Henry Morton Stanley's Unbreakable Will | History | Smithsonian
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Henry Morton Stanley, photographed in 1872 at age 31, is best known for his epic search for the missionary David Livingstone, whom he finally encountered in 1871 in present-day Tanzania. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)

Henry Morton Stanley's Unbreakable Will

The explorer of Dr. Livingstone-fame provides a classic character study of how willpower works

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Is willpower a mood that comes and goes? A temperament you’re born with (or not)? A skill you learn? In Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Florida State University psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times journalist John Tierney say willpower is a resource that can be renewed or depleted, protected or wasted. This adaptation from their book views Henry Morton Stanley’s iron determination in the light of social science.

In 1887, Henry Morton Stanley went up the Congo River and inadvertently started a disastrous experiment. This was long after his first journey into Africa, as a journalist for an American newspaper in 1871, when he’d become famous by finding a Scottish missionary and reporting the first words of their encounter: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Now, at age 46, Stanley was leading his third African expedition. As he headed into an uncharted expanse of rain forest, he left part of the expedition behind to await further supplies.

The leaders of this Rear Column, who came from some of the most prominent families in Britain, proceeded to become an international disgrace. Those men allowed Africans under their command to perish needlessly from disease and poisonous food. They kidnapped and bought young African women. The British commander of the fort savagely beat and maimed Africans, sometimes ordering men to be shot or flogged almost to death for trivial offenses.

While the Rear Column was going berserk, Stanley and the forward portion of the expedition spent months struggling to find a way through the dense Ituri rain forest. They suffered through torrential rains. They were weakened by hunger, crippled by festering sores, incapacitated by malaria and dysentery. They were attacked by natives with poisoned arrows and spears. Of those who started with Stanley on this trek into “darkest Africa,” as he called that sunless expanse of jungle, fewer than one in three emerged with him.

Yet Stanley persevered. His European companions marveled at his “strength of will.” Africans called him Bula Matari, Breaker of Rocks. “For myself,” he wrote in an 1890 letter to The Times, “I lay no claim to any exceptional fineness of nature; but I say, beginning life as a rough, ill-educated, impatient man, I have found my schooling in these very African experiences which are now said by some to be in themselves detrimental to European character.”

In his day, Stanley’s feats enthralled the public. Mark Twain predicted, “When I contrast what I have achieved in my measurably brief life with what [Stanley] has achieved in his possibly briefer one, the effect is to sweep utterly away the ten-story edifice of my own self-appreciation and leave nothing behind but the cellar.” Anton Chekhov saw Stanley’s “stubborn invincible striving towards a certain goal, no matter what privations, dangers and temptations for personal happiness,” as “personifying the highest moral strength.”

But in the ensuing century, his reputation plummeted as historians criticized his association in the early 1880s with King Leopold II, the profiteering Belgian monarch whose ivory traders would later provide direct inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As colonialism declined and Victorian character-building lost favor, Stanley was depicted as a brutal exploiter, a ruthless imperialist who hacked and shot his way across Africa.

But another Stanley has recently emerged, neither a dauntless hero nor a ruthless control freak. This explorer prevailed in the wilderness not because his will was indomitable, but because he appreciated its limitations and used long-term strategies that social scientists are only now beginning to understand.

This new version of Stanley was found, appropriately enough, by Livingstone’s biographer, Tim Jeal, a British novelist and expert on Victorian obsessives. Jeal drew on thousands of Stanley’s letters and papers unsealed in the past decade to produce a revisionist tour de force, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. It depicts a flawed character who seems all the more brave and humane for his ambition and insecurity, virtue and fraud. His self-control in the wilderness becomes even more remarkable considering the secrets he was hiding.

If self-control is partly a hereditary trait—which seems likely—then Stanley began life with the odds against him. He was born in Wales to an unmarried 18-year-old woman who went on to have four other illegitimate children by at least two other men. He never knew his father. His mother abandoned him to her father, who cared for him until he died when the boy was 5. Another family took him in briefly, but then one of the boy’s new guardians took him to a workhouse. The adult Stanley would never forget how, in the moment his deceitful guardian fled and the door slammed shut, he “experienced for the first time the awful feeling of utter desolateness.”

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