"Dr. Livingstone, I presume," was a catchphrase in its time, and it is this phrase that is remembered, if anyone remembers anything about Livingstone or Henry Morton Stanley who coined it. He coined it, but he did not utter it upon discovering David Livingstone in deepest Africa. In fact, Stanley lied about the phrase, and it cost him some of his reputation, and he was untruthful, too, about his bastard origins, which cost him more, and helped make him controversial in his own time. Tim Jeal thirty years ago wrote a revisionist biography of Livingstone which revealed the explorer and missionary to be decidedly unsaintly. Now he has written _Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer_ (Yale University Press), which takes revisionism in the other direction. Stanley has been scapegoated as being partly responsible for the unscrupulous European conquest of Africa, especially King Leopold's horrors within the Belgian Congo. He has been depicted as a racist, and as a brute. Jeal convincingly shows such concepts to be wrong and unfair. Unlike any previous biographer, Jeal has had access to Stanley's private papers and does a superb job of detection to shed new light on an extraordinary man whose greatest flaws were his scars from rejection as a child and his resultant insecurity, flaws that lay a foundation for his lies and exaggerations which would come back to haunt his legacy.
Stanley was born John Rowlands in Wales in 1841, and was abandoned by his promiscuous teenaged mother; his father is not known. He had a workhouse upbringing, changing his name after shipping to New Orleans. He served in the Confederate and Union armies, and became a reporter, successfully selling an editor on his project of finding Livingston who had left to find the source of the Nile in 1868. He had a subsequent expedition across the continent and down the Congo River, and then one reversing this route. The obstacles of the journeys were appalling; Jeal's descriptions of dangerous animals, starvation, infections, and threats from natives make for riveting but uncomfortable reading. Stanley was glad to be on an expedition, but described himself as having "a careless indifference as to what Fate may have in store for me." Jeal writes, "This fatalism - and the sense that his deprived childhood had left him with precious little to lose - helped him endure misfortune, since it could never surprise him as it did more fortunate men." Stanley admired and respected the African natives, but especially on his final expedition, his officers could treat them with disdain or horrific abuse.
Such events blackened Stanley's reputation, although they were largely beyond his control and completely beyond his own moral uprightness. His reputation has suffered the most by his agreement to work in the Congo for the duplicitous King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold fooled Stanley and most European leaders into thinking that he was taking over parts of Africa merely to eliminate slavery and promote trade, but unleashed astonishingly atrocious horrors of occupation upon the area. Jeal shows that Stanley did not steal land from the chiefs in the Congo, as critics have accused him, and he would not press land deals on behalf of Leopold if they were unfair to the natives. Stanley believed in colonialism, but he had no interest in making his fortune in Africa; his personal fortune was, as he had always planned, from his post-expedition books, which were bestsellers. He was a shrewd judge of the characters of African natives, but he was a naïf in dealing with others; his romantic life consisted of an earnest searching for a partner, repeated jiltings, and finally a late marriage with a politically-striving woman who forced him to into Parliament (he hated it) and kept him from returning to Africa. His faults and misfortunes were many, but he had repeated success in overcoming them, only to fall into a postmortem reputation as a brute and a racist. Jeal's illuminating book is a corrective, and tells an engaging, exciting story of a key figure in the opening of Africa.