Henry Morton Stanley

Belgian Congo - Scott #115 (1928)
Belgian Congo – Scott #115 (1928)

On March 21, 1871, Henry Morton Stanley began his trek to find the missionary and explorer David Livingstone. Stanley was a Welsh-American journalist and explorer who was famous for his exploration of central Africa. Upon finding Livingstone, Stanley reportedly asked, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” He is also known for his search for the source of the Nile, his work in enabling the plundering of the Congo Basin region in association with King Leopold II of Belgium, and his command of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. He was knighted in 1899.

The future Sir Henry Morton Stanley, GCB was born on January 28, 1841, as John Rowlands in Denbigh, Denbighshire, Wales. His mother — Elizabeth Parry — was 18 years old at the time of his birth. She abandoned him as a very young baby and cut off all communication. Stanley never knew his father, who died within a few weeks of his birth. There is some doubt as to his true parentage. As his parents were unmarried, his birth certificate describes him as a bastard, and the stigma of illegitimacy weighed heavily upon him all his life.

The boy John was given his father’s surname of Rowlands and brought up by his maternal grandfather Moses Parry, a once-prosperous butcher who was living in reduced circumstances. He cared for the boy until he died, when John was five. Rowlands stayed with families of cousins and nieces for a short time, but he was eventually sent to the St. Asaph Union Workhouse for the Poor. The overcrowding and lack of supervision resulted in his being frequently abused by older boys. Historian Robert Aldrich has alleged that the headmaster of the workhouse raped or sexually assaulted Rowlands. When Rowlands was ten, his mother and two half-siblings stayed for a short while in this workhouse, but he did not recognize them until the headmaster told him who they were.

Henry Morton Stanley, 1872.
Henry Morton Stanley, 1872.

Rowlands immigrated to the United States in 1859 at age 18. He disembarked at New Orleans and, according to his own declarations, became friends by accident with Henry Hope Stanley, a wealthy trader. He saw Stanley sitting on a chair outside his store and asked him if he had any job openings. He did so in the British style: “Do you need a boy, sir?” The childless man had indeed been wishing he had a son, and the inquiry led to a job and a close relationship between them. Out of admiration, John took Stanley’s name. Later, he wrote that his adoptive parent died two years after their meeting, but in fact the elder Stanley did not die until 1878. This and other discrepancies led John Bierman to argue that no adoption took place. Tim Jeal goes further, and, in Chapter Two of his biography, subjects Stanley’s account in his posthumously published Autobiography to detailed analysis. Because Stanley got so many basic facts wrong about his ‘adoptive’ family, Jeal concludes that it is very unlikely that he ever met rich Henry Hope Stanley, and that an ordinary grocer, James Speake, was Rowlands’ true benefactor until his (Speake’s) sudden death in October 1859.

Stanley reluctantly joined in the United States’ Civil War, first enrolling in the Confederate States Army’s 6th Arkansas Infantry Regiment and fighting in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. After being taken prisoner at Shiloh, he was recruited at Camp Douglas, Illinois, by its commander Colonel James A. Mulligan as a “Galvanized Yankee.” He joined the Union Army on June 4, 1862, but was discharged 18 days later because of severe illness. After recovering, he served on several merchant ships before joining the U.S. Navy in July 1864. He became a record keeper on board the USS Minnesota, which led him into freelance journalism. Stanley and a junior colleague jumped ship on February 10, 1865, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in search of greater adventures. Stanley was possibly the only man to serve in the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy.

Following the Civil War, Stanley became a journalist in the days of frontier expansion in the American West. He then organized an expedition to the Ottoman Empire that ended catastrophically when he was imprisoned. He eventually talked his way out of jail and received restitution for damaged expedition equipment. In 1867, Stanley offered his services to James Gordon Bennett Jr. of the New York Herald as a special correspondent with the British expeditionary force sent against Tewodros II of Ethiopia, and Stanley was the first to report the fall of Magdala in 1868. An assignment to report on the Spanish Civil War followed.

In 1869, Stanley received instructions to undertake a roving commission in the Middle East, which was to include the relief of Dr. David Livingstone, of whom little had been heard since his departure for Africa in 1866 to search for the source of the Nile.

Stanley travelled to Zanzibar in March 1871, later claiming that he outfitted an expedition with 192 porters. In his first dispatch to the New York Herald, however, he stated that his expedition numbered only 111. This was in line with figures in his diaries. Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald and funder of the expedition, had delayed sending to Stanley the money he had promised, so Stanley borrowed money from the United States Consul.

During the 700-mile (1,100 km) expedition through the tropical forest, his thoroughbred stallion died within a few days after a bite from a tsetse fly, many of his porters deserted, and the rest were decimated by tropical diseases.

Stanley found Livingstone on 10 November 1871 in Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania. He may have greeted him with the now-famous line, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” It may also have been a fabrication, as Stanley tore out of his diary the pages relating to the encounter. Neither man mentioned it in any of the letters they wrote at this time. Livingstone’s account of the encounter does not mention these words. The phrase is first quoted in a summary of Stanley’s letters published by The New York Times on July 2, 1872. Stanley biographer Tim Jeal argued that the explorer invented it afterwards to help raise his standing because of “insecurity about his background”.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, an illustration from Stanley’s 1872 book How I Found Livingstone.

The Herald‘s own first account of the meeting, published July 1, 1872, reported:

Preserving a calmness of exterior before the Arabs which was hard to simulate as he reached the group, Mr. Stanley said: – “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” A smile lit up the features of the pale white man as he answered: “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

Stanley joined Livingstone in exploring the region, finding that there was no connection between Lake Tanganyika and the Nile. On his return, he wrote a book about his experiences: How I Found Livingstone; travels, adventures, and discoveries in Central Africa.

In 1874, the New York Herald and Britain’s Daily Telegraph financed Stanley on another expedition to Africa. His objective was nothing less than to complete the exploration and mapping of the central African lakes and rivers, in the process circumnavigating Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika and locating the source of the Nile. Between 1875 and 1876 Stanley succeeded in the first part of his objective, establishing that Lake Victoria had only a single outlet — the one located by John Hanning Speke on July 21, 1862. If this was not the Nile’s source, then the massive northward flowing river called by Livingstone, the Lualaba, and mapped by him in its upper reaches, might flow on north to connect with the Nile via Lake Albert and thus be the primary source.

It was therefore essential that Stanley should trace the course of the Lualaba downstream (northward) from Nyangwe, the point where Livingstone had left it in July 1871. Between November 1876 and August 1877, Stanley and his men navigated the Lualaba up to and beyond the point where it turned sharply westward, away from the Nile, identifying itself as the Congo River. Having succeeded with this second objective, they then traced the river to the sea. During this expedition, Stanley used sectional boats and dug-out canoes to pass the large cataracts that separated the Congo into distinct tracts. These boats were transported around the rapids before being rebuilt to travel on the next section of river. In passing the rapids many of his men were drowned, including his last white colleague, Frank Pocock. Stanley and his men reached the Portuguese outpost of Boma, around 62 miles (100 km) from the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic Ocean, after 999 days on August 9, 1877. Muster lists and Stanley’s diary (November 12, 1874) show that he started with 228 people and reached Boma with 114 survivors, with he being the only European left alive out of four. In Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent (1878) (in which he coined the term “Dark Continent” for Africa), Stanley said that his expedition had numbered 356, the exaggeration detracting from his achievement.

Graffiti engraved by Henry Morton Stanley (the explorer) on the Gate of All Lands at Persepolis, Iran. He engraved his name,
Graffiti engraved by Henry Morton Stanley (the explorer) on the Gate of All Lands at Persepolis, Iran. He engraved his name, “New York Herald”, and the date of 1870. This is one of many examples of graffiti that defaced Persepolis through the ages.

Stanley attributed his success to his leading African porters, saying that his success was “all due to the pluck and intrinsic goodness of 20 men … take the 20 out and I could not have proceeded beyond a few days’ journey”. Professor James Newman has written that “establishing the connection between the Lualaba and Congo Rivers and locating the source of the Victoria Nile” justified him (Newman) in stating that: “In terms of exploration and discovery as defined in nineteenth-century Europe, he (Stanley) clearly stands at the top.”

Stanley was approached by King Leopold II of Belgium, the ambitious Belgian monarch who had organized a private holding company in 1876 disguised as an international scientific and philanthropic association, which he called the International African Association. Soon after Stanley returned from the Congo, Leopold II tried to recruit him. Stanley, still hopeful for British backing, brushed him off. However, Leopold persisted and eventually Stanley gave in.

Stanley, much more familiar with the rigors of the African climate and the complexities of local politics than Leopold, who died in 1909 without ever setting foot in the Congo, persuaded his patron that the first step should be the construction of a wagon trail and a series of forts. Leopold agreed, and in deepest secrecy, Stanley signed a five-year contract at a salary of £1,000 a year and set off to Zanzibar under an assumed name. To avoid discovery, materials and workers were shipped in by various roundabout routes, and communications between Stanley and Leopold were entrusted to Colonel Maximilien Strauch.

It was only then that Stanley was informed of the magnitude of Leopold’s ambition: Stanley was there merely to construct a series of trading stations but was to secretly carve out an entire nation. The instructions were direct and to the point: “It is a question of creating a new State, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the negros. That would be absurd.”

Wonders of the Tropics: Or, Explorations and Adventures in the Wilds of Africa by Henry M. Stanley, and Other World-Renowned Travelers (Henry Davenport Northrop, published by Creore & Nickerson, 1889)
Wonders of the Tropics: Or, Explorations and Adventures in the Wilds of Africa by Henry M. Stanley, and Other World-Renowned Travelers (Henry Davenport Northrop, published by Creore & Nickerson, 1889)

Apparently finding nothing reprehensible about Leopold’s ambitions, Stanley set about his task with a will. For all his social shortcomings in European society, he was undoubtedly the right man for the job. Within three years, his capacity for hard work, his skill at playing one social group off against another, his ruthless use of modern weaponry to kill opponents, and mostly his relentless determination opened the route to the Upper Congo.

In later years, Stanley would write that the most vexing part of his duties was not the work itself or negotiating with the natives but was keeping order in the ill-assorted collection of white men he had brought with him as overseers, who squabbled constantly over small matters of rank or status. “Almost all of them”, he wrote, “clamoured for expenses of all kinds, which included… wine, tobacco, cigars, clothes, shoes, board and lodging, and certain nameless extravagances” (by which he meant attractive slaves to warm their beds).

Exhausted, Stanley returned to Europe, only to be sent straight back by Leopold, who promised him an outstanding assistant: Chinese Gordon, who did not in fact take up Leopold’s offer but chose instead to go to meet his fate at Khartoum. “It is indispensable”, instructed Leopold, “that you should purchase for the Comité d’Études (i.e., Leopold himself) as much land as you can obtain”.

Having established a beachhead on the lower Congo, in 1883 Stanley set out upriver to extend Leopold’s domain, employing his usual methods: negotiations with local chiefs buying sovereignty in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets; playing one tribe off another or even shooting an obstructive chief and negotiating with his cowed successor instead. However, as he approached Stanley Falls at the junction between the Congo proper and the Lualaba, close to the general vicinity of Central Africa where he had found Livingstone six years before, it soon became clear that Stanley’s men were not the only intruders.

Henry Morton Stanley, 1884.
Henry Morton Stanley, 1884.

Tippu Tip, the most powerful of Zanzibar’s slave traders of the 19th century, was well-known to Stanley, as was the social chaos and devastation brought by slave-hunting. It had only been through Tippu Tip’s help that Stanley had found Livingstone, who had survived years on the Lualaba by virtue of Tippu Tip’s friendship. Now, Stanley discovered that Tippu Tip’s men had reached still further west in search of fresh populations to enslave.

Four years earlier, the Zanzibaris had thought the Congo deadly and impassable and warned Stanley not to attempt to go there, but when Tippu Tip learned in Zanzibar that Stanley had survived, he was quick to act. Villages throughout the region had been burned and depopulated. Tippu Tip had raided 118 villages, killed 4,000 Africans, and, when Stanley reached his camp, had 2,300 slaves, mostly young women and children, in chains ready to transport halfway across the continent to the markets of Zanzibar.

Having found the new ruler of the Upper Congo, Stanley negotiated an agreement with Tippu Tip to allow him to build his final river station just below Stanley Falls, which prevented vessels sailing further upstream. At the end of his physical resources, Stanley returned home, to be replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Francis de Winton, a former British Army officer.

In 1886, Stanley led the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition to “rescue” Emin Pasha, the governor of Equatoria in the southern Sudan. King Leopold II demanded that Stanley take the longer route via the Congo River, hoping to acquire more territory and perhaps even Equatoria. After immense hardships and great loss of life, Stanley met Emin in 1888, charted the Ruwenzori Range and Lake Edward, and emerged from the interior with Emin and his surviving followers at the end of 1890. This expedition tarnished Stanley’s name because of the conduct of the other Europeans — British gentlemen and army officers. Army Major Edmund Musgrave Barttelot was shot by a carrier after behaving with extreme cruelty. James Sligo Jameson, heir to Irish whiskey manufacturer Jameson’s, bought an 11-year-old girl and offered her to cannibals to document and sketch how she was cooked and eaten. Stanley found out only when Jameson had died of fever.

Henry Morton Stanley, 1890.
Henry Morton Stanley, 1890.

On his return to Europe, Stanley married Welsh artist Dorothy Tennant. They adopted a child named Denzil who donated around 300 items to the Stanley archives at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium in 1954. He died in 1959.

Stanley entered Parliament as a Liberal Unionist member for Lambeth North, serving from 1895 to 1900. He became Sir Henry Morton Stanley when he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in the 1899 Birthday Honours, in recognition of his service to the British Empire in Africa. In 1890, he was given the Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold by King Leopold II.

He died in London on May 10, 1904. At his funeral, he was eulogized by Daniel P. Virmar. His grave is in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels’ Church in Pirbright, Surrey, marked by a large piece of granite inscribed with the words “Henry Morton Stanley, Bula Matari, 1841–1904, Africa”. Bula Matari translates as “Breaker of Rocks” or “Breakstones” in Kongo and was Stanley’s name among locals in Congo. It can be translated as a term of endearment for, as the leader of Leopold’s expedition, he commonly worked with the laborers breaking rocks with which they built the first modern road along the Congo River. Author Adam Hochschild suggested that Stanley understood it as a heroic epithet, but there is evidence that Nsakala, the man who originally coined it, had meant it humorously.

On June 30, 1928, a set of 15 definitive stamps were released by Belgian Congo utilizing the same 1890 portrait of Henry Morton Stanley (Scott #115-129). These were engraved and perforated 14. The 5-centimes value (Scott #115) was printed in gray black.

Flag of Belgian CongoGreater Seal of Belgian Congo

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