Did he puff his crimes to please a bloodthirsty readership?
- 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.
Vol. 29 No. 10 · 24 May 2007
Bernard Porter gives the impression that Henry Morton Stanley was not really all that bad (LRB, 5 April). He does, it’s true, mention Bumbireh in enumerating Stanley’s sins. ‘In at least one case,’ he writes, ‘his second battle with the people of Bumbireh in August 1875, there was a strong suspicion that he acted out of revenge’ – but that is hardly the way to describe what happened.
Stanley’s patron was the powerful king of Buganda, who could field thousands of warriors in combat. Outfitted with the king’s bearers and canoes, Stanley made landfall on Bumbireh, a Haya-speaking fishermen’s island in Lake Victoria. After being driven away, he fired on Bumbireh’s men from offshore, killing among others a chief and his wife and infant with his elephant gun. The bloodshed had an ‘extraordinary result’, Stanley reported in the New York Herald, and soon he was away to safety.
After weeks of further exploits, during which he faced mounting regional opposition, Stanley decided to return to Bumbireh: the island had not been sufficiently ‘punished’. He tried to trick Bumbireh’s king into a trap by holding another leader until the king was forcibly delivered as ransom. He then ‘prepared a force of 280 men, 50 muskets, 230 spearmen, placed them in 18 canoes’, and circled back in the water to make an unexpected appearance at a cove on the island. The spearmen were not needed. ‘The savages,’ as Stanley reported in the paper,
rose from their coverts and ran along the hill slopes to meet us, which was precisely what I wished they would do, and accordingly I ordered my force to paddle slowly so as to give them time. In half an hour the savages were all assembled … I ordered a volley to be fired at one group which numbered about fifty … I then ordered the canoes to advance within fifty yards of the shore, and to fire as if they were shooting birds. After an hour the savages saw that they could not defend themselves … [I] told [the canoes] to advance in a body to the shore as if they were about to disembark. This caused the enemy to make an effort to repulse our landing … the bugle sounded … and another volley was fired into the dense crowd, which had such a disastrous effect on them that they retired far up the hill … and our work of punishment was consummated.
The next day Stanley returned and fired a few more shots at the same beach, until people came to him at the water’s edge and begged to be left alone, whereupon Stanley rebuked them for their lack of hospitality.
College Park, Maryland
Vol. 29 No. 12 · 21 June 2007
As the author of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, I am responding to Paul Landau’s assertion (Letters, 24 May) that Bernard Porter, in his review of the book, was wrong to have been convinced by me that Stanley was not as bad as he has been painted. To try to prove his point, Landau gives an account of Stanley’s two visits to the island of Bumbireh that lacks context and is misleading.
Stanley did not arrive on his first visit to Bumbireh ‘outfitted with Mutesa of Buganda’s bearers and canoes’, as stated by Landau, but with 11 starving African (Wangwana) oarsmen in one storm-battered open boat. Though Stanley spotted armed men near the shore on Bumbireh, hunger obliged him to risk landing and trying to buy food. His boat was rapidly surrounded by spearmen and carried up the beach. For several hours Stanley and his men expected to be killed, until Chief Shekka told them they could depart in peace if they handed over their trade goods. This they did, only to be robbed of their oars. Believing that Stanley could not leave, the islanders relaxed their vigilance, and he and his men managed to launch their boat and paddle away, using the bottom boards. Stanley fired buckshot at his pursuers to stop them grabbing the sides of his boat. None of these facts about Stanley’s first visit to the island is mentioned by Landau, who makes it sound as if he fired on the islanders for no reason at all.
Far from wishing to return to punish Bumbireh, as Mr Landau claims, Stanley wanted to bring his main expedition – then camped on the southern shores of Lake Victoria – back to Buganda overland, and never again to go anywhere near the island. But the two paramount chiefs of the mainland territory opposite Bumbireh would not allow him to cross their land. This was not primarily due to his behaviour. Arab-Swahili slave traders had reached Lake Victoria twenty years earlier and had found African rulers (including Mutesa) willing to sell men and women to them. The atmosphere around the lake had subsequently become poisoned with suspicion between tribes and with hatred of strangers. Stanley therefore had to buy canoes to transport his main expedition across the lake. But the only vessels he could purchase were rotten, and started to sink in a storm soon after he had launched them. He abandoned his plan to cross the middle of the lake. Instead, he realised he would have to sail through the strait between Bumbireh and the shore, risking simultaneous attack by canoes from the island and from the shore.
In an attempt to neutralise the islanders, Stanley captured Bumbireh’s chief by a ruse and made his unopposed passage through the strait a condition for his release. But he also urgently needed to buy food for his expedition, which had been increased by a large contingent of Bugandans sent by their king to protect him. To see whether the islanders would be willing to allow him peaceful passage, Stanley and the Bugandans sent a delegation to Bumbireh to buy food. The islanders killed the delegation’s leader and severely wounded six other men, some of whom later died. Stanley was now persuaded that a pre-emptive attack on Bumbireh was needed if he and his men were to have any chance of passing through the strait unharmed. ‘We went into the heart of Africa self-invited,’ wrote Stanley, ‘therein lies our fault. But it was not so grave that our lives should be forfeited.’ After his attack on the island, Stanley prevented the Bugandans from landing and carrying out a general massacre. That Stanley really did prevent it is confirmed by his companion Frank Pocock in his diary.
Instead of mentioning any of these background facts (all of which are laid out with sources in my book), Landau chose instead to rely entirely on one of Stanley’s least reliable despatches to the New York Herald, which, like so much of his journalism, is full of exaggeration. By selecting such spiced up passages (written with newspaper sales in mind), and ignoring other sources, it is never hard to misrepresent Stanley.
I’ll leave the truth of the Bumbireh episode to others to determine. All I want to add is that both Tim Jeal and Paul Landau are mistaken in inferring that I was persuaded by the former’s defence of Stanley. Rereading the original article, I think it’s plain that I was generally sceptical of Jeal’s approach.