Monday, October 31, 2011

Henry Morton Stanley

I have had my attention badly diverted in recent weeks by Rugby World Cup action on the telly, and a son writing his matric exams. But, before returning to the record of my published journalism, I thought I'd drop in a piece I wrote around 2004 which was never used. The Herald, in Port Elizabeth, where I have worked for more than 25 years, downgraded its book review section just at a time when I had ploughed through an interesting book on Henry Stanley and written a lengthy review thereof. In the end I lost the book itself (handed in for some pictures to be scanned and not returned) and the review was never published. Anyway, in a small attempt to rectify that omission, here is that review.

STANLEY, Dark Genius of African Exploration, by Frank McLynn (Pimlico):

“Dr Livingstone, I presume?” That famous line, which Henry Morton Stanley uttered on finding the veteran Scottish explorer on the banks of Lake Tanganyika in 1871, is probably what he is most famous for.

But it occurs just one sixth of the way into this exhaustively researched biography, in which it emerges that Stanley was in fact one of the world’s greatest explorers, on a par, says the author, with Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

It is hard to believe that much of central Africa in the 1870s was still unexplored by white people. Vast swathes of the Congo and the Great Lakes area had not been “discovered” by Europeans.

Those who did venture into the “heart of darkness”, as Stanley called it, were often searching for geographical information such as the source of the Nile, but always there was a trade agenda – and along with mineral wealth, palm oil and rubber, ivory was the product of choice in the late 19th century, especially for billiard balls.

Purely from a human endurance perspective, what Stanley achieved was phenomenal. In his four major journeys – between 1871 and 1889 – he covered tens of thousands of kilometres through inhospitable terrain inhabited by understandably antagonistic tribes.

He twice ventured into the heart of Africa before turning back, and twice crossed the continent –first from the Kenyan coast at Zanzibar to the mouth of the Congo River and, a couple of years later, the other way, with many a lengthy detour en route.

This was at a time when he was often charting new territory, paying hongo (or tributes) to chiefs for the right to pass through their territory, and most of the time he and his wangwana, or Zanzibar porters, had to walk. There were obviously no roads or railway lines, just the occasional use of donkeys, which battled to survive.

Stanley and his party plunged through savannah, swamps and hundreds of kilometres of dense jungle, often having literally to cut paths with pangas. He explored massive lakes in canoes hewn from trees, bartered or seized, or in large boats lugged by porters and assembled in situ. He survived hundreds of bouts of various forms of African fever (at a time when it wasn’t known, for instance, that malaria was mosquito-borne). He braved monsoons and droughts, regular cases of near-starvation and scores of attacks by tribesmen who often mistook his group for slave traders.

Indeed, throughout this book the presence of Arab slavers offers pause for thought. One of the criticisms of Stanley is that by opening up the Congo River, he also enabled the Arab slavers operating out of Zanzibar and north Africa – like the notorious Tappu Tip – to extend their destructive operations into hitherto secure parts of central Africa.

Interesting too is the similarity of African languages. I grew up hearing the Xhosa word “nyama” for meat. Stanley speaks of the cries of tribesmen, whom he feared were cannibals, who shouted “niama!” at his party, no doubt to put the fear of being eaten into them.

This book is rich in political and historical detail. The author also analyses Stanley’s personality, and concludes that his childhood – having been born into a broken home in Wales on January 28, 1841 and raised in a workhouse – gave him a stubborn will that enabled him to drive himself, and his men, to the edge of endurance – and many beyond it.

He was certainly a controversial figure, with the politically correct lobby in Britain quick to condemn him for his occasional excessive use of force, though it is moot whether he would have survived at all had he not sometimes resorted to the use of arms. On numerous occasions he was able patiently to negotiate treaties with local chiefs, and comes across as one who had genuine respect for black people. Indeed, he was later praised by the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

Stanley – who was christened John Rowlands but who took the name of a kindly businessman who “adopted” him in the US when he travelled there at the age of 17 – went from being an absolute nobody purely through the power of his will, and a fair amount of good fortune, to becoming a household name around the world.

It is, in fact, a miracle he survived those 20-odd years of travel through Africa, not to mention his earlier adventures during the 1861-65 American Civil War.

After finding Dr David Livingstone at midday on a Friday in 1871 at Lake Tanganyika for his New York newspaper – considered by many the scoop of the century – his fame spread. He was later hosted by, among others, Queen Victoria, Prince Bismarck, the future Kaiser Wilhelm and the author Mark Twain, who was a close friend.

Addicted to travel and adventure, he also happened to be at Suez on November 17, 1869, when the canal opened, giving him another huge story for the New York Herald.

Tremendously well read – he devoured the classics on those long, laborious sea journeys – his descriptions of Africa all those years ago, especially on his first east-west crossing when he found the source of the Congo River, reveal what an ecologically rich place it was. Elephant, hippos, antelope, giraffe and quagga abounded. So too did lions, crocodiles, snakes, insects and ants.

I was also amazed to discover that in places the Congo River is so wide, several kilometres across in fact, that you can’t see one bank from the other.

While his first two journeys – to find Livingstone and across Africa – had no real hidden agenda, it was later, when he worked for Belgian King Leopold II, that the commercial exploitation of the Congo became the prime motivation. The “scramble for Africa” was on, and Leopold was determined to make the Congo his private domain. And Stanley – or Bula Matari (breaker of rocks) as he became known in the Congo – had the iron will and experience to set up a row of trading stations on the river, laying the foundation for the Belgian Congo. But he had no hand in the “bloody and barbarous” colony that it later became.

Stanley’s final adventure was something of a disaster. Sent to locate and bring relief supplies to embattled Prussian naturalist Emin Pasha, the governor of Equatoria, Stanley on several occasions came close to death. When Emin was finally found, Stanley was so short of supplies himself after nearly starving in the Ituri rain forest, he could do little to assist him. Instead, he insisted Emin return to the coast with him – as another African exploration “trophy”.

Stanley’s life ended abruptly, after a late marriage – unconsummated according to the author – and a short stint as a British MP, during which he paid a brief trip to the Cape Colony for the opening of the railway line to Bulawayo in 1897. He visited the new mining town of Johannesburg and met Transvaal president Paul Kruger in Pretoria. His dislike for Kruger manifested itself in a rabid imperialism on his return, with Stanley becoming a staunch advocate for his overthrow.

Just over 107 years ago – on May 10, 1904 – his body finally caving in to disease after the hammering it endured in Africa, Stanley died. But in death he was snubbed by the bishop of Westminster Abbey, who refused to bury him alongside his hero, Livingstone, due to his controversial past.

Beautifully written, this 910-page tome – including about 180 pages of notes and references to Stanley’s books, journals and other documentation – is a must for lovers of history.

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