This edited article about great explorers originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 625 published on 5 January 1974.
“The savage only respects force, power, boldness and decision,” wrote Henry Morton Stanley, one of the greatest of all the white explorers of Africa.
He was recalling a day on Lake Victoria in 1875 when he decided to deal with some “troublesome” natives who had dared to attack him on an earlier expedition. Now, in his 40 foot steel boat, the “Lady Alice,” built in eight sections so that it could be carried overland, he led a fleet of canoes towards the island of Bumbire where his enemies were unaware of his approach.
Just as he was nearing the island, he was joined by war canoes sent by a friendly chief. Meanwhile, several thousand Bumbire spear-carrying warriors appeared on the shore, little suspecting that fire power was about to be loosed upon them by Stanley and his men, black as well as white.
Those that survived Stanley’s first broadside fled, having learnt their lesson. And Stanley sailed on, smugly confident that he knew how to deal with these people.
That was Stanley’s way: a quick, daring march, fighting any Africans who opposed him, suffering heavy casualties among his own men from disease and exhaustion, but reaching his objective and winning. Stanley was a winner in nearly everything he set out to accomplish. When he stood for Parliament years later, shouts of “Man of blood” rang around the halls and the streets in which he spoke, but he got elected just the same. He made a habit of success.
Was this iron man a monster then? Was the apparently humble explorer who greeted the long-lost Doctor Livingstone in the heart of Africa with the immortal words, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”, more savage than the fiercest of African tribesmen?
To answer these questions one must examine the extraordinary life of Henry Morton Stanley, for only by looking at his early days can one understand what drove him on and why he was, despite his faults, one of the greatest men of his age.
His name was really John Rowlands and he was born in North Wales in 1841, the illegitimate son of a mother who cruelly disowned him. His relatives were little better, and he was packed off to the local workhouse, where the aged poor and orphans and unwanted children lived a harsh, bleak life.
The St. Asaph workhouse, where he lived, was far worse than most, for it was run by a fiend named James Francis, who was later found to be mad. Young John picked up some education, but suffered, like the rest, under the savage discipline of the tyrant who ruled them, as if being totally unloved was not punishment enough.
One day, Francis began to flog the whole class because a tabletop had been marked and no one would confess to the “crime.” John stood up to him and was flung on a bench and struck in the stomach by Francis’s heavy stick.
Hardly conscious, John kicked his tormentor in the face and Francis, his glasses smashed, fell and hit his head on the stone floor. John thought he had killed him, but he was only stunned.
With a friend, John fled. He got scant welcome as usual from his relatives, but an aunt finally took pity on him and gave him a home until he set off as a cabin boy for America. He was 17.
Landing in New Orleans, the strapping young outcast, lonely and workless – and penniless because the captain had not paid his wages – saw a kindly looking man sitting by a shop and asked him how to get a job. It was the greatest moment of his life, for the man, a merchant named Henry Morton Stanley, not only got him work, but later he and his wife adopted John – and gave him his name. Though this Stanley died several years later, he had helped to educate the young Welshman and, more importantly, given him the love he so badly needed.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, young Stanley was pressurised into joining the South, though he was against slavery. When later he was captured, he changed sides, which cannot be held against him. After the war, he became a journalist, sending back brilliant dispatches from the Wild West. Often, he went ahead of the troops and, such was his talent, that he was hired by the most pushing editor of the day, James Gordon Bennett of the “New York Herald.” Stanley was 26 and on the threshold of fame.
It came when he was roaming the world for his paper and the editor ordered him to “find Livingstone,” who was in Africa on a missionary expedition. Stanley found Livingstone at Ujiji. The two became firm friends, although unlike Livingstone, Stanley never loved black and whites equally. When Stanley left Africa to report his success, his troubles began, for many Britons resented the bumptious, brash “American” who, with Yankee money, had found their hero. Many more believed that Stanley had not found Livingstone at all, and his offhand manner was such that even those who admired him found him very difficult to accept.
We who know his story can understand how his sufferings as a youth caused him to present a hard front to the world to protect him from further slights. However, it was clear that his story was true. He became a hero to many and Queen Victoria gave him a golden snuff box.
Livingstone was now dead, so could never know of Stanley’s new triumphs in Africa: exploring and mapping the great lakes of central Africa, confirming the theory that the Nile flowed out of Lake Victoria, and, greatest feat of all, identifying the mysterious River Lualaba as the Congo and following it down to the Atlantic.
On this incredible 999-day journey, his white companions and over 200 of his black helpers died from disease, starvation, attacks by hostile tribes, drowning in the raging Congo and other calamities. Yet this epic journey, more than any other, opened up central Africa. Stanley filled in the blanks on the map and, for better or for worse, made the vast area ready for exploitation by traders, settlers and other “civilisers.”
Apart from his newspaper reports, he wrote “Through the Dark Continent” about this feat.
Stanley tried to interest Britain in the Congo area, but failed; so he sold his services as an explorer to King Leopold of the Belgians. From 1879-84, he “made” the Congo Free State, giving it a road, launching steamers and building depots. His admiring men called him “Buta-Matari,” the rock-breaker.
Stanley’s last great feat was an expedition from the mouth of the Congo to rescue Emin Pasha, the German-born governor of Equatorial Egypt, who was besieged by rebels. It was a nightmare trip which made him many enemies. His white staff loathed him, he flogged his blacks to keep them going, and his hair turned white as the terrible strain took its toll even of his giant strength. And when he found Emin, the governor did not seem very interested in being rescued! Stanley returned with only half his men. And yet could any other leader but Stanley have brought any of them back alive? It is doubtful, and Stanley’s many critics were drowned in a tumult of applause.
He abandoned his American citizenship and was later knighted by Britain. He married happily and adopted a son. Boastful, over-sensitive, without humour and harsh, he was first and foremost an ambitious journalist, who happened to be a supreme explorer. He treated Africans who could withstand his iron rule well, and today’s map of central Africa is his, more than anyone’s, even though many of the states are now independent.
It is easy and right to criticise him, especially his use of death as a deterrent punishment, but the critics in comfortable chairs do not face the problems he knew. That, and his grim upbringing, should never be forgotten by us in assessing the worth of Stanley, who, by any standards, was one of the most remarkable and dynamic adventurers of his own, or any, age.
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