Early Life in Wales
In 1841, Stanley was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales. His mother, Elizabeth Parry, was a 19 year old and unmarried. His birth register lists him simply a “bastard.” His father, also named John Rowlands, was 70 years old when Stanley was born.
Immigration to America
At age 17, he ran away to sea. Stanley booked passage to America landing in New Orleans. He left the ship without paying the balance of his fare. He changed his name from John Rowlands to J. Rolling.
According to his own diaries, he became friendly with a wealthy cotton trader, Henry Hope Stanley. He saw Mr. Stanley sitting on a chair outside his store and asked him if he had any job opening. He did so in the British style, saying “Do you want a boy, sir?” This led to a job and to a close relationship, possibly the first in his life. The young man saw his employer as an adoptive parent so changed his name once again, this time to Henry Morton Stanley. This may show how desperate his psychological need was for a family.
The “junior” Stanley went on to assume a local southern accent and denied to everyone that he was a foreigner. Later, he wrote that the elder Stanley had died two years after they met. Actually, Henry Hope Stanley lived until another nineteen years, passing away in 1878.
The younger Stanley seems to have always had a habit of either lying or exaggerating the truth in both his youth and in his later profession. He was guarded and evasive about his childhood, and never acknowledged his Welsh family.
In 1861, the American Civil War erupted. Twenty year old Stanley participated, although reluctantly, by joining the 6th Arkansas Infantry of the Confederate Army. At the Battle of Shiloh, Tennessee, the next year, he was taken prisoner. To avoid being held in a prisoner of war camp, Stanley deserted the Confederate Army and joined the Union Army. Three months later he was discharged due to illness.
After he recovered, he worked on a merchant ship for a time, then joined the Union Navy in 1864. Assigned as a record keeper on the U.S.S. Minnesota, he became interest in writing. The next year, Stanley “jumped ship” deserting the Union Navy in New Hampshire to search for adventure and possibly a career in journalism. He is the only known man to have deserted from both the Confederate and Union Armies.
In 1867, Stanley went west. He journeyed around writing free-lance articles, and for a time served as a correspondent for the Indian Peace Commission. He often exaggerated the conflicts between the Plains Indians and the U.S. soldiers, or simply made them up, in order to build his own reputation. These fictionalized accounts of his adventures in the west are included in his book “My Early Travels and Adventures in America and Asia” (1895).
James Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, had heard of Stanley and liked his stories and style of writing. The truthfulness of them was only a marginal issue. Stanley became an overseas reporter for the paper.
In 1869, Bennett, through his son who had taken over the newspaper, assigned Henry Stanley to his first major mission. It was to find the world famous Scottish author and missionary David Livingstone, who had disappeared somewhere in eastern Africa four years earlier. In reality, it was Stanley who had lobbied Bennett over several years to initiate a search, and to put him in charge of the expedition. If successful, he believed his quest for fame and fortune would be assured.
David Livingstone: A Renaissance Man in the Heart of Africa
David Livingstone was one of the most revered figures in 19th Century Britain. He was a pioneering missionary, scientist, and explorer. He was consumed by the relationship between religion and science, and believed that both should be the foundation of society. Livingstone moralized that the African slave trade must be destroyed by the influence of Christianity and the introduction of commerce that was fair to the indigenous population. His motto, at the base of his statue in Africa, is “Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization.”
The Search for Livingstone, 1871
With the New York Herald’s money and Bennett’s orders to “FIND LIVINGSTONE,” Stanley arrived on Zanzibar Island, a jumping off point for explorations of east Africa. He outfitted the expedition with the best that someone else’s money could buy, and he hired 200 porters to carry all his supplies. Preparations took nearly a year.
The destination was Lake Tanganyika. Some rumors were that Livingstone had been killed in that area, others said that he was still alive but gravely ill. The expedition wound around through the tropical forests travelling 7,000 miles over eight months. Many of his porters deserted Stanley, who they thought he was especially cruel. Others, who had been recruited from the islands off of Africa’s eastern coast and had little immunity, were incapacitated by tropical diseases.
To keep the procession moving, Stanley frequently had to flog the porters and those attempting to desert. This was actually no different from other European led explorations. Later, Stanley wrote that his articles only exaggerated the treatment of his porters to appeal to the Victorian reading public back in New York, but many historians refute this. Contemporary British explorer, Sir Richard Burton, was quoted as saying, “Stanley shoots negroes as if they were monkeys.”
On November 10, 1871, Stanley found Livingstone in the village of Ujiji on the banks of Lake Tanganyika (in present day Tanzania). He greeted the missionary with the words, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” This would have to have been somewhat tongue in cheek, as he was the only white man for hundreds of miles around.
Livingstone was 58 years old and suffering from disease, likely dysentery or malaria. With Stanley’s help, he recovered some from his ailments. He and Stanley explored the region around the lake together. They were able to establish that Lake Tanganyika was not the source of the Nile River, but were unable to discover the true source.
In spite of Stanley’s urging, Livingstone refused to leave Africa as his work was not done. Stanley returned to London to tell his story.
David Livingstone died in the village of Ilala near Lake Bagweulu on May 4, 1873 of malaria and internal bleeding. He was only 60 years old but worn down by life. The British government wanted his body returned for burial but the tribe he had lived with would not give it up. Eventually they conceded, but cut his heart out and sent a message to the British saying, “You can have his body, but his heart belongs to Africa.” He was loved by his African followers by preaching, sharing his knowledge of medicines, and opposition to the slave trade.
Stanley’s Expedition to Explore the Congo River, 1874
Stanley led a column of hundreds of porters, and heavily armed
guards. He used the guns to force his porters forward at a fast pace. In his own book, “How I found Livingstone”, he even included a drawing of himself with gun drawn supervising porters carrying equipment across a stream. The caption read, “If you drop that, I will shoot!” He destroyed everything in his way and fought battles with local tribes.
On August 12, 1877, after two and a half years, what remained of his party arrived at the mouth of the Congo River. Of the 356 people who began the trip, only 114 survived. Stanley was the only surviving European. He was the first European to map these areas. He went back to England with a fortune in Ivory, and more stories to write. More importantly, Stanley opened the area to ruthless colonial exploitation.
Claiming the Congo for Leopold II, 1876
He planned to use Henry Stanley as his implement of acquisition. Stanley returned to the Congo in 1876.
He pushed eastward from the Atlantic negotiating with local leaders to obtain concessions to use their lands. Later, Leopold replaced these agreements with forged documents indicated that the Africans had ceded ownership of the lands to Leopold. While Stanley was not in favor of the switch, he nevertheless remained in the employ of the king.
While exploring these Congo territories, his huge baggage train was responsible for the spread of “trypanosomiasis” across central Africa by their movements. This disease is a parasitic infestation for which the remote villages had no defense. It can cause skin lesions or swelling that obstructs airways and causes suffocation. Today, hundreds of thousands of Africans still suffer from this parasite.
Stanley’s appreciation of the commercial value of the Congo led to his setting up large trading enterprises that led to the creation of Leopold’s Congo Free State in 1885. He was instrumental in establishing a link between exploration and the exploitive colonization of Africa.
In his novel “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad speaks about the horrors experienced by the people of the Belgian Congo at the hands of Leopold II.
The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886-89
This mission was one of the last major expeditions into the interior of Africa during the 19th Century. Led by Henry Morton Stanley, it was praised for its impressive crossing of the darkest and densest part of equatorial Africa but infamous for the bloodshed and human suffering it left in its wake.
During the later years of the century, a new Islamic faction arose led by Mohammad Ahmad, a Sudanese military leader. He adopted the name “Mahdi”, which represented the prophesized messiah who was expected to appear at the world’s end. In 1885, the Mahdists occupied much of Egypt’s Sudan region and controlled its southern province of Equatoria, which was administered by the British.
A group of wealthy Britons decided to privately fund an expedition to rescue Emin and bring him safely out of Africa. Henry Morton Stanley was asked to head the effort. He saw this as an opportunity to add to his fame and wealth, and declared that he was ready “at a moment’s notice.”
King Leopold II of Belgium was still technically Stanley’s employer. As a compromise for letting Stanley go, he demanded that the rescue effort take a longer route via the Congo so that Stanley could possibly acquire more territory for him.
The expedition arrived at the mouth of the Congo River in March of 1887 with enough porters to carry an expected 75 tons of Ivory out of Africa when they departed. They marched under the flag of Egypt.
The Advance Column
Stanley expected the movement to Lake Albert to take two months but took six months due to extreme difficulties moving through the dense Ituri Forest. The term “darkest Africa” stems from this forest where little light makes it
through the trees to the ground. Only 169 of the 389 assigned to the “Advance Column” had managed to survive the trek (220 died of disease and malnutrition). At one point, the column was attacked by Pygmies shooting at them with poison arrows. The Pygmies mistook Stanley’s men for an Arab slave trading party.
By April of 1888, they heard that Emin was still alive and on his way to meet Stanley at Lake Albert. Emin arrived by steamer with his remaining men and supplies. He had thus rescued his rescuers.
Emin had apparently decided that was not going to leave Equatoria afterall. He and Stanley had heated arguments as his mission was to bring Emin out alive. Frustrated, Stanley and his few remaining men departed five days later.
Having not heard from his “Rear Column” for a very long time, Stanley began backtracking to locate them in June.
The Tragedy of the Rear Column
The promised supplemental men and supplies had never arrived at Yambuya. The officers in command had decided to move forward to reunite with Stanley. This march quickly disintegrated into chaos.
Mass desertion resulted from the brutal treatment administered by the British officers and gentlemen commanding the column. They mutilated many and bought others for sex. Beatings and whippings were handed out daily. Open insurrection took place as well; one British major was shot by a porter after behaving with extreme cruelty. Another officer, James Jameson, bought an eleven year old girl and offered her to cannibals just to record, and sketch, how she was cooked and eaten.
Two months later, Stanley found his other column. It was 90 miles from where it was supposed to be encamped at Yambuya. There were only a handful of porters left and only one European left in charge.
Life After Africa
Stanley left central Africa for the last time in January of 1890. Returning to England, he was met by great public acclaim. He received numerous degrees and awards. He married (his new wife forbid him to ever go back to Africa), and wrote his 900 page book, “In Darkest Africa”, in under two months.
Henry Morton Stanley entered Parliament as a Liberal Unionist member, serving for five years, 1895 to 1900. In 1899, he was made a “Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath” in honor of his service to the Empire in Africa.
He died in London on May 10, 1904. His granite headstone includes the word “Bula Matari” which translates to “Breaker of Rocks” in the Kikongo language. It can be seen as either a term of endearment or as a mocking, derogatory characterization. The words fit either way.
Experts on African colonial history accuse Henry Morton Stanley of racist crimes against humanity, and biographers characterize him as the most brutal of all the Victorian age explorers.
Other historians contend that Stanley had one of the biggest “kill rates” of all the great African explorers in terms of the number of people who died during his journeys. Driven by rage against the world for his wretched childhood, Stanley exacted a terrible revenge on the African continent.
Today, Stanley cannot be held up as an unequivocal hero.
There are currently no statues anywhere in the world commemorating Henry Morton Stanley. The one that stood in Kinshasa (formerly Leopoldville) in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo was pulled down by the descendants of the abused Africans in 1971.
Some residents of Denbigh, the place of his birth, who have recently commissioned a statue of Stanley to be erected there, have defended his name.
One said, “I feel he’s been maligned unfairly in the past. I even met someone from the Congo who told me they were delighted (with the monument) and were full of praise for Stanley.” Another said, “I’m quite surprised that these American academics have picked on this. We shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate our heritage.”
You be the judge.