Saturday, 18 January 2014

Remembering Sir Henry Morton Stanley (18 January 1841 - 10 May 1904)

Sir Henry Morton Stanley (born John Rowlands), was born 173 years ago today.

Sir Henry was one of the great explorers of Africa in the Victorian era, along with Richard Burton, John Speke, Samuel Baker, James Grant, and Stanley's inspiration, David Livingstone. In his day, central Africa was a big unknown: the map for this region was a blank.

Stanley authored a number of books:
  • How I Found Livingstone in Central Africa (1872)
  • My Kululu, Prince, King and Slave (1873)
  • Coomassie and Magdala (1874)
  • Through the Dark Continent, 2 vols. (1878)
  • The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State (1885)
  • My African Travels (1886)
  • In Darkest Africa, 2 vols. (1890)
  • My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories (1893)
  • My Early Travels and Adventures in America and Asia, 2 vols. (1895)
  • Through South Africa (1898)
The travel texts offer fascinating and highly educational insights into the unbelievably difficult conditions of central Africa, its peoples, and their environment, particularly along the Congo, as encountered by Europeans for the first time. The mortality rate on each of these trail-blazing expeditions, due to disease, infection, starvation, and attacks from hostile tribes (including cannibals), was enormous. Explorers at this time had no GPS, motorised vehicles, or satellite communications; they were, for all intents and purposes, completely cut off from the outside world, with which they were only able to communicate via hand-written letters, which would take half a year to arrive. There were, of course, no roads, no maps, no amenities. Everything they needed for a three-year expedition had to be carried by hand. Food had to be sourced locally, in a terrain that was entirely unknown and from tribes who could not understand what they were seeing. Any river transport had to be obtained locally, or carved out of trunks. On his first expedition, Stanley sufferent from malarial fever twenty-three times. On his second expedition, he was the only White man left—indeed, by the time he reached the Portuguese traders on the Western coast of Africa, he had become so used to seeing Black faces that he found Europeans weirdly pale. On each he was lucky to have made it alive.

A world of caution, though: sometimes Stanley's account exaggerate the number of expedition members and engage in a certain amount of posturing. Also, The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State is unreliable because his patron, King Leopold II, self-servingly exercised his right to editorial control. For example, treaties granting sovereignty of Congo land were attributed to Stanley when the latter only signed treaties granting tenancy rights.

In the 1890s Stanley also worked on an autobiography, which could have been his most enduring work, but he abandoned the project. The extant text would, nevertheless, be edited by his widow, Dorothy Stanley (née Tennant) and published as The Autobiography of H. M. Stanley (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909). Because Stanley reinvented himself while in the United States in the 1860s, his autobiography is not entirely reliable.

Stanley's legacy is controversial. His exploration initially opened new routes for the Arab-Swahili slave traders, who had been in the continent since the 9th century, and been responsible for the devastation of villages and the depopulation of the region. His subsequent effort to build trade stations along to Congo for Leopold II, King of the Belgians, later proved the first stage in the formation of a colony, the Congo Free State, which became notorious for the ruthless manner in which it was run and exploited for natural resources. This was very different from what Stanley had wanted to do, which was simply to break the Arab-Swahili slavers by introducing free trade under a regime of tenancies, agreed with the local chiefs: the idea was that if Africans could sell raw materials to the European industrial powers, they would no longer need to sell each other, and would thereby destroy the market for slaves. Stanley also wanted a ban on the sale of arms and gunpowder to Africa. He viewed his role as humanitarian, but Leopold II, whose ambition was to own a colony in the Congo and form trade monopolies, kept him in the dark about his intentions. For a number of reasons, Stanley's own published accounts of his expeditions also contributed to the decline in his moral reputation. Biographers have condemned him until recently. Tim Jeal's Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer (2007) is, therefore, a welcome revisionist effort, aimed at rehabilitating this extraordinary man; it benefits from a mass of previously inaccessible source material. I will be reviewing Jeal's biography very soon.

Parts of Stanley's life have been brought to the screen. There is the 1939 film, Stanley and Livingstone; the BBC's 1971 dramatised six-part documentary Search for the Nile; and the National Geographic's made-for-television 1997 film, Forbidden Territory: Stanley's Search for Livingstone. Stanley also appears in Simon Gray's 1978 play, The Rear Column.

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