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

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.

Livingstone had used his fame to preach for the abolition of the slave trade that was decimating the African people. Slavers from Persia, Arabia and Oman—whom Livingstone referred to collectively as “Arabs”—were penetrating deeper into the continent to capture men, women and children for sale in the markets of Zanzibar. Often, African tribes even raided other tribes and sold captives to the Arabs in exchange for firearms.

Despite Livingstone’s reputation, his finances had been ravaged by a failed expedition up the Zambezi between 1858 and 1863. He needed one last great adventure, and the revenue from the bestselling book that was sure to follow, before retiring. So when Murchison asked his old friend to search for the source of the Nile, Livingstone agreed. He had left England in August 1865, planning to return in two years.

Now, six years later, Livingstone sat on the banks of the Lualaba watching thousands of residents of Nyangwe mingle among Arab slave traders in the village market. He had been plagued by one setback after another: anemia, dysentery, bone-eating bacteria, the loss of his teeth, thieving porters and, finally, worst of all, outright poverty—so much so that he now depended upon the Arabs for his food and shelter. That benevolence came with a price. Aware of the increasing worldwide opposition to their trade, the Arabs refused to allow Livingstone to send letters home by their caravans for fear he would spread word of their deeper encroachment. Even so, Livingstone was now enjoying a reprieve. Adiet of porridge, butter and rice had fattened him. All seemed well.

Tabora, Tanganyika (today’s Tanzania), June 23, 1871—In the three months since Stanley had left the east coast of Africa to find Livingstone, he had battled malaria, starvation and dysentery, losing 40 pounds. The expedition had suffered floods, famine, pestilence and drought. Of two white companions who had begun the journey with him, one had died from elephantiasis and the other had fired a pistol at Stanley during a failed mutiny, only to die from smallpox later. Two-thirds of the porters had deserted or died.

Stanley was now in Tabora to regroup. The sprawling village on the savanna was one of three primary Arab enclaves in East Africa; the others were the island of Zanzibar, roughly 400 miles east of Tabora, and Ujiji, 350 miles west on the banks of Lake Tanganyika. Tabora was the crown jewel, its large houses and lavish gardens occupied by the wealthiest Arab residents.

But Tabora was not a paradise to Stanley. To him, it was dusty and Spartan, with that hostility common to crossroads and border towns, and the curious stares of the locals made him uneasy. Nonetheless, he had come a long way in the year and a half since Bennett had called the reporter to Paris and ordered him to Africa.

Stanley had come far, period. His real name was John Rowlands, and he had been born in Denbigh, Wales, his father the town drunk and his 19-year-old mother a local prostitute. He was given up to a workhouse at age 5. He was released at 15 and at 17 fled to New Orleans where he started his life anew by erasing his past. John Rowlands had become Henry Morton Stanley, who began living a very American series of adventures: he fought for the Confederacy, was taken prisoner and, when offered the chance to switch sides, fought for the Union. He drifted west after the war to try to make his fortune mining gold and silver, and he became a journalist covering the American Indian Wars, rubbing elbows with Ulysses S. Grant and Wild Bill Hickok. There seemed no limit to the things he was willing to take on.

Africa, however, scared Stanley. The fear had set in as he sailed to Zanzibar to purchase supplies and hire men for the expedition. He had had nightmares and even pondered suicide to avoid traveling into the “eternal, feverish region.” Despite his anxieties, by March 21, 1871, he had managed to assemble one of the largest expeditions to ever set forth from Zanzibar—so big that Stanley was forced to divide it into five subcaravans and stagger their departures to avoid robbery. As Stanley set off, he heard rumors that a white man had been seen near Ujiji, some 750 miles inland.

During the march to Tabora, Stanley had written regularly in his journal but had sent nothing to the newspaper. On July 4, he penned his first dispatch to Bennett in the form of a 5,000-word letter—enough to fill the front page of the Herald. In it, Stanley told of his fears and even his contemplation of suicide. “I should like to enter into more minute details respecting this new land, which is almost unknown,” he wrote, “but the very nature of my mission, requiring speed and all my energy precludes it. Some day, perhaps, the Herald will permit me to describe more minutely the experiences of the long march, with all its vicissitudes and pleasures, in its columns, and I can assure your readers beforehand that they will be not quite devoid of interest. But now my whole time is occupied in the march, and the direction of the expedition, the neglect of which in any one point would be productive of disastrous results.” Stanley held back the information his audience wanted most until the final paragraph. Livingstone, he told them, was rumored to be on his way to Ujiji. “Until I hear more of him or see the long absent old man face to face, I bid you a farewell,” he signed off. “But wherever he is be sure I shall not give up the chase. If alive you shall hear what he has to say. If dead I will find him and bring his bones to you.”

Stanley sent his dispatch with a caravan going east with instructions to give it to the American consul in Zanzibar, who would then send it to New York by ship. But Stanley hadn’t told his readers everything. Afierce tribal war blocked the road to Ujiji, threatening to derail his entire expedition. Stanley would either have to embroil himself in the fighting or find an alternate—uncharted—route to the south.

As he pondered his course of action, he encountered a far more lethal obstacle. On July 7, as Stanley sat in the shade in Tabora’s afternoon heat, drowsiness washed over him like a drug. “The brain was busy. All my life seemed passing in review before me,” he wrote. “The loveliest feature of all to me was of a noble and true man who called me son.” Stanley’s intense visions evoked long-forgotten emotions: “When these retrospective scenes became serious, I looked serious; when they were sorrowful I wept hysterically; when they were joyous I laughed loudly.” In fact, Stanley was suffering from dementia brought on by cerebral malaria, the often fatal strain of that disease.

Nyangwe, Congo, July 15, 1871—Livingstone took his usual seat in the shade to observe the marketplace. Soon, slave traders arrived and started squabbling with the Africans. Suddenly, the slavers began firing their guns into the crowd. A horrified Livingstone watched as the villagers fled and more Arabs joined the slaughter. “Men opened fire on the mass of people near the upper end of the marketplace, volleys were discharged from a party down near the creek on the panic-stricken women who dashed at the canoes,” Livingstone wrote. “These, some 50 or more, were jammed in the creek and the men forgot their paddles in the terror that seized all.”

The Arabs stood along the riverbank, calmly aiming and firing, then reloading to kill again. When the villagers leapt from their canoes and began swimming, the Arabs picked them off. Livingstone had run out of paper, and was writing his journal on any scrap he could find—old checks, magazine pages. Livingstone’s supply of ink was gone too. Instead, he was using a red dye he had made from roots; the color brought a graphic realism to the tales of murder: “As I write I hear the loud wails on the left bank over those who are there slain, ignorant of their many friends who are now in the depths of the Lualaba. Oh, let Thy kingdom come!” he implored God.

Livingstone fled Nyangwe for Ujiji a few days after the massacre. The path he took was new to him, and in the heavy equatorial heat, his dysentery returned. His feet had swollen; his shoes were falling apart. “The mind acted on the body,” he wrote. “And it is no overstatement to say that every step of between 400 and 500 miles was [taken] in pain.”

Near the MalagarasiRiver, Tanganyika, October 7, 1871—Stanley was barely in control of the caravan. The cerebral malaria that had nearly killed him in Tabora had been followed by a bout of smallpox. It was a tribute to Stanley’s constitution that he was still searching for Livingstone. It had been nearly three weeks since he’d left Tabora. The caravan had traveled hundreds of miles out of its way, through uncharted terrain, to avoid the tribal fighting taking place between Tabora and Ujiji. Food had been scarce, and hunger had slowed the caravan’s pace. Now, Stanley’s men were pushing to reach the MalagarasiRiver, a wide, powerful flow that fed Lake Tanganyika. But the men were weak. The expedition was less than a hundred miles from Ujiji, but it might as well have been ten times that distance.

On November 1, after two weeks of searching, Stanley finally reached the MalagarasiRiver. Villages lined its banks, and fish-eating birds could be seen in the shallows. The caravan restocked with food and water, but the Malagarasi offered up another challenge. Crocodiles dotted the surface as far as the eye could see, and the only way to cross was to hire locals to ferry the caravan. By sunset, all were across except the donkeys, which were to swim alongside the canoes, held by their halters. The first donkey to go was a favorite of Stanley’s named Simba—“lion” in Swahili. Halfway across, to Stanley’s horror, crocodiles attacked Simba and dragged him underwater. That night, sadness permeated the caravan. Simba’s gruesome death was a reminder that the same could happen to any of them. All traces of melancholy vanished the next morning, however, when a passing traveler told of seeing a white man in Ujiji.

Lake Tanganyika, October 8, 1871—Livingstone’s endurance was remarkable, but by the time he had reached Lake Tanganyika, his will was shattered. Describing the moment, he wrote, “I was reduced to a skeleton.”

The continued failure of his mission was breaking Livingstone. He set off by canoe to cross to Ujiji, hoping to find supplies from the British Consulate waiting for him. But when he reached Ujiji, there was nothing. Livingstone now faced the desperate choice of becoming a beggar or starving to death. He spent his days in Ujiji praying for deliverance. “I made up my mind to wait until men should come from the coast,” he wrote, still hoping the British consul would send help. “But to wait in beggary was what I never contemplated, and now I felt miserable.”

Rescue looked bleak. Both to the east and to the west, Arabs and Africans were fighting. “I felt, in my destitution, as if I were the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves. But I could not hope for priest, Levite or good Samaritan to come by on either side,” Livingstone wrote.

London, England, October 20, 1871—In his prime, Sir Roderick Murchison had been the consummate outdoorsman. The tall, dramatic former president of the Royal Geographical Society had ridden to hounds as a country squire, trekked the Alps and roamed the countrysides of England, Scotland and Russia in the name of geology. But at 79, just two years after the death of his wife, Charlotte, and two months after his second stroke, Murchison now rarely ventured from his storied mansion at 16 Belgrave Square, where Victorian England’s mighty once mingled with her bravest explorers. He had recently regained his ability to speak and swallow, however, and longed to venture outside. And so, on this fall day, he impulsively took the carriage ride that would give him pneumonia and kill him two days later. 

History had never known an explorer like Roderick Impey Murchison. His legacy laid the groundwork for the spread of the British Empire. His peers named 23 topographical features on six continents in his honor—waterfalls, rivers, mountains, glaciers and even an island.

Livingstone’s absence consumed Murchison. He longed for his friend to return. Murchison had vowed he would not be laid to rest until that great day came. “I will then,” the old showman had promised, “take leave of you in the fullness of my heart.”

Ujiji, Tanganyika, November 10, 1871—The Herald caravan had set forth before dawn on what Stanley hoped would be the last hours of its mission. They had still to cross over a mountain, but Stanley didn’t care. He just wanted to get to Ujiji. But the view from the summit had taken his breath away. Lake Tanganyika sparkled below like a silver sea. “In a few minutes we shall have reached the spot where we imagine the objects of our search,” he wrote. “Our fate will soon be decided. No one in the town knows we are coming.”

A mile from town, Stanley ordered the American colors raised. “The flags are fluttered, the banner of America is in front waving joyfully,” Stanley wrote. The sound of muskets firing and horns blowing filled the air. “Never were the Stars and Stripes so beautiful in my mind.”

As Stanley entered Ujiji, thousands of people pressed around the caravan. Livingstone had been sitting on a straw mat on the mud veranda of his small house, pondering his woeful future, when he heard the commotion. Now Livingstone got slowly to his feet. Above the throngs of people, he saw the American flag snapping in the breeze and porters bearing an incredible assortment of goods: bales of cloth, huge kettles, tents. “This must be a luxurious traveler,” Livingstone thought. “And not one at wit’s end like me.”

Livingstone pushed through the crowd and saw a tanned, gaunt man. His boots were worn and his sun-beaten helmet clean. The man had such a formal bearing that, despite the Stars and Stripes, Livingstone assumed he was French. He hoped the traveler spoke English, for Livingstone didn’t speak a word of French. He thought that they would be “a pretty pair of white men in Ujiji if neither one spoke the other’s language.”

What Stanley saw was a pale white man wearing a faded blue cap and patched clothing. The man’s hair was white, he had few teeth, and his beard was bushy. He walked, Stanley wrote, “with a firm and heavy tread.”

Stanley stepped up crisply to the old man, removed his helmet and extended his hand. According to Stanley’s journal, it was November 10, 1871. With formal intonation, representing America but trying to affect British gravity, Stanley spoke, according to later accounts, the most dignified words that came to mind: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

“Yes,” Livingstone answered simply.

“I thank God, doctor,” Stanley said, appalled at how fragile Livingstone looked, “I have been permitted to see you.”

“I feel thankful,” Livingstone said with typical understatement, “I am here to welcome you.” 

London, England, October 27, 1871—On a cool autumn morning, under a sky that threatened rain, a procession of 13 mourning carriages rolled through the north entrance of Brompton Cemetery moving toward the grave site of Sir Roderick Murchison. He would be buried next to his wife. Prime Minister William Gladstone and a host of dignitaries stepped from their carriages and solemnly walked to the grave. Murchison was a conservative, and Gladstone the day’s preeminent liberal, but the two men had crossed paths for a lifetime. “Went to Sir R. Murchison’s funeral; the last of those who had known me from infancy,” Gladstone wrote in his journal. “And so a step toward the end is made visible.”

Stanley’s and Livingstone’s journals show that both men had lost track of time, and their journals were off by days—in Stanley’s case, as much as two weeks. The date on which Stanley actually found Livingstone was not November 10 but October 27—two years to the day since Bennett had bestowed the Great Commission upon Stanley. It was also the very day of Murchison’s burial. In fact—given that Murchison’s funeral ran from 11:00 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon, and taking into account a two-hour time difference, Murchison would have been lowered into the ground only after his long-lost friend had been found by Stanley.

In the hours after their meeting, Stanley and Livingstone forged a profound bond. “I found myself gazing at him,” Stanley wrote of that afternoon on Livingstone’s veranda when the two men sat eating and drinking until well into the evening. “Every hair of his head and beard, every wrinkle of his face, the wanness of his features, and the slightly wearied look he wore, were all imparting intelligence to me—the knowledge I craved for so much.”

Livingstone, for his part, was no less moved. “You have brought me new life,” he told Stanley between bites of stewed goat, curried chicken and rice.

Stanley had originally planned to depart quickly for Zanzibar, racing back to the outside world with news of his achievement. But in a rare departure from character, he set aside ambition to bask in his newfound friendship. He oversaw Livingstone’s return to health, then accepted his offer to explore the dark green waters of Lake Tanganyika. They spent a month traveling in a dugout canoe paddled by 20 of Stanley’s men. Though Stanley had proved adept at the fundamentals of African travel, Livingstone was giving him a tutorial on exploration.

They returned to Ujiji, where Livingstone vowed to continue searching for the source of the Nile, despite Stanley’s urgings that they return to London. Stanley traveled to Tabora with Livingstone and outfitted him with supplies and new porters. After five months together, the men parted ways on March 14, 1872. As a tearful Stanley left for Zanzibar, Livingstone said, “You have done what few men could do, and I am grateful.”

No less than James Gordon Bennett Jr. had hoped, Stanley’s finding of Livingstone—reported in the May 2, 1872, edition of the Herald under the headline “Livingstone Safe”—was an international sensation. Stanley returned to London, then New York, a hero. Bennett and the Herald milked the story for a year. The saga of Stanley and Livingstone sparked an unlikely turning point in history. Journalism’s growing power, America’s ascendancy and Britain’s eventual eclipse, one generation of explorer giving way to another, and the opening of Africa—all were foreshadowed or came about as a result of Livingstone’s love of Africa and Stanley’s march to find him.

Livingstone, worn down by disease, died in today’s Zambia, on May 1, 1873, a year and a half after his meeting with Stanley. His attendants mummified his body and handed it over to British authorities. His remains were buried in Westminster Abbey. Stanley was a pallbearer at Livingstone’s funeral. Afterward, he fulfilled a vow he’d made to the explorer to return to Africa to search for the source of the Nile. In his failed attempt, Stanley circumnavigated lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, then traveled the length of the Congo River to the Atlantic. Later, however, he besmirched his reputation by accepting money from King Leopold II of Belgium to help create the Congo Free State and promote the slave trade. Though he returned to Britain, married in 1890 (he and his wife, Dorothy, adopted a 1-year-old Welsh child in 1896), resumed his British citizenship in 1892 and served in Parliament, when he died at age 63, he was denied burial in Westminster Abbey because of his actions in the Congo Free State.

Stanley swore he uttered the words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” but the page pertaining to that moment was torn out of his journal. It is possible that it went missing in an act of sabotage by a farsighted collector. But if Stanley didn’t make the statement and removed the page to cover his tracks, few who knew the Welshman turned American would have been surprised. He may well have fabricated the quote for his Herald stories (he mentions it in two dispatches; one published July 15, 1872, the other on August 10, 1872). In any case, the four words became the journey’s defining moment. By the time Stanley returned from Africa, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” was so well known that recanting would have caused considerable loss of face. To the day he died of complications of a stroke and pleurisy in London on May 10, 1904, Stanley maintained he had spoken the eloquent phrase.

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