Henry Morton Stanley: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

Henry Morton Stanley, who was to introduce himself with one of the most understated and iconic greetings of all time and is often thought of as an American was in fact born John Rowlands, in Denbighshire, Wales, on 28 January 1841.

The man he knew as his father, also named John, an alcoholic who was rarely home and had little time for the family, in fact wasn’t. His birth certificate indicated that he was a bastard and the stigma of his illegitimacy was to rankle with him for the rest of his life.

The young John was an unwanted child who was farmed out to be raised by relatives and when at the age of ten he, along with his siblings, were reduced to the Workhouse so distant had he become from the rest of his family that when he met them he had to be formally introduced and told who they were.

Conditions in the Workhouse were harsh but John taking advantage of the limited opportunities available worked hard to acquire an education and for a short time was to find work as a teacher, by the age of 18 acquiring enough money to purchase his passage to America.

Although it remains possible he simply stowed away for when the ship arrived in New Orleans he absconded and swam ashore before it docked.

Either way, it was unfortunate timing for in 1859 the United States was on the brink of Civil War.

In no time at all he had befriended a wealthy local trader, Henry Hope Stanley, becoming effectively the old man’s adopted son, taking his name and feigning an American accent.

He was always quick to deny that he might be other than he seemed and of any suggestion that he might be of British extraction claiming that he had never been abroad not even over the border into Canada or Mexico.

Indeed, he invented an entire life history for himself.

He had no time for the Negroes he saw everywhere in the South and became an enthusiastic pro-slavery man not that he had any intention of fighting to maintain the so-called peculiar institution. He wanted only two things in life, to be rich, and to be famous so when he was drafted into the Confederate Army it was only with great reluctance that he took up arms.

Having been taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, he promptly deserted to the other side where he briefly served in the Union Navy before deserting them as well, and for the rest of the war he maintained a low-profile, only emerging once again in 1867 as a journalist.

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The owner of the New York Herald, John Gordon Bennett, was impressed by Morton’s no-nonsense style of writing and by his exploits, mostly fabricated. He soon became the papers Foreign Correspondent where he gained a reputation for always being first with the news, though most of it was inaccurate and made up on the hoof.

Unscrupulous, of unlimited ambition with a broken moral compass and little in the way of probity Henry Morton Stanley was in almost every respect the polar opposite of the man who would make him famous and with whom he would always be most closely associated.

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David Livingstone was born on 19 March 1813, in the Scottish Mill Town of Blantyre and raised in a strict but stable Presbyterian family and although his family, were by no means poor, at least not by the standards of the day, David had to forego a proper education to work up to twelve hours a day in the local Cotton Mill. In the little spare time he had he would read avidly, however.

His father would try to steer his studies towards theology but David was eager to learn science. He believed that the two were not mutually incompatible and that science could be used to do God’s work and in 1840 he moved to London to study medicine.

Once settled in the city he joined the London Missionary Society where he could at last combine his two great passions – medicine and God.

Livingstone was eager to begin his missionary work as soon as possible. He wanted to go to China but the country at the time was in a state of civil war and considered too dangerous. Instead, he was persuaded to travel to Africa.

For all his years of missionary work in Africa he was only ever to convert one man to Christianity, and he was later to be denied Communion for marrying multiple women. In truth, many of the native tribesmen who turned up to listen to his sermons only did so to laugh at and mock this strange white man standing on a pulpit and reading from a book. Livingstone was fully aware that he was little more than a figure of fun and soon decided that God’s work would be better fulfilled in exploration than preaching to the unconvinced and unconverted.

Between 1849 and 1851, he travelled across the Kalahari Desert where he became the first white man to sight the Zambezi River. In 1855 he stumbled across the Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) a giant and spectacular Waterfall that he promptly renamed Victoria Falls; and by the end of 1856 he had become the first white man to travel the width of southern Africa and the geographical and scientific information he gathered was to transform European understanding of the so-called Dark Continent and by the time he returned home he had become a national hero.

Back in Britain, Livingstone published his book “Missionary Tales” which became an instant bestseller and embarked upon a lucrative speaking tour. He was also invited to join the National Geographical Society and petitioned the Government to fund his future expeditions and such was his fame that the Government appointed him its Consul for the East Coast of Africa.

In March 1858, he set out on his Zambezi Expedition to discover a navigable route into the heart of darkest Africa.

But for all his early success he never really had the makings of a true explorer.

He was certainly single-minded and determined but he lacked expertise. He was also a prickly character, moody, self-righteous, and secretive. He rarely shared ideas and was unwilling to accept criticism.

His impetus came from his unwavering religious conviction and his strong sense of predestination. When his wife, Mary Moffat, died from malaria he paused only long enough to bury her but despite his determination to carry on regardless his Zambezi Expedition, despite discovering Malawi, was not deemed a success and the Government ordered its recall.

For the first time in his life the press did not treat him favourably and the criticism he received hurt him deeply.

Still, he remained determined to make amends for his failure and in January 1866, he left Zanzibar to search for the source of the River Nile. Despite discovering Lake Bangewulu the expedition wasn’t a success and those who accompanied him on the expedition found him impossible to work with and soon began to desert and make their own way home. He then had his medicine and supplies stolen and became reliant upon slave traders, whom he professed to despise, for both directions and food.

Indeed there were occasions when he was only provided with food if he agreed to eat in public for the amusement of the natives who had never before seen a white man. By this time he was suffering from pneumonia and cholera and his health was in sharp decline.

Moreover, he was soon to disappear.

No one knew what had become of the great explorer and stories abounded as to his fate – had he gone native? Was being held in captivity? Had he been sold into slavery? Some even suggested that he had been eaten by cannibals, but most assumed that he was dead.

Nothing had been heard of the famous Dr Livingstone for many years and his whereabouts was fast becoming a global fixation.

John Gordon Bennett at the New York Herald thought he had just the man to find him – Henry Morton Stanley. He told his Foreign Correspondent:

“I don’t care how much it costs -Just get me, Livingstone!”

Stanley set about his task with some urgency for his was just one of many expeditions that had set out in search of the great man. He was adept, however at gathering information, or at least bribing people to part with it, and he eventually traced Livingstone to the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

On the late afternoon of 27 October 1871, he approached the famous explorer and uncertain how to greet him nervously uttered the words:

“Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

To which Livingstone replied:

“Yes, that is my name, and I am thankful to be here to welcome you.”

It was a moment of classic understatement.

But Livingstone was clearly no longer the man he had once been. He was pitifully thin, physically weak, and unsteady on his feet. The single-minded determination that had once been the benchmark of his character had diminished to the point where his mind would wander and he would ramble incoherently. In fact, Stanley was later to state that there were times when he seemed in a state of utter confusion.

Despite his best efforts Stanley was unable to persuade Livingstone to leave Africa and return home but over the next few years he was to go some way to restoring Livingstone’s reputation through his columns in the New York Herald.

David Livingstone was never brutal enough to be a truly great explorer. He refused to cajole or beat his baggage handlers and would not intimidate the natives to get his own way. Instead, he tried to learn about and understand the native tribesmen he encountered. His willingness to respect local customs and not try to impose his religion upon them gained him the often grudging respect of tribal leaders but as his missionary work showed, it won him very few converts.

On 1 May 1873, he died of dysentery. The final hours of his life he had spent knelt at his bedside in prayer.

Following his death the publication of his journals which described in gory detail the iniquities of the slave trade helped inspire its abolition around the globe and his exploits encouraged other missionaries to follow in his footsteps.

With Livingstone gone, Stanley was eager to take upon himself his mantle but as he was soon to show the two men approached their work very differently.

Whereas Livingstone travelled light and carried weapons only for self-defence, Stanley’s expeditions were armed camps. Where Livingstone admired the tribesmen he met and treated them with respect, Stanley had nothing but contempt for them believing that shooting a number of natives – taught them a damned good lesson!

In 1876, he was approached by representatives of King Leopold II of Belgium to lead an expedition into the Congo.

He was told that the King wished to bring Christianity and Civilisation to the dark heart of Africa, but the truth was that he wanted to carve out an empire for himself.

The Belgium Congo was to be Leopold’s personal fiefdom, and under his control it was to be the most brutal and repressive regime on the African Continent. His incompetence, mismanagement, and callous disregard for human life lead to the death of around 2 million Congolese men, women, and children.

Despite being lied to regarding Leopold’s intentions, Stanley was only too happy to co-operate, and became the King’s effective Governor in the Congo. He built roads with forced labour and struck deals with slave traders. Any Congolese who tried to resist was summarily executed.

When the events in the Congo made headlines around the world they caused a furore and Stanley was later to deny that he had ever had anything to do with the brutality of the regime.

Eventually in 1908, an embarrassed and humiliated Belgium Government forced the King to hand over the Congo to their care.

In 1886, Stanley led an expedition to rescue Emin Pasha, the Egyptian Governor of the Southern Sudan who had been captured by rebels. The rescue mission was a success but such was the barbarity with which it was carried out that it only served to tarnish his reputation even further.

Returning to England in 1895, Stanley was elected the Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament for Lambeth North, and in 1900 was knighted for his services to the British Empire.

The former Workhouse Boy had gone far and risen high but by the time he died on 10 May 1904, aged 63, he had become best remembered for just four words – “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” which was to become the fun greeting of children for generations to come.

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