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Man with a mission: to many, Henry Morton Stanley represents the archetypal Victorian explorer, but the reality was quite different. On the 100th anniversary of Stanley's death, Christian Amodeo discovers the truth behind the legend.

As the lid came off the anonymous cardboard box we peered inside, and there it was--if one item could be said to symbolise Victorian exploration, it was this. In a dusty room at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), its walls lined with shelves bearing ephemera from centuries of human endeavour in far-distant lands, librarian Eugene Rae gingerly lifted Henry Morton Stanley's pith helmet from its container. Sporting a faded red-check sash, the mustard-coloured relic is testament to the hardships of African travel, and I imagined Stanley's steely eyes staring from beneath its rim upon yet another desperate scene. The fabric is torn, perhaps by a malicious branch in the Ituri forest, which Stanley spent six gruelling months negotiating. The strapping has been eaten away, probably by the African humidity and perspiration of its owner's brow rather than the intervening years.

"I do not think I was made for an African explorer, for I detest the land most heartily," wrote Stanley before his first expedition--an audacious search-and-rescue mission in aid of the legendary Scot David Livingstone. In light of his subsequent success on that expedition, immortalised in popular culture thanks to his off-hand introduction upon finding the missing missionary, Stanley's doubts seem almost absurd. But Stanley was driven by a feeling of inferiority, inspired by his humble origins as an illegitimate child in Wales.

Despite his early misgivings, Africa, and the challenges it presented, came to attract rather than repulse Stanley. It was in the continent's dark heart that his talents shone brightest. Where courage, command and strength of will were necessary to survive, Stanley was without equal. Resolute, tough and tenacious, he was a man of action who could be trusted to get a job done.

Stanley's four gruelling expeditions in Central Africa were huge undertakings, each subsequently described in his slightly overcooked style in books that became international bestsellers. His rescue of Livingstone in 1871-72 was a dazzling debut, even if the ageing Livingtone chose self-sacrifice in the African interior to retirement. On his next expedition, between 1874 and 1877, Stanley circumnavigated Lake Victoria, the world's second largest freshwater lake, proving Speke's supposition that Ripon Falls were its only northerly outflow Nile-wards. He then circumnavigated Lake Tanganyika, finally proving that it didn't feed the Nile. Moving on from Nyangwe--Livingsone and Cameron's farthest point north--into "one wide enormous blank", Stanley disproved his mentor's theory that the Lualaba river was the Nile, following it to Stanley Falls. From there, with great loss of life to colleagues, porters and locals, he and 356 followers struggled 1,600 kilometres along the upper Congo (now Zaire), overcoming the 32 murderous cataracts of Livingstone Falls until the river arcs southwest to the Atlantic.

Between 1879 and 1884, Stanley laid down political and physical foundations for the establishment of the Congo Free State on behalf of Leopold II, thwarting Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza of France. Taking his time and refraining from getting drawn into a 'race', he established 22 river stations along the Congo, built long stretches of roadway and even a railroad--which earnt him the nickname Bula Matari (the Smasher of Rocks) among his Zanzibari followers.

Three years later, Stanley led the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. Funded by commercial interests, its aim was to rescue German-born Emin, who was stranded at Wadelai near Lake Albert, and whose authority in Sudan's beleaguered Equatoria province was under threat from the Mahdi. Stanley navigated the Aruwimi river, traversed the unexplored Ituri forest, and eventually brought Emin Pasha back, but not before half of his expedition bad perished. He also established the link between lakes Edward and Albert, located the mythical Ruwenzori, or Mountains of the Moon, and mapped the Nile's sources.

"As I moved through the crowd, I felt hands touch my coat, then, getting bolder, they rubbed me on the back, stroked my hair, and finally, thumped me hard, until I felt that the honours were getting so weighty I should die if they continued long." So wrote Stanley about an experience at the hands of a mob, not in Africa, but at a lecture hall in Caernarvon, North Wales. While symbolic of his fame, the crowd was all the more enthusiastic because Stanley was, after all, a Welsh boy made good. But he hadn't always received so warm a welcome, and for a long time Stanley denied his nationality.

Born illegitimately in Denbigh in 1841, John Rowlands, as Stanley was first named, endured a Dickensian childhood, entering St Asaph workhouse at the age of five. He received little in the way of affection from his mother or her relatives, and responded by departing from Liverpool in his mid-teens as a cabin boy bound for New Orleans, his only baggage a sound education, religious fervour and a desire to prove himself.

While Stanley was born in Wales, he was made in the USA. It was in New Orleans that he took the name Henry Stanley (he added Morton in his late 20s) after his benefactor, wealthy merchant Henry Hope Stanley. The young Stanley led a roving life, and fought on both sides of the US civil war. Towards the end of the conflict, he joined the US Navy, eventually becoming ship's writer aboard the Moses H Stuyvesant. His reports on the 1864-65 attacks on Fort Fisher were subsequently published, marking his debut as a reporter.

At the age of 27, Stanley secured a self-financed trial with the New York Herald to report on the British Abyssinia military expedition. There he scored a major scoop, sending the first news of Theodore's suicide and the expedition's success. In fact, he was so far ahead of the pack that he was doubted--something to which he would have to become accustomed.

In 1869, Stanley was chosen by his publisher, James Gordon Bennet, to "find Livingstone", who was in Central Africa searching for the source of the Nile. On instructions, Stanley took a roundabout route to Zanzibar, arriving there in 1871. Not knowing how to prepare for such an expedition, Stanley took advice from Arab slave traders. And though he suffered from dysentery and fever--"I was reduced to a skeleton"--he quickly showed his mettle. His men covered the 843 kilometres from the coast to Kwihara, near Tabora, in 84 days (it took Speke and Grant 115). Those "lazily inclined" received harsh lashings of Stanley's tongue if white, and the dog whip if black. Desertions became frequent--repeat offenders were retrieved, flogged and put in chains.

Stanley's harsh criticism of his white officers and physical punishment of wayward black porters were to be repeated on his other expeditions. Even as an experienced veteran of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, his officers complained that he was demanding, aloof, reluctant to give praise and given to "ungovernable fits of rage". It comes as little surprise that his men conspired against him time and again.

While many heroes of the past are looked upon less favourably by contemporary standards, in Stanley's case the slurs came thick and fast while he was still alive. He fanned the flames of controversy with candid newspaper despatches that had liberals up in arms. His actions at Bumbiri, where he is believed to have launched a retributive attack against a native village, drew severe criticism. Certainly, Stanley's leadership invited controversy, but he was a pragmatist and an ill-tempered disciplinarian rather than a sadist. He may well have been condescending towards blacks, but it is abundantly clear that he considered them equal to whites. That 40 of the 68 Zanzibari who accompanied him on the Congo Free State expedition were veterans of his previous venture is testament to his leadership.

Like every explorer of the era, Stanley had to court the friendship of homicidal African kings and seek the help of slave traders, despite his revulsion at their practises. When Stanley returned to the upper Congo in 1879 to find settlements razed and the people gone, he describes a heartfelt desire to take vengeance upon the Arab slavers and avenge the "sleeping people". And during the trans-Africa expedition, he deeply mourned the drowning of close friend Frank Pocock, and Kalulu, his adopted African boy. Clearly, he wasn't lacking in compassion.

But equally evident is the steely composure that he required in order to achieve his goals. During tire 1874-77 trans-continental expedition, aggression became a running theme. Taunts of "Niama! Niama!" ("Meat! Meat!") followed their progress, prompting Stanley to write, "The hostility which these people bear for us is most strange." During the 128 days it took to reach Stanley Pool, a distance of some 2,000 kilometres through fierce cataracts, the expedition fought 32 battles.

Even Stanley's officers had to admit that their leader always tried to make peace with the locals. To an inexperienced expedition leader, he wrote, "The one gold rule which you should remember is 'Do not fire the first shot' whatever may be the provocation." But while he may not have picked fights, he usually finished them. Repelling an attack from a "mighty force" of cannibals crammed into 54 canoes on the Congo, he wrote: "Our blood is up now. It is a murderous world, and we feel for the first time that we hate the filthy, vulturous ghouls who inhabit it." The battle became a rout and Stanley's men went on to take their opponents' village, having "returned the daring cannibals the compliment of a visit".

Stanley's expeditions were beset by a "sea of mishaps and troubles". To achieve what he did, he commanded an abundance of manpower. At one stage, the Congo Free State venture comprised 600 blacks, 100 whites, eight steamboats, four machine guns and 1,000 quick-firing rifles. Actual numbers on the expeditions fluctuated, occasioned by desertions and death due to disease, exhaustion, accidents and run-ins with the locals, as well as by regular recruitment. Occasionally, whole units of Soldiers from an African warlord or Arab slave trader accompanied Stanley, who paid handsomely for the extra protection. In this event, it wasn't uncommon for families, servants and concubines to be in tow.

Described as priggish and opinionated, Stanley was disliked by many; Livingstone, however, wasn't among them. Stanley's famed encounter with the ageing missionary in Ojiji's crowded market, when he uttered the immortal greeting, "Dr Livingstone, I presume", changed the direction of the younger man's life, and almost certainly saved Livingstone's. Over a four-month period, the pair became close, exploring the northern part of Lake Tanganyika together. The missionary was probably the nearest Stanley came to having a father figure in his life; Stanley, in turn, may have reminded Livingstone of his dead son. Upon the senior explorer's death, which occurred 18 months after they parted, Stanley resolved to continue Livingstone's explorations.

The hostility that Stanley faced in Africa was but a taste for what lay in store when he returned to Britain after the Livingstone expedition. Instead of a rapturous reception, he was met with disbelief and scorn. Sir Henry Rawlinson, in his first presidential address to the RGS, sneeringly stated that "if there has been any discovery and relief, it is Dr Livingstone who has discovered and relieved Mr Stanley".

Several publications implied that letters from Livingstone had been forged--until Livingstone's family vouched for their authenticity--and worse still, word began to circulate that Stanley was in fact a bastard Welshman with an assumed name. This unseemly episode of prejudice and sour grapes at a US reporter who had succeeded where British experts had failed was finally put to an end by Queen Victoria. Stanley, however, remained deeply affected by his harsh treatment.

Although women found Stanley attractive, his long absences didn't sit well with the few ladies with whom he managed to strike up relationships. A girl from the village of his birth and a US heiress broke off their engagements to him while he was away on expeditions. Low self-esteem, a serious demeanour and narrow conversation (only on the subject of Africa did he become animated) didn't help matters.

However, within months of his triumphant return from his final expedition, Stanley married the aristocratic spinster Dorothy Tenant at Westminster Abbey. It was the culmination of a whirlwind few months in which he dined with Queen Victoria and was awarded a special RGS gold medal in front of a 10,000-strong audience of Britain's elite. Under his wife's influence, Stanley hung up his pith helmet and, renouncing his US citizenship, successfully stood for parliament and became eligible for a knighthood.

Stanley's African achievements begin and end with rescues: that of David Livingstone--who was wrongly said to have rescued Stanley--and of Emin Pasha, who did. In some ways, Stanley was his own rescuer, but in others, he was beyond saving. "I was not sent into this world to be happy", he concluded late in life. A dour countenance, servility and a tough outer shell were the results of the cold shoulder he received from an uncaring world.

His fame, fortune and social standing came at a price. It wasn't just grey hair that he took away from Africa; recurring malarial fever, blinding headaches and severe gastritis dogged the compact, barrel-chested Stanley until his death at 63. His explorations were a precursor to the 'scramble for Africa', and while he may have been but a pawn of wealthy and powerful men, Stanley's achievements are impressive in the extreme, the actions of a Victorian conquistador who led the way into the heart of darkness.

Henry Morton Stanley timeline

1841 Born illegitimate as John Rowlands in Denbigh, North Wales

1847 Aged five, he enters St Asaph workhouse, where he receives a fair education

1857 At 16, Rowlands sails to New Orleans as a cabin boy aboard the Windermere. There he takes the name of his benefactor, Henry Stanley

1871 As a foreign correspondent for the New York Herald, Stanley relieves Livingstone, conceiving a devotion for the older man and learning exploration techniques from him. He leaves Livingstone with four years worth of supplies

1873 Upon Livingstone's death, Stanley vows to follow up his explorations into the Nile and Congo (Zaire) river systems. The RGS awards him its Patrons Medal

1874 Funded by the Herald and Daily Telegraph, Stanley's expedition, which is more than 350 strong, sets off from Bagamoyo on Africa's east coast to Lake Victoria

1875 Stanley follows the Lualaba, proving it is the Congo. Discovers and overcomes Stanley Falls, Livingstone Falls and Stanley Pool. Stanley reaches Boma, near the Congo's mouth, with only 114 of the original party of 350

1879 After failing to interest the conservative British government in developing the Congo basin for its own advantage, Stanley, in the employ of Belgian king Leopold II, returns to the Congo's mouth, laying foundations for the so-called Congo Free State. In doing so, he is given the nickname Bula Matari (the Smasher of Rocks)

1887 Stanley once more sets off into Central Africa, on the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, choosing to come up the Congo instead of approaching Egypt's empire in southern Sudan from the southeast. His party crosses the vast Ituri forest, relieves Emin and locates the Ruwenzori, or Mountains of the Moon

1890 The RGS gives Stanley a reception at the Albert Hall upon his return and later presents him with a special gold medal. That year, he also marries Dorothy Tenant

1895 On 12 August, Stanley takes his seat in the House of Commons, after being voted in second time around. He has little enthusiasm for politics, but stands to appease his wife. His acceptance speech on election night is: "Gentlemen, I thank you, and now goodnight!"

1896 Too old to have their own children, Stanley and Dolly adopt a baby boy from Stanley's home district in North Wales and call him Denzil Morton

1899 Stanley receives a knighthood

1903 Suffers a stroke in April that paralyses one side of his body

1904 Suffering from pleurisy from April, Stanley dies on 10 May. He had wished to be buried next to Livingstone in Westminster Abbey, but in a final snub, he is refused. After his funeral service at the abbey on 17 May, Stanley's ashes are buried at Pirbright
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Author:Amodeo, Christian
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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