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Henry Morton Stanley

Dr livingstone, I presume. The infamous meeting of Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone at Ujiji
Dr livingstone, I presume. The infamous meeting of Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone at Ujiji
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Henry Morton Stanley's life was a fascinating mix of heroic adventure, journalism and fantasy. He became famous by finding David Livingstone and writing about it in the New York Herald -- even though Livingstone was not lost.

Stanley was born in North Wales, an illegitimate child, and baptised as John Rowlands. Aged 17, he ran away to sea and in New Orleans gave himself a new name. During following years, he led a roving life in America, working mostly as a freelance journalist. He fought on both sides in the Civil War. In 1867 he became a special correspondent for the New York Herald. Eager for a scoop, the editor, James Gordon Bennett Jr, asked Stanley to go to Africa to interview Livingstone, who had not been heard from for two years. Early in 1871, Stanley set out from Zanzibar with an expedition of 200 men, aiming for the township of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika where Livingstone was based during his search for the source of the Nile. After terrible hardships, Stanley reached Ujiji, where he met Livingstone in the main street, and, famously, raised his hat with the salutation "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" This greeting was almost certainly a later invention of Stanley's as were so many things.

The actual date of the meeting is uncertain but probably was 10 November 1871. The two men explored around Lake Tanganyika together and Stanley encouraged Livingstone to write his famous letter denouncing the slave trade. After four months they separated at Tabora and Stanley returned to Britain. His colourful newspaper accounts were widely ridiculed and the phrase "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" became a music-hall joke.

Stanley returned to central Africa in 1874-1877 to search for the source of the Nile, one of the most important geographical problems for Victorians. His achievements included circumnavigating Lake Victoria (Nyanza) and navigating the whole length of the Congo River. Less interested in missionary activity than Livingstone, he also created a direct link between exploration and colonization by signing trade treaties on behalf of Leopold II of Belgium with African chiefs that helped establish the Congo Free State and ultimately led to the rubber and ivory atrocities. Afterwards he organised an expedition to relieve Emin Pasha, the governor of equatorial Sudan.

A Map of the routes of The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition
A Map of the routes of The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition
Credit: Wellcome Library, London
By the 1880s, he was publicly acclaimed as an authority on African exploration and geography. He received a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, international celebrity and an audience with Queen Victoria. In 1899 Stanley was knighted by the British crown and in 1895-1900 he sat in Parliament as a Liberal Unionist for North Lambeth.

In later years Stanley made highly successful lecture tours in the United States. The writer Mark Twain even compared him with Christopher Columbus. He published a diary of How I Found Livingstone in 1872 and several books about his travels. He died in London on May 10, 1904. His wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside Livingstone, his hero, was refused. At the end of his life Stanley became friends with the medical philanthropist, Sir Henry Wellcome, who made a substantial collection of archival and manuscript material relating to Stanley's colourful career.

Henry Morton Stanley
Henry Morton Stanley
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Stanley has had something of a poor reputation, his name being associated with the atrocities in the Congo. He has been branded as racist and an agent of a vicious colonialism. Recently, Tim Jeal, one of many, many authors to access the Stanley papers in the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale in Brussels, has made a strong claim that these charges are unfair and were largely concocted by a conservative British establishment that shunned a swaggering, illegitimate Welshman with, admittedly, an enormous capacity to continually reinvent his life and his past.

Bibliography

  • Tim Butcher, Blood river. A journey to Africa's broken heart (London: Vintage Books, 2007).
  • Tim Jeal, Stanley. The impossible life of Africa's greatest explorer (London: Faber and Faber, 2007).
  • Clare Pettitt, Dr Livingstone I presume? Missionaries, journalists and empire (London: Profile Books, 2007).
  • Henry Morton Stanley, How I found Livingstone: travels, adventures, and discoveries in Central Africa, including four months' residence with Dr. Livingstone (London: S. Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1872).

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