Henry Morton Stanley was born in Wales as John Rowlands. Largely abandoned by his parents, he was brought up by a grandfather who tragically died when he was only six. Taken into the workhouse, his remaining childhood was harsh, to say the least. He escaped the workhouse and travelled to Liverpool, where relatives were based, but was rejected by them also, and so with nothing to lose he took work on board a ship to the United States.
On arrival in New Orleans, he picked up various casual jobs, but remained somewhat restless. The wealthiest man in New Orleans at that time was Henry Hope Stanley, and at some point during his stay, Rowlands adopted Stanley’s name in an attempt to leave behind his tragic past. He ended up fighting in the American Civil War. He fought in a number of serious battles on the side of the South, and was captured and imprisoned by the North, before escaping. He later fought for the North, in the navy, until he eventually went AWOL and hid in New York.
During this period, he was developing skills as a journalist, and he reported on issues from Turkey and Asia. He then managed to persuade Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Times, the most influential newspaper in the world, to part-finance him in an attempt to seek David Livingstone, a quest in which the whole world was interested. Stanley was ultimately successful, although he purportedly regretted the simplicity of his famous greeting, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” Much of Bennett’s funding hinged on the success of the trip, and the quality of copy received. In order to maximise the payment, Stanley went to extraordinary lengths to send his copy back to New York, to ensure a scoop.
Stanley, who had spent so much of his life looking for a father figure, found it in Livingstone, and as an accomplished writer and fan of the older man he was arguably most responsible for the legend that grew up around Livingstone and his legacy. Inspired by Livingstone, Stanley led his own expedition across Africa, from Zanzibar all the way to the mouth of the Congo – the first trans-African expedition.
Some of Stanley’s incredible drive came from a belief that with fame and fortune his mother would finally accept him. However, as his fame grew, he felt that, having largely reinvented himself, the danger of being ‘outed’ as a poor Welsh ‘orphan’ increased, making life quite uncomfortable.
By December 1884, when Stanley came to Scotland to open the Scottish Geographical Society’s first office, and to deliver the inaugural address to audiences in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow, he had run another successful expedition exploring the Congo, and was keen that Britain should recognise the value of this part of Africa and develop it as a British territory. There was, however, no political will for this in Britain at that time, in large part because of the significant human cost of the Boer War, and British efforts in other parts of Africa.
In the end it was Leopold, King of the Belgians, desperate for the status and possible resources afforded by an overseas territory, who took the initiative and funded Stanley to return with money and soldiers to claim a tract of land as the Belgian Congo. This was not without controversy: the Belgians under Stanley’s command were accused of a great number of atrocities, and there is uncertainty about the level of Stanley’s knowledge of these.
In east and central Africa around this time, Germany was becoming increasingly active in laying claim to large swathes of Africa that had previously been claimed by Britain. Anxiety was building amongst some soldiers and politicians that Britain’s complacency towards its territories in east and central Africa could lead to potential German domination in the region. Having witnessed so much at first hand, Stanley feared that all the gains of explorers like himself and Livingstone would be lost. One by one, British governors in the area were displaced or killed, most spectacularly in General Gordon’s catastrophic defence of Khartoum.
Once again, Stanley’s path crossed that of the RSGS. Various of Stanley’s friends who were also RSGS Council Members and Vice-Presidents (including Sir William Mackinnon and Alexander Bruce) led the call for the relief of the last British governor in the area: Emin Pasha was believed to be in peril from the armies of the Mahdi and to be besieged near Lake Albert, where Stanley had first met Livingstone. After a great deal of political pressure, Stanley was appointed to lead a rescue effort to bring Emin Pasha to safety, backed by the Emin Pasha Relief Committee which was composed largely of RSGS members.
With more than 400 men, Stanley set off once more along the Congo, to effect one of the longest trans-African expeditions ever, by crossing the continent from west to east. He lost well over half of his men (who ran away, died of illness, or were killed in attacks), only to discover that Emin Pasha did not really want to be relieved. Pasha was a German, who had pretended to be Turkish in order to run away from his less-than-successful life in Germany, where he was being pursued through the courts by his disgruntled ex-wife. He therefore had no desire to admit his background or to return to Europe. Although largely pointless, the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition established the link between some of Africa’s largest lakes, and marked the extent of the Ruwenzori Mountains.
In June 1890, Stanley returned to Scotland. He opened the Society’s new rooms in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, saying “It is nearly six years since I was in Edinburgh before to inaugurate certain rooms which were to be devoted to the use of the Scottish Geographical Society. Since then you have made a great deal of progress.”
Stanley gave talks for the RSGS in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen on The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, and received the Freedom of those cities. He was elected (along with His Majesty the King of the Belgians) as one of the two first Honorary Members of the RSGS, and was presented with the Society’s first Gold Medal. Honorary Diplomas of Fellowship, in recognition of services rendered to geographical science, were awarded to five of Stanley’s commanding officers: William Bonny, Arthur J M Jephson, Captain Robert H Nelson, Dr Thomas H Parke, and Lieutenant William G Stairs.
Inspired by Livingstone Stanley led his own expedition across Africa, from Zanzibar all the way to the mouth of the Congo – the first trans-African expedition.