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Sir Henry Morton Stanley (28 January 1841–10 May 1904)


Born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales, Stanley passed himself off as an American to hide the indignity of his lowly, illegitimate birth and workhouse childhood. His fame as an explorer was eclipsed in the public imagination, ironically, by the man he first went to Africa to find –

Dr. Livingstone. And yet by any standard, he was the greater explorer. His life could be a model for any story by G.A. Henty and the events of it are to complex and multifarious to include in a brief history here. Anyone interested in finding out more should consult Tim Jeal’s superb 2007 biography: Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer ( /


In brief then: His mother, Elizabeth Parry was 19 and unmarried when she gave birth to the son of John Rowlands, although Stanley was never sure who his real father was. Parcelled out to his grandfather to bring up, he ended up in the St. Asaph Union Workhouse for the poor and destitute aged five after his guardian’s death. With only an elementary education under his belt, he did a stint as a school teacher until, aged 18, in 1859 he worked a passage across the Atlantic to the United States. Docking in New Orleans, he jumped ship and fell in with a friendly merchant named Stanley who took the Welsh boy under his wing. John Rowlands soon

adopted Stanley’s name and thereafter confected a tale which accounted for his life to that point and banished the truth. Later, the fiction and the truth became confused in his own autobiographical writings.


Stanley was a reluctant participant in the American Civil War, first on the Confederate side and then, after being taken prisoner in the battle of Shiloh (1862), he switched sides to the Union and served in the Navy but soon deserted. In an effort to find something he could do to improve his position, he began a career as a journalist. In that dubious capacity he arranged an expedition to ‘explore’ Asia Minor. It was an ill-planned disaster which fortunately did not end the life of the young companion he dragged along with him, but did end in a short prison term in an Ottoman jail.


Ever a good self-publicist, on his return to America Stanley ‘adventurous’ lifestyle and his direct style of writing led him to being retained as a newspaperman by James Gordon Bennett, founder of the New York Herald, who was impressed by the young man’s exploits. He became one of the Herald’s overseas correspondents and lobbied the proprietor for a chance to go and David Livingstone in 1869. The Scottish missionary and explorer had disappeared in Africa and no communications had been received for over a year. Stanley’s pressure paid off, and he was given virtually unlimited funds to make the scoop of the century and give him the fame he craved.


Stanley sailed to Zanzibar in March 1871, outfitted an expedition and began what would turn into a nightmare 7,000-mile trek with 200 porters, many of whom died of disease, tribal attacks and starvation. He finally encountered Livingstone on 10 November 1871, in Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania. There has been a deal of discussion about the famous greeting, Dr. Livingstone, I presume?, but Jeal’s biography offers the most probable version of the meeting.


Stanley spent months with Livingstone, exploring the region, and on his return wrote his account in How I Found Livingstone; travels, adventures, and discoveries in Central Africa. The publication found enormous success, not least, perhaps, because he exaggerated the violence he had been forced to employ against his porters to keep them marching. The lurid descriptions of floggings were very much to Victorian taste. Working from the Herald’s London offices, Stanley took up his journalism again, and was sent to West Africa at the end of 1873 to report on the Ashanti War, taking along with him as a travelling companion the 16-year-old Anthony Bannister Swinburne. There he met fellow newspaperman George Alfred Henty, who modelled the character of Frank Hargate in By Sheer Pluck on young Swinburne, Stanley’s ’hero-worshipping clerk and valet’. At the end of By Sheer Pluck, there is the fictional exchange when

Stanley offers Frank a place on his next expedition – if he can persuade anyone to fund it.


He did. In 1874, the New York Herald and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, financed an expedition to trace the River Congo from its suspected source to the sea. The stark statistics speak for themselves: 356 men started from the East African coast; over two and a half years later, on

9 August 1877, 114 survivors staggered into the Portuguese trading post at the river’s mouth. Of the several Europeans who accompanied him, Stanley was the last left alive. His book, Through the Dark Continent, was another bestseller.


His reputation suffered badly through his association with Belgian King Leopold II, who had his eyes set on claiming the vast territories of the Congo region not so much as a colony but more a personal profit-making enterprise. This eventually became the Congo Free State, although there was nothing free about it.


In spite of discovering the king’s true intentions of rape and pillage, in 1886, Stanley led the expedition to rescue Emin Pasha, governor of Equatoria in the southern Sudan after he was cut off from Egypt by the Mahdist War. The logical way to Equatoria was from Zanzibar, along relatively well-travelled routes, but King Leopold insisted that Stanley go the much longer and more dangerous route via the Congo, hoping to acquire more territory and perhaps even Equatoria.


This expedition was as arduous as any of his previous forays, resulting a great loss of life, but eventually Stanley met Emin in 1888. After much indecision on the part of the governor, Stanely emerged from the dark interior, reaching Zanzibar with his prize in tow at the end of 1890. Some of the dreadful facts about the expedition – including the revelation that James Jameson, heir to an Irish whiskey manufacturer, bought an eleven-year old girl and offered her to cannibals to document and sketch how she was cooked and eaten – tarnished Stanley’s name.


Stanley entered into politics on his return, becoming the Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament for Lambeth North (1895–1900) and was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1899, in recognition of his service to the British Empire in Africa.

Henry Morton Stanley

The officers of the Advance Column of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, taken in Cairo 1890 after the expedition. From the left : Dr. Thomas Heazle Parke, Robert H. Nelson, Henry M. Stanley, William G. Stairs, and Arthur J. M. Jephson, who tarnished Stanley's name when it was discovered he had encouraged an act of cannibalism.

© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England

Appears in Chapters 2, 7, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23

Henry_Morton_Stanley_1 Stanley-1872

Henry Morton Stanley with Kalulu, the African boy he 'adopted' as his gun bearer and servant. In 1877 Stanley christened the site of the boy’s death on the Congo River  Kalulu Falls. It remains one of the few Stanley place-names that has not been changed.