Saturday, 20 February 2016

Stanley finds Livingstone, 1871

One quotation that everybody knows is the greeting given in 1871 by the journalist Henry Morton Stanley to the missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone. After trekking across Africa to the shores of Lake Tanganyika in a mission to find the long-lost explorer, Stanley reached out a hand and said: “Dr Livingstone, I presume”.

However, as with so many “everybody knows” incidents, this one is unlikely to have happened exactly as the newspapers of the time would have one believe. There is no direct documentary evidence that the words in question were used, and neither Stanley nor Livingstone left any contemporary record of the meeting. Stanley was, after all, a journalist sent to find Livingstone by the New York Times, and he knew the value of a good human interest story.

The mission to find Livingstone was also not quite as portrayed at the time. The public in Britain and the United States had had their interest in Livingstone’s whereabouts sustained by the Press for years, and Stanley’s journey to find him was merely a culmination of a long-running newspaper story.

David Livingstone (1813-73) was a Scottish medical doctor who had been sent as a missionary to Africa in the 1850s but who had proved to be singularly inept in his role as a converter of Africans to Christianity. Throughout his career there were only two confirmed examples of conversions. However, he proved to be much more successful as an explorer of Africa’s interior, being the first white man to cross the continent from east to west and he was the discoverer and namer of the Victoria Falls. On his return to Britain he became a celebrity, despite his incompetence as a missionary.

In the late 1860s he started to explore the area around Lake Tanganyika as part of an attempt to discover the source of the River Nile. However, his despatches back to Britain failed to arrive and, to all intents and purposes, he was lost in darkest Africa, possibly dead. By November 1871, when Stanley started his search, Livingstone had been out of touch with civilization for five years.

Henry Morton Stanley was an interesting character. Born in Wales in 1841 as John Rowlands, he had emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, been a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, changing sides on being captured, and had finally become a journalist on the New York Times. His experiences as a Southern white man had given him a highly prejudiced opinion of the value of black people, which he took with him to Africa. His harsh treatment of the porters who formed the bulk of his huge exploration party contrasted sharply with the enlightened views of his quarry, Livingstone, one of whose objectives was to put an end to slavery within Africa.

Finding Livingstone was not particularly difficult. Stanley simply headed east from the coast to Lake Tanganyika and, when he arrived, the first person he encountered was Livingstone’s personal servant, who led him straight to the man himself. However, Stanley needed to write a story, and the simple meeting needed a little embellishment. As well as the “Dr Livingstone, I presume” line, Stanley also concocted the idea that Livingstone expressed surprise at the nomination of Horace Greeley as the Democrat candidate for the next United States Presidential election. The notion that a Scottish explorer, “lost” in Africa for five years, should have had the slightest interest in or knowledge of contemporary American politics is surely a far-fetched one, but Stanley was, after all, writing for an American readership which had very different priorities!

Following the discovery of Livingstone, Stanley was supposed to head straight back home, but his naturally adventurous character got the better of him and he stayed with Livingstone until March 1872. Despite their very different personalities, the two men became firm friends.

The story did not have a particularly happy ending. Livingstone died a year later without returning home. Stanley carried on exploring, being the first white man to trace the course of the River Congo from its source to the sea. He also became instrumental in enabling the Belgian King Leopold III to seize the Congo as a personal fiefdom from which the resources of the area were exploited with great rapacity and cruelty. It is ironic that Stanley’s efforts helped the slave trade in the Congo to flourish, which would have horrified his former friend David Livingstone.

A further irony of that famous meeting on the shores of Lake Tanganyika was that the decent and honourable man, Dr Livingstone, died alone and largely forgotten, far from home, but the cruel, racist and money-grabbing Henry Morton Stanley lived to become a British Member of Parliament and to be honoured with a knighthood in 1899. He died in 1904.

© John Welford