Stanley and Livingstone

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 26 06:36:20 MDT 2003

New Yorker Magazine, June 6, 2003

Exploring the legacy of Stanley and Livingstone.

The changing images of Stanley and Livingstone over the years offer as rich 
a terrain for a writer as do the two men themselves. But anyone who expects 
to see this promising territory explored in the newest book on the subject, 
Martin Dugard’s “Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and 
Livingstone” (Doubleday; $24.95), will be disappointed. This pedestrian 
rehash of the story reads almost like one of the Victorian hagiographies. 
Even its form, with alternating sections about the two men on their 
separate travels until they meet and the journey becomes one, has been used 

Dugard’s prose, not unlike Stanley’s, sometimes has a melodramatic ring: 
“Character is built through trials and turmoil”; “He would learn for 
certain whether the explorer was dead or alive. . . . He could not stomach 
the maudlin limbo of doubt”; “What would happen in the next few minutes 
would alter the future of exploration, Africa, and the world”; “The call to 
adventure is genetic in a handful of men and women”; Stanley’s travels took 
him to “the entrance to Africa’s beating heart.” More nettlesome yet, the 
book is sprinkled with factual errors. It was not King Leopold IV of 
Belgium for whom Stanley staked out a Congo colony but Leopold II; and it 
was not the Belgian Congo that first came into being as a result but the 
Congo Free State. The allegation that Livingstone fathered an illegitimate 
African child is by no means a “documented” fact; it is vigorously disputed 
by his biographer Jeal and other writers. Tanganyika became independent in 
1961, not 1964. Britain’s population in the eighteen-fifties was not four 
million but, counting Ireland, more than twenty-seven million.

There is a broader pattern of unreliability in Dugard’s book as well. 
Almost always, he accepts Stanley’s account of an event at face value. 
Stanley, who invariably portrayed himself in flattering terms, making 
exactly the right response in any dialogue or action, must always be 
treated with caution. Should we, for example, believe him when he tells how 
he quelled a mutiny of his porters, first facing down one armed man who 
came toward him, then whirling around, like a hero in a kung-fu movie, to 
defy another, who was about to fire on him from the other side? Dugard does.

Or take another episode. In the introduction to “How I Found Livingstone,” 
the first of his many lively, self-promoting best-sellers, Stanley writes, 
“A journalist in my position . . . like a gladiator in the arena . . . must 
be prepared for the combat. Any flinching, any cowardice, and he is lost. 
The gladiator meets the sword that is sharpened for his bosom—the flying 
journalist or roving correspondent meets the command that may send him to 
his doom.” He tells a dramatic tale of how he was summoned to Paris by his 
employer, James Gordon Bennett, Jr. He found Bennett in his hotel room at 

“What!” said I, “do you really think I can find Dr. Livingstone? Do you 
mean me to go to Central Africa?”
“Yes; I mean that you shall go, and find him wherever you may hear that he 
is. . . . The old man may be in want:—take enough with you to help him 
should he require it. Of course you will act according to your own plans, 
and do what you think best—but find livingstone!”

Only slightly altering the punctuation, Dugard reproduces this dialogue and 
takes it as fact. But, according to Stanley’s most careful biographers, 
Bierman and McLynn, it is doubtful that anything resembling the 
conversation took place. Records show that Stanley arrived in Paris some 
ten days later than he said he did. Eight days’ worth of pages from his 
diary around this time have been torn out. The idea of pursuing Livingstone 
seems to have come from another official at the New York Herald. 
Furthermore, Bennett may have lost interest and forgotten about the whole 
project, for when Stanley arrived in Zanzibar, the jumping-off point for 
his expedition, he found that Bennett had failed to send promised money for 
supplies. (Dugard notes that the money wasn’t there, but he does not ask 
why.) Stanley, though, had every reason to inflate his own role as a 
“gladiator” and Bennett’s as an editorial genius, because when he published 
his book, which is dedicated to Bennett, he was still on the Herald’s 
payroll and wanted the paper to finance his next expedition to Africa.

That journey became Stanley’s greatest feat of exploration, providing the 
first European look at the greater part of the Congo River and its 
tributaries. Subsequently, he spent five years travelling up and down the 
river, bamboozling illiterate African chiefs into signing their land over 
to King Leopold II. This laid the foundation for the King’s privately owned 
Congo Free State, a forced-labor regime that represented the bloodiest 
single episode in the scramble for Africa; it has been estimated that, 
during Leopold’s rule and its immediate aftermath, the territory’s 
population was cut in half.

Stanley returned to central Africa one last time, between 1887 and 1890. 
Curiously, like the famous journey that began his exploring career, this 
final trip was a quest for a missing white physician. In this case, it was 
an eccentric German Jew who followed Islamic customs, became known as Emin 
Pasha, and was appointed governor of the southern province of the 
Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. He was also putting together a collection of stuffed 
birds for the British Museum. Emin Pasha had sent word that he was under 
siege from extremist Islamic rebels and needed help. Embarrassingly, 
however, it turned out that, by the time Stanley and his bedraggled 
vanguard finally reached Emin Pasha, he was no longer eager to be rescued. 
“For him everything depends on whether he is able to take me along, for 
only then . . . would his expedition be regarded as totally successful,” 
the governor groused in his diary. Stanley wrote another best-seller about 
the trip, but this time books and journals by his white subordinates also 
appeared. They painted a grim picture: of Stanley exploding in temper 
tantrums, having a deserter hanged, working porters to death, ordering 
floggings left and right and administering some himself. When he felt that 
the expedition might be attacked, one officer wrote, “Stanley gave the 
order to burn all the villages round.” At the height of the imperial age, 
though, the revelations about Stanley’s brutality did little to tarnish his 

Dugard lists all the major recent books on Stanley and Livingstone in his 
bibliography, but he largely bypasses what they have to say, and is mostly 
uncritical of Stanley. He also scants the potential richness and depth of 
Livingstone’s story: the way his muted opposition to the colonialism made 
possible by his very exploring turns him into something of a tragic figure. 
Why is a book like Dugard’s appearing today? Like everything else, books 
reflect the spirit in the air. And we are living at a time in history when, 
with startling suddenness, people are talking proudly about the American 
empire. Those in power in Washington see the world as a clash of 
civilizations, and are convinced that their civilization has every right to 
use force to prevail, just as Stanley was convinced that he had every right 
to burn down African villages that impeded his progress. Perhaps, at this 
imperial moment, it is not surprising that someone like him is viewed in 
such a friendly light. Hollywood is already giving us sympathetic and 
glamorous portrayals of C.I.A. agents in the TV series “The Agency” and in 
films like “The Recruit.” Stanley and Livingstone may be next.


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