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Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer
Tim Jeal
Yale University Press, 2007
570 pp., 38.00

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Ted Olsen

Post-Postcolonial Biography

Stanley in Africa.

Americans of a certain age associate "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" not with Henry Morton Stanley but with Ernie the Muppet. In a 1983 Sesame Street sketch, Ernie and Bert trudge "hundreds of miles through the hot steaming jungle, hungry, thirsty, tired" to "find Dr. Livingstone." Ernie eagerly shouts his greeting to a fireman, then a cab driver, before finally finding the elderly blue physician ("Sam Livingston, jungle doctor," rather than the explorer-missionary David) giving a young girl a checkup. Finally, Ernie asks the question that has sent him on his quest: "What's up, doc?"

Stanley's phrase remains, for many people, the only thing they know of either man. It was a punchline almost as soon as his account of finding Livingstone appeared in the New York Herald on July 2, 1872. "The fact that Stanley would be ridiculed and patronized as a direct result of this greeting, which he almost certainly never uttered, is painfully ironic," Tim Jeal writes in his new biography of Stanley. "He invented it [later] because of his old insecurity about his background. Ill at ease among the British officers in Abyssinia, he had admired their laconic, understated style and had hoped to emulate it … . Henry had thought this the height of gentlemanly insouciance. Of course, many English gentlemen would have thought it unfriendly and absurd. But how could the insecure outsider have known this?"

Jeal does not gloss over Stanley's many errors, exaggerations, and lies, starting with the man's very identity; the Welsh-born John Rowlands invented his name and history as Stanley after a painful childhood. And that childhood, in Jeal's account, comes to explain nearly everything in Stanley's life, from his relationship with Livingstone to his exaggerated capital punishment of deserters to his giving in to his wife's pressure to become a Member of Parliament.

Jeal's use of "Henry" is telling. In his 1973 Livingstone—still the definitive work by which all other Livingstone biographies are measured and fall short—Jeal referred to "David" only in childhood, distinguishing him from his family members. That volume begins with Jeal's promise to strip away heroic myth: "Livingstone appears to have failed in all he most wished to achieve. He failed as a conventional missionary, making but one convert, who subsequently lapsed. He failed as the promoter of other men's missionary efforts." As an explorer? "Portuguese and Arab traders had already reached the center of the continent." He wasn't able to make the Zambezi navigable, he was wrong about the source of the Nile, he was a "failure as a husband and a father," and so the indictment proceeds.

Still, Livingstone was "far more extraordinary than any of the Victorian stereotypes of him," Jeal wrote, and in his conclusion he admitted, "That any man could voluntarily have undergone such hardships seemed, and still seems, so remarkable, that to ask whether he achieved his aims or deceived himself appears in the end almost churlish." In an updated preface to the book in 2001, Jeal says "nothing that has come to light in the interim has led me to alter any of my conclusions," but there is a new emphasis on Livingstone's heroism. "Despite his character defects and his failures, Livingstone remained a very great man whose overall achievement was unique," he wrote. If his 1973 book "differed significantly from depictions of him in all previous biographies," it was "partly because my three predecessors had been clergymen in the thrall of the 'Livingstone myth.' … The picture of Livingstone presented in biographies published after mine has in all factual essentials resembled my own."

"Henry" faces a different context. "It appears to be widely imagined today that Africa was a paradise before Stanley and other explorers entered it," Jeal laments in his introduction. "The shadow of [arch-exploiter King Leopold II of Belgium], the misdeeds of the officers of the Rear Column during Stanley's last expedition and his pre-emptive attack on the natives of a small island have dogged Stanley down the years, and have combined to prevent his being remembered in any positive way."

As he unmasked Livingstone the superhero, Jeal very openly sets out to redeem Stanley the arch-villain. "The facts of Stanley's life, and the truth about his personality, can (and I believe will) rescue his posthumous reputation," he writes. "[O]ne day, Henry Morton Stanley will no longer be a scapegoat for the postcolonial guilt of successive generations." Instead, Jeal insists, he will be remembered as Africa's greatest explorer. But not only that:

"Dr. Livingstone I presume" has been remembered, but not his wretched Welsh childhood and the workhouse, not the suffering, not the working class companions, his Civil War fighting [for both the Confederacy and the Union], his gold rush failures, Turkish fiasco, enlightened reporting of the Indian wars, triumph in Abyssinia—virtually none of the elements that made Stanley such a unique British hero, though of course he is not acknowledged as such. He had packed more into his life before he set out to find Livingstone, aged twenty-nine, than many adventurers could claim to have experienced in their entire lives.

And Stanley lived another 34 years. After his meeting with Livingstone, he located the source of the Nile, crossed Africa from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic (tracing the Congo River and circumnavigating both lakes Victoria and Tanganyika), set a series of pioneering trading posts in the Congo for the duplicitous Leopold, rescued the governor of Equatoria from the Mahdists (not that Emin Pasha really wanted to be rescued), and served in Parliament.

Even at 475 pages (not counting sources, notes, and index), it's a wonder that Jeal could fit all this in. Stanley's last major biographer, Frank McLynn, took two volumes. They were, shall we say, less positive than Jeal's. McLynn's Stanley, whom he called a "Sorcerer's Apprentice" in the title of the second volume, was driven by "homicidal impulses," repressed homosexuality, and "a volcanic rage against the world." Jeal, however, had access to thousands of newly available primary materials at Belgium's Royal Museum (his Livingstone biography paid off well with new contacts). The result is a deeply researched story—and one that ends up reading quite a bit like his biography of Livingstone.

This is a compliment. Stanley deserves to be hailed as the year's best biography, just as Livingstone rightfully remains in print as required reading for anyone interested in African history, Victorian Britain, foreign missions, and a host of other subjects. And as determined as Jeal is to pull Stanley out of Livingstone's shadow, the two men seem inextricably joined in his telling. Granted, it has been clear since 1872 that Stanley saw Livingstone as a father figure. "His manner suits my nature better than that of any man I can remember," Stanley wrote. "I should best describe it as benevolently paternal." Livingstone likewise said that Stanley "has acted as a son to me." But beyond that, and even before their meeting, the two men shared traits that set them apart together. (Guess which man Jeal describes as "capable of ruthless cruelty"? Or which conclusion explains that the explorer's "yearnings for praise and recognition were very human weaknesses, especially in light of his struggle" to escape his troubled childhood?)

On the surface, Christianity in particular might seem to separate the explorers. Stanley had bluntly stated, "Very little veneration do I have for any church … . People are too muffled up in the infallibility of their own sects." By contrast, even those who say Livingstone abandoned his missionary work for exploration do not question his devotion to the gospel. (I tend to believe Livingstone was right when he described himself as consistently a missionary, "not a dumpy sort of person with a Bible under his arms, [but] serving Christ when shooting a buffalo for my men or taking an observation, [even if some] will consider it not sufficiently or at all missionary.")

But by Jeal's (admittedly stingy) count, the two men made the same number of converts: almost one. (Livingstone's backslid into polygamy; Stanley's never gave it up). Both made strong overtures for missionaries to follow in their wake. ("I am no missionary," Stanley wrote in a letter from Uganda published in the Herald and Britain's Daily Telegraph. "But oh that some pious, practical missionary would come here! What a field and harvest ripe for the sickle of civilization!" The letter raised £24,000, and missionaries were off to Uganda within the year.) But both were less pleased with the missionaries themselves. Livingstone tended to like missionaries in principle, but not in person. Stanley liked several of the missionaries he served with but mocked the ones who couldn't resist "chucking some of those Bibles at some of those negroes' heads." Stanley, in fact, wondered if Livingstone complained too much about his accompanying missionaries. ("When he reiterated his complaints against this man and the other, I felt the faintest fear that his strong nature was opposed to forgiveness and that he was not so perfect as the first blush of friendship I thought him.")

Both men felt called by God to open up the heart of Africa to "Christianity, commerce, and civilization," and thus end the cruel Arab-Swahili slave trade that continued to terrorize the continent. Stanley, who spoke of recognizing "the Divine Hand" in his work, put it more vaguely than his hero, who once told him, "Christ was the beginner of the Christianity that is now spread over a large part of the world. I feel sometimes as if I was the beginner for attacking central Africa." And both men had reservations about this God-given work. "The natives always become much worse somehow after contact with the Europeans," Livingstone lamented. Stanley agreed. "We went into the heart of Africa self-invited," he said. "Therein lies our fault."

But note a key difference between those rueful statements: Livingstone seemed to exempt himself from any blame attaching to "the Europeans," and let his readers do the same. (Never mind that he was lauded as a hero of the empire and buried in Westminster Abbey.) Stanley, on the other hand, saw (sometimes) that his efforts were part of the problem, and has for a century suffered a scapegoat's curse.

By pointing out Livingstone's flaws and Stanley's accomplishments, Jeal has endeavored to make each man less of an icon. What remains less clear is whether we should prefer this kind of history. Neither the person who sees "Dr. Livingstone I presume" as a punch line nor the one who sees it as the hailing of a hero wants to hear that it didn't happen. If two men just shook hands in a jungle, did they make a sound?

Ted Olsen, managing editor for news and online journalism at Christianity Today magazine, has been geeked out on Livingstone since editing Christian History's issue on him in 1997.

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