Stanley Meets Livingstone

The American journalist's harrowing 1871 quest to find England's most celebrated explorer is also a story of newfound fascination with Africa, the growing power of newspapers and the United States' emergence as a world power

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

As America rebuilt following the Civil War, a rift developed with her old nemesis, Great Britain. Superpower Britain and the ascendant United States were at loggerheads over such issues as the sinking of the British-built warship Alabama, British claims of worldwide naval supremacy, Newfoundland fishing rights and U.S. designs on making Canada part of the Union.


In October 1869, James Gordon Bennett Jr., the vehemently anti-British, hard-drinking 28-year-old editor of the New York Herald, saw this tension as a means to boost the paper’s already astronomical circulation of 60,000 copies a day. Specifically, he hoped to exploit the fame and mystery surrounding British explorer Dr. David Livingstone, who had been missing in Africa for four years. Although Livingstone’s achievements charting the unknown African continent had galvanized Britain, his government had been apathetic about rescuing him. Bennett decided Americans would do what the British would not. From a hotel room in Paris, he ordered Henry Morton Stanley, a newcomer to the Herald, to lead an expedition into the African wilderness to find the explorer, or “bring back all possible proofs of his being dead.” What Bennett did not know was that this brash cigar-smoking 28-year-old reporter—who had fought for both the blue and the gray in the Civil War—was as British as Livingstone.


Nyangwe, Congo, May 27, 1871—David Livingstone rested in the bustling marketplace in Nyangwe, a village on the shore of the LualabaRiver, on the western flank of today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. Roughly a thousand miles to the west was the Atlantic Ocean; a thousand miles to the east, the Indian. Yet Livingstone was quite content being, so far as he knew, the only white man within that span. He was familiar with the local dialects, an admirer of the women and satisfied with the food, and he had developed a passion for observing the activity of the village market. In his journal he wrote that he was not bothered by the residents’ propensity for cannibalism. For, of all the gifts Livingstone possessed—perseverance, faith and fearlessness among them—the most remarkable was his ability to insinuate himself into African cultures.


Livingstone was in Africa to find the source of the NileRiver. Explorers had looked for it since Herodotus attempted a search around 460 B.C., but as centuries passed and failures mounted, the quest took on an almost mythical heft. “It is not given to us mortals,” 18th-century French author Montesquieu wrote, “to see the Nile feeble and at its source.”


During the 19th century, as the African interior was slowly charted, the search intensified. Most of the explorers—loners, thrill seekers and adventurous aristocrats were British, and many of them died from disease, animal attack or murder. With every failed attempt, Montesquieu’s words rang more true. (In fact, satellite images and aerial photographs would show that the Nile bubbles from the ground in the mountains of Burundi, between lakes Tanganyika and Victoria.) Finally, in the waning days of 1864, Sir Roderick Murchison, head of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society and the driving force behind countless global expeditions, beseeched his old friend Livingstone to find the source. Murchison traveled north from London to Newstead Abbey, the former estate of Lord Byron, where Livingstone was staying with friends. At a time when explorers enjoyed the fame of modern-day rock stars, none was better known than the 51-year-old Livingstone—a recent widower with four children—with his stutter, crooked left arm, and walrus mustache. Since his first trip to Africa in 1841, he had walked across the Kalahari Desert, traced the path of the 2,200-mile-long ZambeziRiver and, in the 1854-56 journey that made him famous, ambled from one side of Africa to the other. The former missionary’s renown was so great that he was mobbed by fans on the streets of London.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus