and humbly hiding behind the reputation of Livingstone. His book is a balanced, well-researched and eloquent defence, directed in particular at the “post-colonial generation” which has been taught to feel guilty about slavery (forgetting that it was England that abolished the slave trade, through the efforts of William Wilberforce and others) and which is largely ignorant of the man Jeal describes – in the face of stiff competition – as “African’s greatest explorer”.

Above all, this biography is testament to the exceptional achievements of an illegitimate Welsh workhouse boy, born John Rowlands in 1841, abandoned by his mother and subsequently rejected by other relations, who spent ten years in the St Asaph workhouse before taking passage to America as a cabin boy in 1858. It was in New Orleans in 1860 that Rowlands changed his name to “Henry Stanley” (the middle name of “Morton” was added in 1868), partly as the self-appointed “adoptive” son of a kindly employer and partly, one guesses, to reinvent himself in order to escape the memories of his unhappy youth. Stanley was quick-witted, ambitious, dauntless and had a natural flair for writing. His imagination was fired during this period by reading tales of adventure and exploration which he longed to emulate, always mindful that with no relations to help him and no financial resources, he would have to make his own way in life. Like other men who make their mark on their century, Stanley had great faith in himself, “an inner conviction of being chosen for a great task”.

In 1867 he joined the Missouri Democrat as a journalist – the first step to joining the New York Herald, one of the most influential newspapers in the States. Covering the Ethiopian expedition, the speed of his despatches coupled with the vigour of his reportage ensured a permanent post on this prestigious paper, despite the rather niggardly terms (and later treatment) of its owner, James Gordon Bennett Jr. Stanley persuaded Bennett to let him mount an expedition to search for David Livingstone, the famous Scottish missionary and explorer, whose whereabouts in Central Africa were supposedly unknown. In fact Livingstone’s contacts in Zanzibar, where all expeditions to the interior were mounted, knew he was somewhere on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika, but Stanley, well aware of the dramatic potential of his “find”, did not advertise this knowledge.

In any case, the expedition of 1871-72, culminating in the encounter between the two men at Ujiji in late October 1871, was in every way a large enterprise in itself. Malaria, dysentery, desertions, quarrels, deaths and hostile tribes accompanied the indefatigable Stanley and his party. Jeal argues with good evidence that the words with which Stanley hailed Livingstone, made famous by his best-seller, How I Found Livingstone, were an invention by the journalist-turned-explorer, anxious to assume the manners and sang-froid of an English gentleman. But the book made his name and gave him the financial security he craved. It also made him justifiably famous – a mixed blessing for Stanley, who craved solitude and was always fearful of his lowly origins being widely known.

Ironically, the book was also responsible for the shadow cast over Stanley’s later reputation; he loved Livingstone with whom he had a father-son relationship, spent four months in his company, keenly lamented his death and years later poignantly asked in his will to be buried near him in Westminster Abbey (a request that was denied). His description of the missionary largely contributed to the myth of Livingstone as a saintly man; in contrast, the reading public came to see Stanley as motivated by material gain, more concerned with his own fame and fortune than the welfare of the Africans he met on his travels.

This, Jeal points out, was inaccurate. After meeting Livingstone, Stanley believed he had a sacred mission to complete the older man’s unfinished expedition to discover the source of the Nile and to open up the Congo. He was not a racist – he hated the word “nigger” – and had the greatest respect for the Wangwana freemen from Zanzibar whom he used as his porters, describing them as “clever, honest, industrious, docile, enterprising, brave and moral”. His great trans-African journey of 1874-77 was not undertaken to enrich himself or to exploit the country but to explore and open up the huge unknown areas of Central Africa to civilisation and to foreign trade; Stanley believed that this would in its turn help the development of the native peoples.

He was well aware of the moral dilemma facing Europeans in the “scramble for Africa”, writing: “We went into the heart of Africa self-invited; therein lies our fault. But it was not so grave that our lives should be forfeited.” Again, he and his party suffered unimaginable hardships from starvation, disease, warlike natives and drowning as they navigated the rapids of the Congo River to emerge finally on the Atlantic coast.

Like Livingstone, Stanley had a hatred for the Arab-Swahili slave-trade, practised in this area for hundreds of years. Much is known about the Atlantic slave trade which Wilberforce gave his political life to abolish; less is known of the estimated two million slaves thought to have sailed from Africa’s eastern shores. Though tough on absconders and thieves in his party, Stanley was never gratuitously brutal towards them. He tried to be just in his dealings with native tribes, whose land he crossed and whose food he bartered for provisions.

It was his misfortune to be linked in his later career with the unprincipled imperialist, Leopold II of Belgium. Stanley understood the key concept of imperialism: “that the populations of industrialised countries had a right to expand into underdeveloped parts of the world”. But as Jeal shows in his book, this was tempered by the former workhouse boy’s compassion for the down-trodden and his kindness and loyalty towards his African friends and servants.

Leopold was influenced by no such considerations. “I do not want to miss the opportunity of our obtaining a share in this magnificent African cake,” he announced. He looked on the Congo as his private fiefdom and Stanley, whose help was enlisted to build trading posts for the future Belgian expansion, did not realise this until too late, hoodwinked by the King’s pretended altruistic plans. In 1883 he protested to Leopold that “the Congolese are not subjects – but it is we who are simply tenants.” His protests fell on deaf ears.

The later horrifying cruelty of the Belgian masters towards their African “subjects” is well-known through Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness (1899). Before this, in 1895, a Dutch trader and consul at Leopoldville, Antoine Greshoff, warned the ageing Stanley “never to go back to the Congo – even if Leopold asked him to”, as it would have broken his heart to witness the crimes perpetrated in the name of “civilisation”.

It is hard to read this life without sharing Jeal’s admiration for his subject. Why does he choose the word “impossible” in his sub-title?: perhaps because of Stanley’s extraordinary feats of endurance, going where no white man had gone before; perhaps because of his transformation from such unpromising beginnings; perhaps because of the ironies of his public reputation, given his true character and nobility. At any rate, he has now found a biographer to do him justice.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.