From a workhouse in Wales to establishing one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, the story of Henry Stanley’s life (1841-1904) was as unlikely as anything in Victorian pulp fiction.

After being raised as an orphan in North Wales, Stanley emigrated to the United States to start a new life in New Orleans. It was the time of the American Civil War and somehow Stanley managed to see action fighting for both sides before taking up a career in journalism that was to take him to the gold rush towns of Colorado and reporting on the Indian wars of 1866.

Landing a job with the New York Herald  he was sent to Africa to cover the Abyssinian Campaign (1868) in which a British expeditionary force was sent to rescue Emin Pasha,  the Ottoman-German physician, naturalist, and governor of the Egyptian province of Equatoria on the upper Nile. Although failing in its primary objective, the expedition accomplished great things, Stanley discovered the great snow-capped range of Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, besides a new lake which he named the Albert Edward Nyanza, and a large south-western extension of Lake Victoria, and he had come upon the pygmy tribes that had inhabited the great African forest since prehistoric times. On his way down to the coast Stanley had concluded treaties with various native chiefs which he transferred to Sir William Mackinnon's company, and in so doing laid the foundation of the British East African Protectorate. Stanley’s account of this was published in 1890 as In Darkest Africa.

After this, in 1871, Stanley went to begin the search for Dr. David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer whose whereabouts in central Africa had become a question of international concern since his last letter of 30 May 1869.

Stanley meeting Livingstone

Stanley meeting Livingstone under the American flag.

Within a month, the novice explorer had outfitted his expedition with the best of everything, and had prepared for almost every contingency—except failure. He divided his men into five caravans and sent them out on a staggered schedule. Through bouts with fever, hostile encounters, and the deaths of two of his caravan leaders, Stanley trudged toward Ujiji on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, where a sick and weak older white man was rumoured to reside. The journey lasted 236 days. On the morning of 3 November, with an American flag flying on a pole, Stanley led his remaining fifty-four men down a mountain toward a lake and his historic meeting with Dr. Livingstone.

Stanley’s dispatch about the event took eight months to reach the coast by messenger. From Zanzibar it travelled to Bombay, where it was telegraphed to London, then relayed to New York. On 2 July 1872 the front page of the New York Herald informed the world that Livingstone had been found. With Stanley’s care and attention, Livingstone regained his strength, and the pair spent four months together, bonding almost as father and son.

Stanley returned to Europe to a hero’s welcome, though he had to contend with accusations that the Livingstone letters and journals he brought back were forgeries; members of the Royal Geographical Society wanted to ignore the American who had found “their man” in Africa. However, having received the gratitude of Livingstone’s family and official thanks from Queen Victoria, the public’s appetite for his published story was voracious, as the account in How I Found Livingstone (1872) attests.

Ever on the go, Stanley commanded the Anglo-American expedition to Central Africa, undertaken between 1874 and 1877. The discovery of the course of the Congo, though the greatest, was but one of the many geographical problems solved during this memorable expedition.

Vast in size,  the procession that departed from Bagamoyo (Tanzania) on 17 November 1874 stretched for more than half a mile and included dozens of men carrying sections of the Lady Alice, the boat named for his seventeen-year-old fiancée, with which Stanley intended to explore Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika and Livingstone’s Lualaba River. During the next two and a half years, the expedition would struggle in temperatures reaching as high as 138 degrees; the powerful Emperor Mtesa of Uganda and the Wanyoro chief Mirambo would consume a great deal of Stanley’s time and test his diplomatic skills; he would have to negotiate with a notorious Arab ivory and slave trader named Tippu-Tib for safe passage of his men through the great rain forest; and he and his men would fight more than thirty skirmishes and battles on land and water against hostile tribes.

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STANLEY, Henry Morton. Through the Dark Continent or the sources of the Nile around the great lakes of equatorial Africa and down the Livingstone River to the Atlantic Ocean. Sampson Low, London, 1878.

The geographic prizes Stanley achieved on this expedition were unparalleled. He spent almost two months circumnavigating Lake Victoria, confirming that the only outlet was at Ripon Falls and hence establishing for good, he thought, the source of the Nile. He scouted Lake Albert, then moved south and west to Lake Tanganyika, which he also circumnavigated, proving it had no connection with Lake Albert. Stanley then solved the remaining geographical puzzle, determining that the Lualaba was not part of the Niger or Nile rivers but ultimately flowed into the Congo. He reached the Atlantic Ocean on 9 August 1877, after a journey of more than seven thousand miles, in utter exhaustion. Back in London, he learned that Alice had not waited for him. This formed the subject matter of Through the Dark Continent (1878).

Stanley’s final major book was The Congo and the founding of its free state (1885), in which he recounts how, in 1879, he went to the Congo after a meeting with King Leopold to explore the possibilities of development of the region. He secured for the Belgian Association Internationale the whole south bank of the River Congo and the north and west shores as well beyond the confluence with the Mobangi. He set up trading posts and established treaties with the local rulers and went on steadily with his political and pioneering work along the thousand miles of the navigable Congo from Stanley Pool to Stanley Falls, laying the foundations of that vast administrative system, extending from the Atlantic to the great lakes, and from the Sudan to Barotseland, which became the Congo State.

To this day, Henry Morton Stanley's legacy remains mixed.  Amidst his grand geographical achievements lie accusations of cruelty against Africans from both contemporaries and those who had served under him.  The nickname given by the Congolese to Stanley of 'Bula Matari' (that currently headlines his gravestone in Surrey) may refer to his honest hard work - or his pointless aggression.  It translates as 'Breaker of Rocks'.