Who Was Henry Morton Stanley?

Photo of Henry Morton Stanley

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Henry Morton Stanley was a classic example of a 19th-century explorer, and he is best remembered today for his brilliantly casual greeting to a man he had spent months searching for in the wilds of Africa: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

The reality of Stanley’s unusual life is at times startling. He was born to a very poor family in Wales, made his way to America, changed his name, and somehow managed to fight on both sides of the Civil War. He found his first calling as a newspaper reporter before becoming known for his African expeditions.

Early Life

Stanley was born in 1841 as John Rowlands, to an impoverished family in Wales. At the age of five, he was sent to a workhouse, a notorious orphanage of the Victorian era.

In his teens, Stanley emerged from his difficult childhood with a reasonably good practical education, strong religious feelings, and a fanatical desire to prove himself. To get to America, he took a job as a cabin boy on a ship bound for New Orleans. After landing in the city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, he found a job working for a cotton trader, and took the man’s last name, Stanley.

Early Journalism Career

When the American Civil War broke out, Stanley fought on the Confederate side before being captured and eventually joining the Union cause. He wound up serving aboard a U.S. Navy ship and wrote accounts of battles that were published, thus beginning his journalism career.

After the war, Stanley got a position writing for the New York Herald, a newspaper founded by James Gordon Bennett. He was dispatched to cover a British military expedition to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), and successfully sent back dispatches detailing the conflict.

He Fascinated the Public

The public held a fascination for a Scottish missionary and explorer named David Livingstone. For many years Livingstone had been leading expeditions into Africa, bringing back information to Britain. In 1866 Livingstone had returned to Africa, intent on finding the source of the Nile, Africa’s longest river. After several years passed with no word from Livingstone, the public began to fear that he had perished.

The New York Herald's editor and publisher James Gordon Bennett realized it would be a publishing coup to find Livingstone, and gave the assignment to the intrepid Stanley.

Searching for Livingstone

In 1869 Henry Morton Stanley was given the assignment to find Livingstone. He eventually arrived on the east coast of Africa in early 1871 and organized an expedition to head inland. Having no practical experience, he had to rely on the advice and apparent assistance of Arab traders of enslaved people.

Stanley pushed the men with him brutally, at times whipping the Black porters. After enduring illnesses and harrowing conditions, Stanley finally encountered Livingstone at Ujiji, in present-day Tanzania, on November 10, 1871.

"Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?"

The famous greeting Stanley gave Livingstone, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” may have been fabricated after the famous meeting. But it was published in New York City newspapers within a year of the event, and it has gone down in history as a famous quotation.

Stanley and Livingstone remained together for a few months in Africa, exploring around the northern banks of Lake Tanganyika.

Stanley's Controversial Reputation

Stanley succeeded in his assignment of finding Livingstone, yet newspapers in London roundly mocked him when he arrived in England. Some observers ridiculed the idea that Livingstone had been lost and had to be found by a newspaper reporter.

Livingstone, despite the criticism, was invited to have lunch with Queen Victoria. And whether or not Livingstone had been lost, Stanley became famous, and remains so to this day, as the man who "found Livingstone."

Stanley's reputation was tarnished by accounts of punishment and brutal treatment meted out to men on his later expeditions.

Stanley's Later Explorations

After Livingstone's death in 1873, Stanley vowed to continue explorations of Africa. He mounted an expedition in 1874 that charted Lake Victoria, and from 1874 to 1877 he traced the course of the Congo River.

In the late 1880s, he returned to Africa, embarking on a very controversial expedition to rescue Emin Pasha, a European who had become a ruler of part of Africa.

Suffering from recurring illnesses picked up in Africa, Stanley died at the age of 63 in 1904.

Legacy of Henry Morton Stanley

There is no doubt that Henry Morton Stanley contributed greatly to the western world's knowledge of African geography and culture. And while he was controversial in his own time, his fame and the books he published brought attention to Africa and made the exploration of the continent a fascinating subject to the 19th-century public.

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McNamara, Robert. "Who Was Henry Morton Stanley?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/henry-morton-stanley-1773821. McNamara, Robert. (2021, September 9). Who Was Henry Morton Stanley? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-morton-stanley-1773821 McNamara, Robert. "Who Was Henry Morton Stanley?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/henry-morton-stanley-1773821 (accessed May 30, 2023).