When I was a boy, I read a book called something like "With Stanley up the Congo." wehich was a boy's own adventure story type of book which I (being a boy who enjoyed tales of derring do) loved; I was unaware at the time of all the problems involved in colonialism. I thought of Stanley as a British Hero. McLynn's book has certainly changed this idea.
It is an amazing and revelatory book. Stanley was a horrid man. He had a strange relationship with sex. He told appalling lies. He drove his men to death: the first five white men who accompanied him on his explorations all died en route; countless Africans also died. He fought his way across Africa in battle after battle. He epitomised the worst excesses of colonialist racism.
And on a personal level, Stanley's fame in England was such that my grandfather was named after him.
Stanley was born John Rowlands on 28th January 1841 although he was buried with a birth date of 10th June 1840 and he believed for a long time that he had been born in 1843. He was the eldest son of Elizabeth Parry who had four children out of wedlock; he was born in Wales and spent some of his young life in a cottage in the grounds of Denbigh Castle; being an unwanted burden on his family he was taken to the local workhouse (following the death of his grandfather, with whom he was living, he was fostered by a couple who, when Stanley's family refused to continue paying for his upkeep, betrayed Stanley's trust by telling him they were taking him to his Aunt's) when he was six.
McLynn suggests that the workhouse was responsible for Stanley's subsequent dysfunctional sexuality: "The workhouse system was ... a breeding ground of promiscuity, vice and perversion. ... Among the workhouse 'clientele' were prostitutes giving birth of recovering from venereal disease, young girls learning the tricks of the trade from their elder sisters, sodomites and other perverts. The children slept two to a bed, invariably an older with the younger, so that the already depraved corrupted the young. ... We may therefore conjecture that Stanley was at the very least sexually assaulted and manhandled even if he was probably not ... the victim of actual homosexual rape." (C 1)
At the workhouse, Stanley was taught by James Francis. In his adult writings, Stanley characterised Francis as a sadistic monster and tells of an incident when, rather than face a beating, he thrashed the schoolmaster before escaping from the workhouse with a fellow pupil. This incident appears to be made up; the workhouse records show no 'escape' at this time; it is possible that Stanley borrowed the story from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Furthermore, McLynn suggests that Francis favoured Stanley, praising him, buying him cakes, putting him forward for prizes and trying to reconcile him with his mother. He also put Stanley "in charge of discipline during his absence; Stanley ... would thrash enthusiastically any pupil who stepped out of line." (C 1) This portrayal of his teacher seems to be one of Stanley's many misleading statements and outright lies.
Following his troubled childhood, he went to sea as a cabin boy and was brutally beaten which led to him leaving the ship in America. Here he met, a lived with, a childless couple called Stanley; he soon fell out with them. More untruths occur when he describes the death of his adopted father as if he had been there; he records this in his diary: "To lie to the world is one thing; to lie to oneself in the privacy of one's diary argues for serious neurosis." (C 2)
He then enlisted in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War and was captured and spent some time in an appalling prisoner of war camp from which he escaped by the expedient of enlisting in the Union army; he was almost immediately discharged because he was ill. After a period as a merchant seaman he re-enlisted with the Union Navy where he met 15-year-old Lewis Noe; the pair deserted together; he proposed they should make money by Stanley enlisting Noe in another regiment and collecting the bounty, then Noe would desert and they could repeat the operation. Perhaps fortunately the Civil War was over soon after that idea.
He then took Noe to Turkey. The idea was to travel to Persia, pick up the precious stones that littered the ground there, and bring them back to America for sale. But when they arrived in Turkey, Stanley 'tested' the now 17 year old Noe by making him steal from local villages as they travelled. Then, in a forest clearing, he tied Noe up and whipped him in a sado-masochistic frenzy. He then decided to use Noe as bait. He persuaded an Arab that Noe was a girl available for sex; then Stanley attacked the Arab intending to steal his horse but the Arab fought back and, with his friends, hunted Stanley and Noe down. Having captured their prisoners, Noe was then buggered by three men that night while Stanley, also tied up, watched. He claimed to be shocked but one wonders whether he enjoyed it. Somehow Stanley not only got out of the scrape he was in but had the Arab whose horse he had tried to steal arrested and punished. (C 3)
He became famous for his exploration of Africa but it was exploration red in tooth and claw: his journey down the Congo river to the sea was day after day of bloodshed; he shot his way through tribe after tribe who attempted to prevent him 'invading' (as they must have seen it) their territory.
Sexually Stanley appears to have had problems with women whom he either idolised as Madonnas or demonised as whores; “A total loving relationship with a woman, including sexual intercourse, was the ultimate horror.” (C 4). He was probably homosexual: “It was characteristic of all Stanley’s travels that he needed a young male as companion, protege and amanuensis.” (C 4) He certainly seemed to enjoy flogging other men as described above and in a number of incidents when he beat black servants, even, in one case, one who was suffering at the time from smallpox (C 7)
He was a pathological liar. “There was always method in Stanley's madness, as he made a point of lying about his private life to the public (who could verify his public life) and about his public life to private individuals who lacked the intellectual sophistication to falsify his tall tales.” (C 5)
He was a horrific leader. He treated the sick with contempt. “Although Stanley would always call a halt if he was dangerously ill ... he showed no such consideration for anyone else. If another white man fell ill, Stanley immediately rationalized the inconvenience as ‘malingering’.” (C 6) He abandoned his very ill second in command on his first expedition at a village and left him without medicines. The man died. (C 6) Furthermore: “It was beyond Stanley ever to admit that any of his lieutenants had done well.” (C 6) In these respects he seems remarkably like that other Victorian hero Florence Nightingale who worked some of her devoted followers to death, never understanding how anyone, except herself, could be ill
Here are three quotes from Stanley's own writings which seem to express his inability to put himself in the place of anyone else:
- “I am afraid that I could not yield my life to every Tom, Dick and Harry who chose to demand it. The waste of good material for bad would strike me as wrong.” (C 8)
- “The woodenheaded world needs mastering.” (C 8)
- “Six shots and four deaths were sufficient to quiet the mocking.” (C 15)
There are some other remarkable characters outlined in this book:
- Stanley’s newspaper boss, James Gordon Bennett, “spent his younger years in an ambience of fantastic wealth, surrounded by sycophants, but without adequate parenting.” (C 5) He ran the New York Herald. “Much of the Herald’s success was based on its ‘Personal Column’ advertisements - a guide to every prostitute in New York able to publicise her wares and in particular to the brothels of Bleaker Street and Sixth Avenue.” (C 5)
- “Livingstone's status as missionary and explorer was shaky. As a missionary he had made a single (later lapsed) convert and as an explorer his only undisputed discovery was Lake Bangweulu.” (C 8)
One of the things which this book made me realise is the extent to which Africa was not a dark continent. It was well known by the Arabs who conducted an extensive trade with the Africans of the interior, although much of the trade involved slaves. I hadn't realised how huge the Arab slave trade of the time was. There was organisation and towns and technologies. There was even a spa town where sick people bathed in hot pools. In the early 1870s Arab trader Tippu Tip “had a commercial and political empire based on slavery and the ivory trade ... it was said that through the ivory trade he could convert an initial capital of $3 into $1,000.” (C 15)
McLynn can certainly write purple prose: “The expedition began to pick its way through 20-foot high undergrowth, fed by a feculent humus of fallen branches and rotten leaves. They marched in permanent twilight, soggy with dew under a fuliginous forest canopy, floundering through ditches formed by rivulets.” (C 16)
Other great moments:
- “The more one lives for action alone, the less is one capable of discrimination about which actions are valuable; hence the near-mania of the Alexanders, Napoleons, Caesars, and Cromwells.” (C 2)
- “As with many people like Stanley, who habitually inhabit the twilight area between sanity and madness, the possibility of failure imparted renewed strength.” (C 6)
- “The myth of the ‘superman’, increasingly required by the exigencies of imperialism, seemed, on Stanley’s fallacious reading, to require the stiffest of stiff upper lips.” (C 8)
An incredible book which paints a picture of hero as psychopath. December 2019; 330 pages
Other books about exploration that are reviewed in this blog:
- Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming: Africa and the North-West Passage
- 1421: The Year China discovered the world by Gavin Menzies
- The Lost City of Z by David Grann: you'll never want to go to the South American rainforests!
- Prince Henry the Navigator by John Ure: the Portuguese prince who started the European exploration of Africa