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.

Third, if they might not have been strictly justified, they may nonetheless have been excusable, usually because of Stanley’s sufferings, either on his expeditions (the fevers and so on) or because of his background. The ordeals of African exploration at this time were frightful – you were lucky if you returned with two-thirds of your original body weight and able to hold a glass steadily – and required special qualities, in Europeans and their African servants alike. ‘She is cruel and wild and demands the best of man’s parts to enjoy her,’ Stanley wrote to one of his travelling companions, who was getting fed up with ‘her’; ‘but once a man has conquered himself Africa has as much loveliness as another continent. The fault lies in the man.’ Stanley managed to conquer himself – the travelling companion didn’t, dying a few weeks later, as so many of them did – but clearly at a cost.

Stanley’s background is the other mitigating factor. Jeal makes a great deal of the workhouse boy who never knew his father and was rejected by his mother (which is why he tried so hard to keep the Welsh stage of his life so secret, even denying it more than once); the grown man ‘hooted at, reviled and calumniated’ by polite society, and spurned by women because he was a ‘base born churl’. This again strikes one as odd. Stanley did spend some years in America (mainly in the South), and learned a lot from its democratic spirit, possibly its gun culture and its showmanship. It is a little surprising that he didn’t also take on board the typical American pride in having worked one’s way up. (Some of his upwardly-mobile English friends felt he ought to have done.) Still, there is no doubt that the sensitive soul beneath the ‘hard’ masculine exterior was tormented by these things. His was a deeply damaged personality. In an ideal world perhaps, people like him shouldn’t have been allowed to travel in places like Africa with guns. (But then that might have excluded everyone who wanted to go there.)

To pass further down the line of justifications: even if we can’t bring ourselves to excuse some of these ‘crimes’ of Stanley’s, we need to put them in perspective. Most 19th-century African explorers behaved much as he did, pace the good dean; they just haven’t been found out. No one could now say that Livingstone was a saint in his treatment of Africans, as Jeal’s 1973 biography of him showed (Jeal is as adept at pulling down saints as at raising up villains). Ironically, it was Stanley who was chiefly responsible for establishing Livingstone’s sanctity, papering over his less attractive side; mainly because – as Jeal puts it – ‘to have “found” a forgotten saint made a better story than to have found an embittered recluse.’ That then rebounded on Stanley, as his exploits were measured against his own Livingstone myth. His mistake was to have admitted to his excesses, as General Gordon – another Christian ‘hero’, who was nonetheless responsible for far more atrocities than Stanley was – once pointed out: ‘these things,’ he said, ‘may be done but not advertised.’ Jeal also reminds us that floggings were common in British society – in public schools, in the navy – so it wouldn’t have struck British contemporaries as so remarkable that Africans were flogged (except that many Britons opposed domestic flogging, too); that African polities could be just as cruel, which is undoubtedly true, and is presumably meant to imply that Africans wouldn’t have been too shocked either (except they were); and – here we reach the very bottom line – that the deaths inflicted by Stanley and all the other explorers pale into insignificance by comparison with ‘official’ British killings: the 11,000 Sudanese slaughtered by Kitchener’s army, for example, in the Battle of Omdurman alone. It is difficult to argue with that. Incidentally, Jeal believes that Stanley cannot have been the model for Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Most modern Conrad scholars would agree – I’m told that current research favours Léon Rom. But the point about literary models is surely that they can be multiple.

There are other things to be said in Stanley’s favour. For a start, he deplored the ‘needless slaughter of wild animals’ for sport; and found it ‘simply incredible that because ivory is required for ornaments or billiard games, the rich heart of Africa should be laid waste’ – though that didn’t stop him adding a billiard room to the mansion he bought in Surrey, just before his death. Second, though his motives may not always have been of the best – self-advertisement was clearly one of them, at least at the start – neither were they the worst; he wasn’t materially greedy, for example. Some could even be considered noble: scientific enquiry, or putting down the Arab slave trade. He did not exploit African or Arab women sexually, as most of his European companions did, partly out of revulsion at his own mother’s promiscuity (he was illegitimate), and partly from fear of contracting VD. (He was clearly tempted, though; one passage in his diaries refers to ‘vile thoughts that stained the mind’.)

More important for our times (and for liberals in his own), Jeal claims that he was not racist, generally preferring Africans to Europeans – especially upper-class Brits – for company, and speaking of them admiringly, and not merely patronisingly, on many occasions. He liked them better if they were trustworthy and faithful, but the same could be said of his preferences among Europeans. He was highly critical of foreign explorers’ and officers’ racist attitudes, and believed Britons could never treat Africans as badly as, say, the Belgians (the worst): though how he could persist in this view after the Barttelot and Jameson affair rather beggars belief. Jeal’s claim also reads oddly in the light of Stanley’s own treatment of many Africans, and of some racist passages in his public statements – referring to them as ‘natural hewers of wood and drawers of water’, for example – unless these were just meant to boost the Vinnie Jones image. There are clearly difficulties here.

On the other hand, he seems to have been truly shocked by the horrors he encountered in the slave trade, and was probably genuine in his ‘mission’ to continue Livingstone’s ‘crusade’ against it. (Interestingly, however, he also claimed that Arab slavery itself – as opposed to the trade – was gentler than it had been in the American South; or even than wage labour in British factories.) Like Livingstone, he believed the slave trade and other barbarities (like tribal wars) were best eradicated by the introduction of ‘legitimate trade’ to Africa. That is a credible view, and certainly wasn’t a mean or merely greedy one at the time. It only became that in the hands of monopolistic exploiters like Cecil Rhodes, whom Stanley met once, and disliked. International competitive trade, between free agents on all sides, was widely thought to be the solution to most of the world’s ills. Stanley never doubted that it could be the salvation of Africa.

Unfortunately, it was this belief that led him to put his weight behind King Leopold’s Congo scheme in the late 1870s and 1880s: mainly because it was presented, misleadingly as it turned out, in exactly those terms. It was an internationalist enterprise – the ‘International Association of the Congo’, it was called – not a colonial one, which is why it employed non-Belgians like Stanley. It was also supposed to be philanthropic. Jeal argues that Stanley’s involvement with the association, and later with the Congo Free State, was entirely innocent. None of the treaties he personally signed with African chiefs on the association’s behalf got them to alienate their lands. (Later, Leopold doctored some of them to suggest they did.) He only supported the switch from ‘association’ to colony (the ‘Free’ State) because he trusted Leopold to honour the Africans’ rights and the principle of free trade more than he trusted the colonialist and monopolistic French – the perceived villains at the time – who were pressing hard. It could have been Stanley who first gave Leopold the idea of exploiting the Congo’s rubber: ‘Almost every branchy tree has a rubber parasite clinging to it,’ he told the king in 1890. ‘A well organised company will be able to collect several tons annually.’ It was ‘Red Rubber’, of course, that produced most of the later atrocities – African children having their hands cut off when there were shortfalls (the only acceptable excuse was that one of the team had been killed by a lion, and in order to prove it they had to bring in the right hand of the victim). But Stanley could not have anticipated that.

Jeal finds it unsurprising that he should have had no idea that Leopold was plotting to renege on all his good intentions, given that others were fooled, too: except that some were not fooled, including Bismarck – ‘Schwindel!’ he wrote against one of Leopold’s more pious statements about his ‘civilising mission’ in 1884; and Stanley’s diaries show him having suspicions of his own as early as 1879. By the mid-1890s he was persuaded (by men there he trusted) that atrocities were being committed in the Congo, but still believed they were without Leopold’s authority, and urged him to appoint an international tribunal to enquire into them. (Leopold was indignant: why not send one to Ireland, he asked? Or the Philippines?) One way and another there can be little doubt that, in his early journeys, Stanley had no idea that he was contributing to the hell on earth that the Congo later became. It seems likely that the only reason he went along with Leopold for so long afterwards was that ‘the pill of having been utterly deceived was too bitter to swallow whole.’ Stanley was, after all, often deceived.

Jeal thinks he was deceived by his eventual wife, Dorothy (née Tennant), who comes out of this book very badly: resembling ‘a great actress’ who feigned love for him (she really loved Sir Alfred Lyall, but he was married), then wickedly took control of him – never giving him peace to write, forbidding him to accept an invitation to rule British East Africa, as he wanted, dragging him along to hateful ‘society’ occasions, and forcing him to become an MP, which he loathed, and was not good at. (The air in the House of Commons, he said, smelled worse than a tropical swamp.) This image of a henpecked Stanley is a little surprising (Dorothy said what she had originally liked about him was his ‘powerfulness’), and should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. He might have used her as an excuse: he turned down an earlier opportunity to become the chief administrator of the British East Africa Company before she was properly on the scene. It’s a bold biographer who thinks he or she has got to the bottom of a marriage; most of us have never managed to fathom our own.

At least Dorothy appreciated her husband’s heroism. Jeal’s final defence of him is an onslaught on the politically correct thinking (though he doesn’t use that term) that now devalues ‘masculine heroism’ under the influence of ‘sexual equality’, attributing it to chauvinism, or masochism, or worse. Even at the time it wasn’t fully comprehended. ‘The only thing I cannot quite understand is your incentive,’ Dorothy wrote to him (before they married). ‘What is the fuel which makes the water boil, the steam rise and the paddles move?’ But she didn’t doubt that there was something great and noble there. More than a century later – now that such people, Jeal claims, are ‘an extinct species’ – it is even more difficult for us to grasp their willingness to suffer and endure in pursuit of ‘missions’, their ‘longing to solve mysteries’, and their ‘belief that God had sent them’. Instead, we explain them away: ‘What was wrong with those explorers, we ask, knowingly, these days.’ Jeal deplores this. He is probably right, in the sense that this kind of cheap psychoanalysing seems inadequate really to get to terms with them. Whether Jeal’s own harping on the workhouse lad’s continual search for the love of a lost mother explains Stanley any better, or makes him more ‘heroic’, is a matter of opinion.

In the last resort it is more important to understand Stanley than to judge him, and Jeal’s book, based on a rich new archive (masses of papers released only in the last few years, many from the grip of the wicked Belgians), goes a long way to achieving this. You can disregard the special pleading that runs through it, and still gain some fascinating insights into a remarkable man. The most perceptive of his contemporary critics realised that to judge him is to miss the point. H.R. Fox Bourne, secretary of the Aborigines’ Protection Society – often twitted for being an ‘armchair critic’ – wrote in a review of one of Stanley’s books: ‘The Society is not condemning Mr Stanley or his subordinates so much, but the mounting of an expedition with aims and methods which almost necessitated the cruelties and slaughters that were incident to it . . . It seems better to remain in armchairs and pass resolutions than wantonly to embark on perilous enterprises, which can only be carried out by means that degrade Englishmen.’

Stanley too had something to say about the ‘degrading’ impact of exploration. Men like Barttelot and Jameson, he wrote, were not ‘originally wicked’. It was the circumstances of their exile – ‘deprived of butcher’s meat and bread and wine, books, newspapers, the society and influence of their friends’, together with their sufferings, disease, danger and so on – that brought out in them the ‘natural savagery’ that lay safely dormant in most other men. African exploration was almost bound to lead to this: it was the fault of the whole concept. What was the necessity for it? Science was often cited as its justification, but not everyone swallowed that. ‘Perhaps,’ the Saturday Review commented in 1878, with heavy sarcasm, ‘the Geographical Society cannot exist without rivers, and it may be so noble an institution that all the horrors of war must be perpetrated rather than it should perish.’ Lastly, there was the question of legality. Who gave these expeditions the authority to go into other people’s countries, and take the law into their own hands? one commentator asked in 1891. What legally constituted government? If none, they were merely ‘piratical’. In his more reflective moments even Stanley acknowledged this: ‘we went into the heart of Africa self-invited – therein lies our fault.’ Africans had every right ‘to exclude strangers from their country’. So they were fully justified in shooting at him. Self-defence (by the strangers) was no defence at all.

The best excuse for missions like these was probably the humanitarian one, which Stanley milked for all it was worth, probably honestly – though it is difficult to be sure in the case of so devious a man. He will have got that from Livingstone, whom he admired hugely, even adopting him as a surrogate father (he always ached for a father as well as a mother), and who Jeal believes softened and deepened him from the mere Yankee journalist (‘that damned penny-a-liner’) that he was when they met. Central Africa was already suffering long before the new breed of European imperialists arrived in the later 19th century: from indigenous tyrannies, inter-tribal wars, the after-effects of the Atlantic slave trade, and the impact of the Arab slave trade, which was now its greatest scourge. It was this that led Stanley to dub Africa the ‘unhappy continent’, a reputation it still, of course, bears. It also stimulated his belief that Livingstone’s death (in 1873) had ‘left an obligation on the civilised nations of Europe and America, as the shepherds of the world, to extend their care and protection over the oppressed races of Africa’. This could be seen as the beginning of what later came to be called ‘liberal imperialism’. Whether or not he truly believed in this (and Jeal is pretty convincing that he did), it was not an ignoble ideal. Stanley’s tragedy was that of many later liberal imperialists: of good (internationalist) intentions being subverted by a less scrupulous and less altruistic kind of colonialism.