Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Of all the basic human drives surely one of the most fundamental is our need to belong to a family.  I described in an earlier blog how that drive was so strong in Stanley that after being rejected repeatedly and then totally abandoned by his biological family, he created a “false family” that included his legal adoption by Henry Love Stanley, a wealthy cotton broker in New Orleans.   Stanley had never even met Henry Love Stanley!  It was a fiction he managed to conceal from prying journalists and the world’s public for thirty years.   
 I also described how Stanley came to believe he had found in Livingstone the father figure he had been seeking all his life.   Biographer Tim Jeal confirms that “The father and son aspect of their relationship did not exist solely in Stanley’s imaginings.  Livingstone came to think of Stanley in precisely that role.  ‘That good brave fellow has acted as a son to me,’ he would write to his daughter, Agnes.”  And when Livingstone asked Stanley to find the grave of his son, Robert, who had died fighting with Union forces in the battle of Gettysburg, and to erect a memorial stone over his body, Livingstone was entrusting to Stanley a filial task.  One reason for Stanley’s highly positive description of Livingstone in his book, How I found Livingstone, was his desire to tell his friends he had been cherished, as a son, by a truly good man.  But Livingstone died a few years later and in any case, could not fulfill Stanley’s undying quest for his own family.   
Stanley’s hunger to belong to a family never seemed to end and nothing else seemed to satisfy him.  A major reason Stanley had become an explorer in Africa was to become rich and famous. But when fame arrived he found it “was useless to him.”  The relatives who had rejected him as a child and young man were now after his sudden wealth and became ever more grasping.  More generally, Stanley came to see himself as surrounded by the envious. “I can count my friends on my fingers but my enemies are a host” he wrote.  He received threatening letters.  He hated being stared at in the streets and had to take expensive hackney cabs everywhere to avoid that.  He loved dogs and had five of them, three rescued from a pound.  But they could not fulfill his desire for a human family. 
Eventually, in his 50s, Stanley married Dorothy (Dolly) Tennant, an attractive 36- year-old woman twenty years his junior.  After many medical consultations and attempts to produce what she called “my great expectation and deepest desire,” they were faced with the fact they would have no children from their own bodies to love.   
But Henry would not give up.  In l894 he pleaded with Dolly to agree to adopt a child.  She refused.  But by the autumn of 1895 she had at last become aware of how deep was his wish to adopt and gave her permission.  Without the hope of one day raising a child, Stanley believed that the rest of his life would be very bleak.
An opportunity arose when a son of one of his first cousins died, leaving a widow who was too poor to support her six-month-old-son.  At least that’s the story Stanley and Dolly would tell close friends.  However, biographer Tim Jeal writes, it is more likely that the boy was actually the illegitimate grandson of Stanley’s half sister Emma.  Why, once again, did Stanley make up a cover story?  Most likely, writes Tim Jeal, he wanted to spare the boy the stain of illegitimacy which Stanley had suffered through during his own youth. 
When the 13-month-old baby boy was brought to their home, Stanley was ill in bed.  Dolly, who described the boy as “a delicate featured beautiful little boy with a finely shaped head,” carried him upstairs to their bedroom and laid the baby down beside Stanley.  Dolly and Stanley smiled as they looked at each other and Stanley said:
“We will keep him forever.  He is ours.”  
From then on Henry Morton Stanley’s happiness became almost entirely bound up with giving his adopted son the love he himself had never known as a boy.  Stanley finally had his family. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

How an Abused and Abandoned Child Became a Famous Explorer

In the last blog I discussed the incredible life of the famous 19th century journalist-explorer and naturalized American, Henry Morton Stanley.  We learned from Tim Jeal’s new biography of Stanley that he was an abused child rejected and abandoned by his mother and her family, and that he survived nine years in an English workhouse, essentially an orphanage where adults and children paid for their board and room as laborers.  Despite this difficult and emotionally painful beginning, Stanley eventually became a highly successful journalist, a world renowned explorer, and an author whose books were best sellers and made him a wealthy man.  How did he possibly do it?  Would it surprise you to learn I think his early years were in some ways a good beginning for an explorer of Central Africa in the 19th century? 
Take isolation and loneliness, for example.  Exploring in Central Africa in the l9th century was an unusually lonely business.  Explorers were far from home in an often hostile environment. They were surrounded by, travelled with, and sometimes were threatened by people of very different cultures and customs who spoke no English.  But Stanley, who eventually learned to speak Swahili, was used to social isolation.  His family had rejected him.  He was an introvert and socially awkward with strangers. He had established a pattern of seeking solitude when he was unhappy.  Moreover, he was used to operating alone.  He learned early in life that he could depend only on himself.  He had developed that self-trust in his own capabilities that those with such backgrounds sometimes do. 
Exploration in Africa in the 19th century was dangerous.  Stanley was aware when he went looking for Livingstone that in four previous English-sponsored explorations of the Niger, Nile, Congo and Zambezi rivers, the mortality among British subjects was over 60 percent!  There was, first, the danger of disease, especially malaria and its complication, black water fever, which killed so many of the Europeans who dared go to Africa at that time.  Stanley, like David Livingstone, had an excellent constitution.  It’s not that he was never ill during his African journeys.  He suffered debilitating fevers and dysentery like everyone else but his bouts with fever and dysentery were less severe and not fatal.  While he probably owed some of this good constitution to his genes, it is also likely that his immune system was frequently challenged and strengthened by germs and contagious diseases in the conditions of poverty in which he lived as a child. 
There were many other dangers.  African wildlife, for example, presented some:    highly poisonous snakes, stalking lions and leopards, frisky hippopotami, and rivers crammed full of crocodiles.  Other dangers came from hostile, slave-seeking tribes.  There was also the danger of being drawn into tribal warfare, of being made to choose which side to join.  On his way to finding Livingstone Stanley had to pass through the territory of one hostile tribe that was known to practice cannibalism. 
Stanley was a high roller.  He took great risks against the odds, partly because of the sense that his deprived childhood had left him with precious little to lose.  He had no family to speak of.  This background helped him endure misfortune, since reversals did not surprise him as they would more fortunate men.  Eventually he came to believe his survival after close calls with death was due to “Lady Luck.”   He was a fatalist.
Tim Jeal’s fine biography of Stanley identifies yet another element of Stanley’s background that contributed to his success as an explorer.  Unless they were ill and had to be carried in a litter, European Africa explorers moved on foot.  And if there is a single characteristic that is indispensible for an explorer in 19th century Africa, it is his capacity for endurance, his ability to face every challenge and slog on.  The following paragraph in Jeal’s book nicely sums up the answer to the question we began with:  “How did he possibly do it?”  

“For a man like Stanley, who needed to prove himself after his childhood rejection, mastering Africa was a test that could scarcely be bettered.  The task would have an epic dimension, involving power, pride, and above all, endurance as he battled with the African environment and with his own human limitations.  At the heart of the non-conformist Christian education of the workhouse had been the idea of redemption through suffering…becoming a new man.  In the vastness of Africa, as ruler of his small party ---away from the social distinctions of north Wales, from the greed and materialism of the slaving owning Deep South, from the helpless boy he had once been---there might emerge the new, perfected Stanley.”  

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I spent some hours during a recent snow vacation in Central Oregon reading a new biography of Henry Morton Stanley who was described by author Tim Jeal as “the greatest explorer of the century.”  David Livingstone, the British missionary-explorer and Stanley, the naturalized American journalist, are no longer the celebrities and best-selling authors they were during the second half of the l9th Century in Britain and in the United States.  Younger Americans may never have heard of them.   But they interest me because I spent five years living and working in Africa as a young diplomat, mostly in East Africa where so many of the 19th Century European explorations took place and where Stanley and Livingstone were still spoken of as legendary figures. 
I found this new biography by Tim Jeal fascinating for another reason.  Any victim of child neglect and abandonment tempted to feel sorry for himself should consider the case of Henry Morton Stanley, who began life in Wales not as Henry Morton Stanley, but as John Rowlands.  John’s early life was a nightmare.  Born to an unmarried 18 year-old who went on to have four more illegitimate children by at least two more men, John never knew his father.  His mother quickly abandoned him to her father who died when Stanley was five years old.  He eventually was placed in a workhouse, an 19th Century English orphanage, by a prosperous uncle who wouldn’t keep John in his own home because he was shamed by John’s illegitimacy.  An adult Stanley would never forget how his guardian fled and the door of the workhouse was slammed shut and he at age six “experienced for the first time the awful feeling of utter desolateness.” 

After nine years in the workhouse John eventually escaped and accepted an offer to become a cabin boy on a ship bound for New Orleans.  That voyage was the beginning of a new and liberating chapter in an incredible life story that biographer Tim Jeal has told so well.  He documents how Stanley fought with both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War, prospected for gold in Colorado, became a journalist and then a war correspondent, and how he persuaded the owner of the New York Herald to finance an expedition to find David Livingstone in the heart of Africa.  That was only the first of Stanley’s African explorations which he described in several best-selling books, beginning with How I Found Livingstone.  The books made him a wealthy man.   
But it is Stanley, the neglected and abandoned child and extraordinary survivor, that most interests me.  After being repeatedly rejected by his mother and biological family, Stanley spent a lifetime trying to find a family to which he could belong.  At age 21 he had still not quite given up on his mother.  He returned to his home town in Wales from the United States ill, penniless, and exhausted after walking the final 21 miles of the journey.  What his mother said to this anything but prodigal son was, “Never come back to me again unless you are in far better circumstances than you seem to be in now.”  To this the mother of five illegitimate children added that John “was a disgrace to them in the eyes of their neighbors” and ought to leave as speedily as possible."  
So eager was young John to belong to a family and to conceal his illegitimacy and impoverished background that he fabricated his adoption by a New Orleans businessman, and took the man’s name as his own.  Over night John Rowlands, the son of a former prostitute who refused to have anything to do with him, became Henry Morton Stanley, in a fictive adoption he managed to hide from most of the world for many years.
Once Stanley located David Livingstone the two men spent four months together looking for the sources of the Nile River, one of the great challenges for l9th century explorers.  During that period the two men formed a bond, the bond of father (Livingstone) and son (Stanley).  Stanley believed he had found in David Livingstone the father figure he had been seeking all his life as Livingstone began to consider Stanley a son.  One result of that relationship is that Stanley the journalist single-handedly restored Livingstone’s badly tarnished reputation after the tragic failure of the 1858 Zambezi Expedition during which his beloved wife, Mary Livingstone, among many others, had died. 
Is there any connection between Stanley’s painful beginnings and his world fame as a journalist and explorer?  What drove him?  What created his incredible self-discipline and will power?  That will be the subject of the next blog.