Henry Morton Stanley’s Unbreakable Will

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

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)
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Why would somebody starving to death insist on shaving? Jeal said, “Stanley always tried to keep a neat appearance—with clothes, too—and set great store by the clarity of his handwriting, by the condition of his journals and books, and by the organization of his boxes.” He added, “The creation of order can only have been an antidote to the destructive capacities of nature all around him.” Stanley himself once said, according to his wife, “I always presented as decent an appearance as possible, both for self-discipline and for self-respect.”

You might think the energy spent shaving in the jungle would be better devoted to looking for food. But Stanley’s belief in the link between external order and inner self-discipline has been confirmed recently in studies. In one experiment, a group of participants answered questions sitting in a nice neat laboratory, while others sat in the kind of place that inspires parents to shout, “Clean up your room!” The people in the messy room scored lower self-control, such as being unwilling to wait a week for a larger sum of money as opposed to taking a smaller sum right away. When offered snacks and drinks, people in the neat lab room more often chose apples and milk instead of the candy and sugary colas preferred by their peers in the pigsty.

In a similar experiment online, some participants answered questions on a clean, well-designed website. Others were asked the same questions on a sloppy website with spelling errors and other problems. On the messy site, people were more likely to say that they would gamble rather than take a sure thing, curse and swear, and take an immediate but small reward rather than a larger but delayed reward. The orderly websites, like the neat lab rooms, provided subtle cues guiding people toward self-disciplined decisions and actions helping others.

By shaving every day, Stanley could benefit from this same sort of orderly cue without having to expend much mental energy. Social psychology research would point out that his routine had another benefit: It enabled him to conserve willpower.

At age 33, not long after finding Livingstone, Stanley found love. He had always considered himself hopeless with women, but his new celebrity increased his social opportunities when he returned to London, and there he met a visiting American named Alice Pike. She was just 17, and he noted in his diary that she was “very ignorant of African geography, & I fear of everything else.” Within a month they were engaged. They agreed to marry once Stanley returned from his next expedition. He set off from the east coast of Africa carrying her photograph next to his heart, while his men lugged the pieces of a 24-foot boat named the Lady Alice, which Stanley used to make the first recorded circumnavigations of the great lakes in the heart of Africa. Then, having traveled 3,500 miles, Stanley continued westward for the most dangerous part of the trip. He planned to travel down the Lualaba River to wherever it led—the Nile (Livingstone’s theory), the Niger or the Congo (Stanley’s hunch, which would prove correct). No one knew, because even the fearsome Arab slave traders had been intimidated by tales of bellicose cannibals downstream.

Before heading down that river, Stanley wrote to his fiancée telling her that he weighed just 118 pounds, having lost 60 pounds since seeing her. His ailments included another bout of malaria, which had him shivering on a day when the temperature hit 138 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun. But he didn’t focus on hardships in the last letter he would dispatch until reaching the other side of Africa. “My love towards you is unchanged, you are my dream, my stay, my hope, and my beacon,” he wrote to her. “I shall cherish you in this light until I meet you, or death meets me.”

Stanley clung to that hope for another 3,500 miles, taking the Lady Alice down the Congo River and resisting attacks from cannibals shouting “Meat! Meat!” Only half of his more than 220 companions completed the journey to the Atlantic coast, which took nearly three years and claimed the life of every European except Stanley. Upon reaching civilization, Stanley got a note from his publisher with some awkward news: “I may as well tell you at once that your friend Alice Pike is married!” Stanley was distraught to hear that she had abandoned him (for the son of a railroad-car manufacturer in Ohio). He was hardly mollified by a note from her congratulating him for the expedition while breezily mentioning her marriage and acknowledging that the Lady Alice had “proven a truer friend than the Alice she was named after.” But however badly it turned out, Stanley did get something out of the relationship: a distraction from his own wretchedness. He may have fooled himself about her loyalty, but he was smart during his journey to fixate on a “beacon” far removed from his grim surroundings.

It was a more elaborate version of the successful strategy used by children in the classic marshmallow experiment, in which the subjects were typically left in a room with a marshmallow and told they could have two if they waited until the researcher returned. Those who kept looking at the marshmallow quickly depleted their willpower and gave in to the temptation to eat it right away; those who distracted themselves by looking around the room (or sometimes just covering their eyes) managed to hold out. Similarly, paramedics distract patients from their pain by talking to them about anything except their condition. They recognize the benefits of what Stanley called “self-forgetfulness.”

For instance, he blamed the breakdown of the Rear Column on their leader’s decision to stay put in camp so long, waiting and waiting for additional porters, instead of setting out sooner into the jungle on their own journey. “The cure of their misgivings & doubts would have been found in action,” he wrote, rather than “enduring deadly monotony.” As horrible as it was for Stanley going through the forest with sick, famished and dying men, the journey’s “endless occupations were too absorbing and interesting to allow room for baser thoughts.” Stanley saw the work as a mental escape: “For my protection against despair and madness, I had to resort to self-forgetfulness; to the interest which my task brought. . . . This encouraged me to give myself up to all neighbourly offices, and was morally fortifying.”

Talk of “neighbourly offices” may sound self-serving from someone with Stanley’s reputation for aloofness and severity. After all, this was the man renowned for perhaps the coldest greeting in history: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Even Victorians found it ridiculous for two Englishmen meeting in the middle of Africa. But according to Jeal, Stanley never uttered the famous line. The first record of it occurs in Stanley’s dispatch to the Herald, written well after the meeting. It’s not in the diaries of either man. Stanley tore out the crucial page of his diary, cutting off his account just as they were about to greet each other. Stanley apparently invented the line afterward to make himself sound dignified. It didn’t work.


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