15 June, 2007Issue 6.3AfricaHistory

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Revisiting Darkest Africa

Brian Murray

Tim Jeal
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer
Faber, 2007
608 pages
ISBN 978-0571221028

The recent controversy surrounding Tintin’s allegedly racist adventures in the Congo – which led to the book being removed from the children’s section of many bookshops – indicates how far we have come from the era of high colonialism. The adventures of African explorers, stories of brave men in pith helmets civilising (and occasionally slaughtering) savages were, for the Victorians, the staple of children’s adventure stories and adult magazines alike. Throughout the twentieth century, the figure of the African explorer has suffered a dramatic decline in status. Once the pioneer of progress and the beacon of civilisation, he is now more often presented as a ruthless treasure hunter, the leader of the scramble for Africa, the instigator of Europe’s brutal colonial subjugation of the “dark continent”. From Conrad’s Kurtz to Herzog’s Aguirre we’ve come to accept explorers as morally suspect figures, representatives of the corrupted ideals of civilisation.

The reputation of Henry Morton Stanley has suffered more than most in our post-colonial revision of the age of exploration. A controversial figure even in his time, Florence Nightingale and William Morris were among the eminent Victorians who openly criticised his violent escapades. Modern historians and biographers have labelled Stanley a butcher and a publicity hound. In Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer Tim Jeal’s aim is to salvage Stanley’s reputation from, what he labels, “the post-colonial guilt of successive generations”. In so doing he reveals the truly fascinating Victorian fairytale that was Stanley’s life.

Born John Rowlands in the village of Denbigh in North Wales, he was the illegitimate child of publican mother. Stanley was abandoned by his family at an early age and left in the care of a local workhouse. At the age of seventeen he was employed by a merchant vessel at Liverpool, which took him to New Orleans where he immediately jumped ship and set off in search of a new life and a new identity. While working as a shop boy he concocted a story that he would uphold for the rest of his life. Rowlands claimed that he had been befriended by Henry Stanley, a wealthy businessman, who had adopted and re-christened him with his own name. Stanley began to conceal his Welsh background – even when he had achieved world fame he would maintain he was born in Missouri. After New Orleans he moved west to Arkansas, where he worked at a remote general store. Stanley soon adjusted to the conventions of frontier life, purchasing a Smith and Wesson and practising his aim on tin cans until he became crack shot. When Civil War broke out, he enlisted with the Confederates and was captured by the Union Army at the Battle of Shiloh. He then went on to serve in the Union army and later the navy before deserting from both.

After the war Stanley found his calling as a journalist, covering the Indian wars in the American West and Britain’s 1868 campaign against Ethiopia before convincing the editor of the New York Herald to fund an expedition to Central Africa in search of the famous explorer and missionary David Livingstone. Stanley’s inexperience as an explorer made the success of this expedition all the more impressive. He found Livingstone at the Arab settlement of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where, dressed in a new flannel suit for the occasion, he shared a bottle of champagne with the missionary. The famous meeting would stand as Stanley’s greatest scoop, his own book length account of the journey How I Found Livingstone (18720 would become a bestseller, and Stanley would be kept busy retelling the story at public lectures for years to come.

In Britain, however Stanley, was snubbed by the Royal Geographical Society – the organisation that had honoured all the great African explorers. Stanley had beaten the official British relief expedition to Ujiji, and the officers and scientists of the Royal society were slow to admit that a lowly American journalist had outstripped them. Stanley’s remarkable ability for self-promotion, however, meant that he did not need the endorsement of the Geographical establishment. His three subsequent journeys to Africa would clear up the last mysteries of Central African Geography (most importantly the “Source of the Nile” debate), and each of his expeditions were followed by a successful book and lecture tour. After his final African expedition to relieve to Emin Pasha, the besieged Egyptian of Equatoria in the Sudan, Stanley would spend a mere 50 days writing his two-volume epic In Darkest Africa, which was the most popular publication of 1890, selling 150,000 copies in that year alone. On his return to Britain, the establishment could no longer ignore the hype. Stanley was invited to address the Royal Geographical Society, and there was such a demand for seats that the lecture was moved to the Royal Albert Hall.

The greatest cloud hanging over Stanley’s reputation is his pioneering work in the founding of the Congo Free State, the old stomping ground of Tintin, for King Leopold of Belgium. The atrocities that would later come to light in Roger Casement’s famous report on the Congo rubber trade shocked the world and led to international condemnation of the colony Stanley had established. In his new book, Jeal argues convincingly that Stanley embarked upon the Congo project with altruistic intentions, convinced, like many of his contemporaries (including Livingstone), that “opening the continent to European influence” was “imperative on humanitarian grounds”. European trade and customs were meant to wipe out the Arab slave trade that still terrorised Africa in the late-nineteenth century, and the continent and its people would be exposed to the enlightening influences of European education and Christian faith. Like all of his projects, Stanley leapt into the Congo scheme with unmatchable zeal. His reputation for leading by example earned him the Swahili nickname “Bula Matari” – the Breaker of Rocks – as he ploughed a narrow path of European influence through the dense jungle of the Congo basin. If Stanley was guilty of anything during his time in the Congo it was political naivety. He was effectively duped by the King into believing that a profitable Belgian colony would benefit, rather than enslave, the native population. Stanley accrued little or no material gain from his time in the Congo and when he began to question the altruism of Leopold’s colonial endeavour he was abruptly dropped from his service and replaced by less idealistic Belgian officers.

The Congo controversy is just one example of many instances in which Jeal convincingly revises the accepted opinion of Stanley’s colonial endeavours. Jeal knows his subject well. He is a biographer of Livingstone and Baden-Powell and is the first researcher to have had access to a massive archive of Stanley’s papers in Brussels. His painstaking research has led to many revelations. The project to restore Stanley’s reputation begins with a touching portrayal of his early years of wandering and his repeated rejections by his mother. When a 21-year-old Stanley made a lengthy and expensive trip back to Wales, he was bluntly told by his mother never to call again until he was in “far better circumstances” than he presently appeared to be. Jeal, however, somewhat overstretches the significance of Stanley’s troubled childhood by attempting to explain all of Stanley ethical faults and misjudgements in light of his social insecurity and humble origins.

On the sensitive topic of Stanley’s violence, Jeal contends that the explorer was not excessive, but rather on a par with his contemporaries. He flogged his carriers for misconduct, occasionally stole from natives and shot Africans who threatened the progress of his expeditions but so had most other explorers, including Livingstone who, partly thanks to Stanley’s writings, had an impeccable reputation in Britain. Stanley’s real fault, according to Jeal, was bragging about it. Most travellers judiciously censored their accounts of violence. As General Gordon would put it: “These things may be done but not advertised”. Stanley, however, with a journalist’s instinct for sensationalism, frequently exaggerated both the frequency of his battles with natives and the body-count of his victims.

Jeal, however, plays down the fact that through the years Stanley’s expeditions became undeniably militaristic in nature. The Europeans who accompanied the explorer on his first two expeditions were navvies and fishermen. On the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, Stanley enlisted the aide of five British officers to lead a well-equipped private army, which frequently resorted to the pillaging and burning of villages for supplies. The worst excesses of the expedition were committed by two of these officers, who had been left in command of a rear column as Stanley advanced through the Congolese rainforests. Major Barttelot and James Jameson, both from wealthy families, purchased sex slaves, beat African carriers to death and effectively drove their troops to a mutiny that would end in the murder of Barttelot. Though Stanley was appalled by their behaviour, he must also bear a large part of the responsibility for leading a group of men into an unmapped and hostile forest where their survival depended on murder and theft. Throughout his career he would never opt for the easiest route to a destination and he privately expressed contempt for explorers who stuck to established Arab trade routes and were transported across the continent by “Arab parcel post”.

Though Jeal is right to contextualise Stanley’s violence in this way, his constant and unfaltering defence of his subject’s frequently brutal and unethical actions become increasingly untenable as the narrative progresses. Stanley’s collaboration with Arab slave traders is justified by the claim that slave owners “treated their personal slaves better than British factory owners treated their ‘free’ workers”, the kind of specious argument that should have died out with abolition. Jeal even condones Stanley’s execution of two carriers for theft and desertion, an act of outrageous hypocrisy given Stanley’s own repeated desertions during the Civil War. It takes a particularly inhuman level of objectivity to accept Jeal’s astonishing conclusion that the loss of approximately one thousand lives during the Emin Pasha Expedition was an acceptable sacrifice in the name of Geography, a sacrifice that “looks modest when placed in a wider African context”. Since Stanley’s violent reputation is largely derived form his own accounts we must either accept Stanley’s version of events and call him a brute, or deny them and call him a liar. Jeal commits to neither. He rubbishes Stanley’s accounts when they expose his cruelty but accepts them as gospel when they portray his restraint. Though he complains throughout of the oversimplified demonisation of Stanley by post-colonial historians, it is his own revisionist polemical stance that detracts from what might otherwise have been an authoritative, if not definitive, biography of Africa’s greatest explorer.

Brian Murray is an MSt student in English Literature at University College, Oxford. He is working on the literature of exploration in nineteenth-century Britain.