Henry Morton Stanley

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Henry Morton Stanley


Journalist and explorer


Welsh Workhouse. Originally known as John Rowlands, Henry Morton Stanley was born on 28 January 1841 in Denbigh, Wales. An illegitimate child, Stanley’s early life was unhappy, as he was fostered by reluctant relatives and spent some time in the St. Asaph Workhouse. Although Stanley would construct elaborate tales of persecution in the workhouse and narrate a tale of daring escape from its confines, it seems that his time in St. Asaph was both considerably less dramatic and more productive for Stanley, as he left the workhouse at the age of fifteen with a good education. Finding limited opportunities in Britain, Stanley set off in 1859 for the United States, serving as a cabin boy on an Atlantic crossing from Liverpool to New Orleans. A prominent Louisiana merchant, Henry Hope Stanley, befriended the young Welshman, and in recognition of this debt and with a desire for a new start, John Rowlands adopted his benefactor’s first and last names (“Morton” was added only later in life). After this act of reinvention, however, Stanley soon moved on from New Orleans and began a prolonged period of wandering, during which he served in the American Civil War and in the U.S. Navy, traveled to Turkey, and worked as a journalist on the American frontier. He discovered that he was a better writer than sailor or soldier, and as a result of his gift of self-promotion Stanley soon secured a series of important assignments as a foreign correspondent with a variety of newspapers.

Encounter with Livingstone. In 1867 James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald appointed Stanley as a special correspondent with the British expeditionary force in Ethiopia. As a result, Stanley gained some renown as the first journalist to report the fall of Magdala in 1868. He was then commissioned as the New York Herald’s roving reporter in the Middle East and Africa in 1869. One of Stanley’s main priorities in this new position was to locate David Livingstone, whose fate was shrouded in uncertainty after departure for Africa in 1866 to search for the source of the Nile. In March 1871 Stanley set off from his base in Zanzibar, leading an expedition that was well funded and outfitted by American sponsors. After a difficult period of travel through the conflict-and disease-ridden lands east of Lake Tanganyika, Stanley reached Ujiji, Livingstone’s last known port of call. Stanley soon located Livingstone, who was ill and struggling with limited supplies. The Welsh-American journalist greeted the explorer with the words Stanley later made famous in his own writings: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” After a short interlude exploring the terrain around Lake Tanganyika’s northern shores, Stanley returned to the coast, dispatching fresh supplies to Livingstone with the hope that the great Victorian hero might finally discover the source of the Nile. Stanley returned to London, where he completed his best-selling travel narrative How I Found Livingstone (1872). Amid much controversy over his nationality and qualifications, the Royal Geographical Society awarded him their Patron’s Gold Medal.

Dark Continent. In 1873, around the time of Livingstone’s death, Stanley returned to Africa to serve as a war correspondent in Asante, but by then his primary goal was to extend Livingstone’s pioneering exploration of central Africa. With funding from the New York Herald and London’s Daily Telegraph, Stanley assembled a caravan in Zanzibar, leaving in November 1874 for Lake Victoria. En route, Stanley visited King Mutesa of Buganda, laying the foundations for the establishment of a British missionary presence and the eventual creation of a British protectorate in Uganda. After reaching Lake Victoria, Stanley’s entourage was drawn into several skirmishes with local tribes, and Stanley’s use of force aroused considerable outcry in Britain, where there was growing skepticism of his credentials and methods. Meanwhile, Stanley pushed on from Lake Victoria to Lake Tanganyika, establishing that Tanganyika had no connection with the Nile system. His expedition then headed west to the Lualaba River, which they followed downstream to the sea on 12 August 1877, an epic journey memorialized in Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent (1878).

The Congo. Stanley hoped that the British would capitalize on the knowledge he had gathered by developing the Congo. These hopes were misplaced, and Stanley became disillusioned with Britain. He therefore took service with the King of Belgium, Leopold II, who aimed to annex the region for himself. From August 1879 to June 1884 Stanley was in the Congo basin, where he built roads from the lower Congo into the interior and established steamer routes on the upper Congo. Stanley’s work was to pave the way for the creation of the Congo Free State, under the sovereignty of King Leopold. Stanley returned to Britain in 1885. His role in “opening up” the Congo is described in The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State (1885).

Final Expedition. His final African expedition was to relieve Mehmed Emin Pasha, governor of the Equatorial Province of Egypt, who had been cut off by the Mahdist revolt of 1882. Stanley left England in January 1887, arriving at the mouth of the Congo in March. His expedition reached the navigable head of the river in June 1887. After problems coordinating the two columns of his expedition, Stanley eventually reached Emin. In April 1889 Stanley’s relief party, Emin, and his supporters left for the coast, arriving at Bagamoyo on 4 December 1889. Along the way Stanley identified the Ruwenzori Range (Ptolemy’s “Mountains of the Moon”) and completed the final gaps in European knowledge of the Nile system. Stanley’s immensely popular In Darkest Africa was published in 1890, and in that year he married Dorothy Tennant. He represented North Lambeth in Parliament from 1895 to 1900 and became Sir Henry Morton Stanley in 1899. His death in 1904 marked the passing of one of the most popular and most controversial heroes of the imperial age.


John Bierman, Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley (New York: Knopf, 1990).

Charles P. Graves, A World Explorer: Henry Morton Stanley (Champaign, III.: Garrard, 1967).

Dorothy Stanley, ed., The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909).

Richard Worth, Stanley and Livingstone and the Exploration of Africa in World History (Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 2000).

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