Did he puff his crimes to please a bloodthirsty readership?

Bernard Porter

  • Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal
    Faber, 570 pp, £25.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 571 22102 8

For a biographer looking for an unlikely reputation to rescue, reputations don’t come much unlikelier than that of Henry Morton Stanley. Widely excoriated in his own time as one of the most brutal of African travellers, condemned by historians for his part in the creation of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, and derided both then and since for his famous but embarrassingly arch greeting to David Livingstone when he ‘found’ him in Ujiji in November 1871 – ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ – as well as for his silly ‘Stanley cap’ (like a chamberpot with holes and a tea-towel flapping at the sides), he has always been every historian’s least favourite British explorer. (Obviously, some foreigners were worse.) This is despite the fact that he was, as Tim Jeal’s subtitle indicates, undeniably a ‘great’ one, if greatness is measured by geographical mysteries solved (the source of the Nile, among others) and hardships endured (countless bouts of malaria, gastritis, flesh-eating ulcers, being shot at and never finding the love of a good woman).

He was a dreadful and serial liar: about his humble (and Welsh) origins; his nationality; his name – he stole that from someone else – and most of the treaties he was supposed to have made with African rulers. He was a flogger, caner and hanger of African porters who stole from him, or who tried to escape, despite the fact that, fighting in the American Civil War at an earlier stage of his career, he had himself deserted, twice – once from each side. He shot quite a lot of other Africans dead, usually because they objected to his marching through their countries with huge entourages, which made the Africans suspect, reasonably enough, that he might be a slave-raider. He also burned villages. Occasionally, he did this to ‘set an example’; and in at least one case (his second battle with the people of Bumbireh in August 1875) there was a strong suspicion that he acted out of revenge. On his Congo expedition of 1887-88 (to ‘rescue’ Emin Pasha from Islamic fundamentalists, but Emin turned out to be a bounder, and didn’t want to be rescued), he connived with Arab slave-traders, even selling them guns; stole food and canoes from Africans, shooting one old man when he tried to retrieve his boat; and left half his party stranded along the way under the command of two British officers – Major Edmund Barttelot and James Sligo Jameson (of the Irish whiskey family) – whom he knew to be rotters, and who were found later to have inflicted appalling atrocities on the Africans in their care (a young girl was apparently sold to cannibals so that Jameson could observe her being killed and eaten). He was also largely responsible for the establishment of the notorious Congo Free State. It was for these reasons that the dean of Westminster refused him burial in the Abbey next to Livingstone: his ‘violence and even cruelty’, the dean claimed, marked his achievements off from the ‘peaceful successes of other explorers’.

These are just the more solid charges against him, most of which Jeal concedes. Rumours going the rounds at the time had it that he never really ‘found’ Livingstone – some even said that he’d been rescued by Livingstone – and that he forged the latter’s letters, indicating, incidentally, that he was by no means the straightforward late Victorian hero that some have assumed. More recently, in an age unable to credit that his attachment to men younger than himself could be other than physical, he has been ‘accused’ of being a closet homosexual. There is no evidence (or need) for that.

If I were Stanley’s defence attorney I’d throw in the towel at this point. Jeal, however, is made of more heroic stuff. He is genuinely convinced that Stanley has been hard done by and has several different levels of defence: as one proves clearly inadequate, he passes down to the next, so covering just about all Stanley’s flaws. First, there are the charges that are simply not true: the ‘forgeries’, the homosexuality, some of the killings, his direct responsibility for the later Congo atrocities and so on. Often, these were the products of jealousy and prejudice against him: for ‘finding’ Livingstone before the official (‘Royal’) Geographers did; or because of his (supposed) Americanism. On other occasions the cruelties – some of the killings and beatings, for example – were his own exaggerations, made in newspaper articles and books. That is curious: why would he puff his own crimes? Jeal thinks it was in order to please a bloodthirsty readership (he started off as a sensational journalist); or else to create the image he seems to have craved of the ‘hard man’ – the Vinnie Jones – of the exploring world. (But why did he need that? Social pressures? Personal, perhaps masculine, insecurity? Who knows?) Second, if these stories were true, the actions they described were justifiable: he stole the food because his party was starving; the people he shot he shot in self-defence, or to forestall even larger massacres, or in the greater interest of ending the Arab slave trade.

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