NBCC Awards Finalists in Biography: Tim Jeal’s “Stanley”


This is the twenty-seventh in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Tim Jeal, “Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer,” Yale University Press.

“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” is probably the most famous phrase in the history of journalism, remarks Tim Jeal in his biography “Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer.” That the thirty-year-old Henry Morton Stanley said so in encountering the nearly sixty-year-old Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in central Africa in late 1871 “is the most widely known ‘fact’ about him” as well, Jeal continues, while putting forth a convincing case that Stanley “almost certainly never uttered” that greeting.

Stanley’s original diary entry of the day of their meeting makes no mention of it, stating “I saw a pale-looking white man in a faded blue cap with an arc peak, tarnished gold lace, joke red jacket, sheeting shirt, tweed pants, as I saw him I dismounted.” The following two pages of the diary have been torn out and assumedly destroyed. Nor did Livingstone, subject of an earlier biography by Jeal, record the remark in his journal. In Livingstone’s accounts and correspondence of the
meeting, what he repeats is his servant Susi’s shouts of “An Englishman coming” in a group bearing an American flag. The famous quip first appeared in a “New York Herald” dispatch written by Stanley that appeared in July 1872, of which no handwritten original survives.

Jeal asks what motive Stanley could have had for destroying his next crucial diary pages, except to change the record. This is the most iconic but far from the only long-standing public belief about Stanley that readers will find upended in Jeal’s biography, an NBCC finalist and a revisionist look in the best scholarly sense. Stanley and Livingstone may always be twinned, but one of the greatest ironies, Jeal observes, is that Stanley did “more than any living man to create the myth of saintly Dr. Livingstone, only to suffer for it ever afterwards by being adversely compared with the good doctor.” In his research, Jeal found a poignant letter Stanley wrote in 1877, near starvation and pleading for help after tracing the Congo river for 1,800 miles in “one of the most dangerous and sublime journeys of all
time,” in which he felt compelled to identify himself as “the person who discovered Livingstone in 1871.”

Stanley has been twinned as well, to disastrous effect, with Belgian King Leopold II, who was to ravage what he called the Congo Free State as his own preserve. Where other biography has suggested that Stanley was instrumental in duping more than 300 native chiefs out of their land,Jeal was surprised to find in original documentation only a single treaty in Stanley’s hand, which did not require the chiefs in question to surrender their land. Was the widespread belief that Stanley had stolen the Congo for Leopold wrong, he wondered?

Certainly this Welshman, an illegitimate child of unknown paternity who liked to present himself as being of American lineage, was a dissembler, as Jeal demonstrates time and again. Yet he also contends that Stanley knew nothing early on “of Leopold’s cynical intention of one day pillaging the Congo,” and was not the eager collaborator he has often been depicted to be. Stanley “argued against trying to create a state in which whites became local rulers,” and as late as his fifth
year in the Congo (1883), wrote to Leopold “that no Belgian officer or anyone else was entitled to treat the Congolese ‘as though they were conquered subjects … This is all wrong. They are not subjects — but it is we who are simply tenants.” Stanley’s respect for the Congolese people “adds to the irony that he should still be thought of as their exploiter,” Jeal writes. The “ruthless and obsessively driven explorer” of common conception did exist, but in Stanely’s private letters Jeal
has also found a man remarkably different from the public persona we have come to know.  “We went into the heart of Africa self-invited,” wrote Stanley, “therein lies our fault.”—NBCC board member Art Winslow

Review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

in London Sunday Times.

Review in the Washington Post.

Interview in The Guardian.