The Great Opportunist

Don't presume you know the strange truth about Henry Morton Stanley.

Reviewed by Jason Roberts
Sunday, December 23, 2007; Page BW08


The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer

By Tim Jeal

Yale Univ. 570 pp. $38

It's hard to imagine a more intriguing -- and intimidating -- challenge to the biographer's art than the life of journalist, explorer and continental opportunist Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904). He is rare among celebrities of centuries past, in that the years have not transmuted his fame into benign augustness nor obscurity, but rather into infamy: Post-Victorian sensibilities have long since extinguished the heroic light once cast upon Stanley's expeditions into so-called "darkest Africa." The man who did more than any other Westerner to illuminate what Joseph Conrad termed "the unsolved mystery of that continent" is now less commemorated for his achievements than condemned for the ruthlessness by which he achieved them.

Even during his lifetime, exploits that once thrilled admirers began to appall. Stanley wrote casually of beating his native porters to perk up "the physical energy of the lazily inclined." He once observed that the massacre of 33 Bumbireh warriors should teach the survivors to "in future behave with some regard to the rights of strangers." Yet as Tim Jeal points out in this commanding, definitive biography, much of this was bluster, calculated to fit the public-consumption ideal of the Great White Conqueror.

The unguarded Stanley was remarkably minimal in his racism, declaring himself "prepared to admit any black man possessing the attributes of true manhood, or any good qualities, to my friendship, even to a brotherhood with myself." The violence he perpetrated was regularly exaggerated, usually by Stanley himself. It's not hard to find evidence of similarly inexcusable behavior among his contemporary explorers -- even the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, whom Stanley famously set out to "rescue" from the African interior, not only killed several natives but punitively burned their huts. None of this serves as an apology for the man, but it demonstrates that is impossible to view Henry Morton Stanley plain. One must filter his image through two distorting prisms, that of his era and of our own.

The overarching challenge of Stanley's biographers has always been one of sorting through the subject's self-perpetuated bits of legendry, glosses on the truth and outright lies, and here Jeal takes an already-fascinating story to new levels. It's long been known that "Henry Morton Stanley" began life as John Rowlands, the illegitimate and abandoned child of a teenage mother in Wales; after years of suppressing that fact, Stanley explained that, wanting to escape both "the stains [of] ugly poverty" and "the odium attached to the old name and its dolorous history," he'd made his way to New Orleans, where he'd been propitiously adopted by the cotton broker Henry Hope Stanley. But Jeal puts forth, for the first time, convincing evidence that this was an utter fabrication. It's likely that Stanley never even met the wealthy merchant whose name he appropriated.

Profoundly rootless in Civil War-era America, the young man drifted through both the Confederate and Union armies, then through the U.S. Navy (which he deserted for the goldfields of Colorado) before seeking glory overseas. He launched an ill-starred expedition to Asia Minor -- in reality, a jaunt on a fruit boat from Boston to Smyrna, which promptly degraded into chaos, claims of horse thievery and a stint in a Turkish prison. But the persona of Stanley the adventurer was born. He was 26 in 1867, when he convinced the New York Herald to underwrite the publicity stunt of tracking Livingstone (who was not lost, just rarely able to communicate with the outside world) to the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Stunt though it was, the trek and two subsequent expeditions proved supreme tests of will. Stanley emerged from Africa 18 years later "like a man of seventy-five: gaunt, hollow-eyed and grim," haunted by the deaths of the vast majority of his traveling companions, famous but constantly in fear of being exposed as the self-creation he was -- or worse yet, as the cast-off, low-caste boy he had been.

Jeal's biography is an unalloyed triumph, not only because it is painstakingly researched and eminently readable, but because it never loses sight of the abandoned child in the man, driving him forward, "able to frighten, able to suffer, but also able to command love and obedience." Such a personality, Jeal notes, is "an extinct species, and all the more remarkable for that." *

Jason Roberts is the author of "A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler."

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