The Darkest Continent

PrintPrintEmailEmail

His first expedition to Africa, in 1871, did more than merely make him famous. In finding Livingstone for the New York Herald , he seems also to have found, however fleetingly, the surrogate father for whom he’d always yearned; basking in the famous missionary’s paternal approval, Stanley wrote: “I have come to entertain an immense respect for myself and begin to think myself somebody, though I never suspected it before.…I get as proud as can be, as though I had some great honor thrust on me.” When Livingstone died two years later, Stanley was disconsolate. “I loved him as a son,” he told the missionary’s daughter, and he would subsequently justify his own, sometimes bloody-minded African adventuring as part of a filial mission to carry on Livingstone’s work, expunging the slave trade by introducing European commerce.

Action alone staved off Stanley’s depression, and only Africa, as far as he could get from the white world in which he always felt himself an interloper, and where he was surrounded by blacks willing to follow his orders without question, could provide him with the distinctive kind of action he demanded.

Whenever even momentarily at rest, Stanley made trouble for himself, picking quarrels with the rich and wellborn, feuding with everybody from fellow journalists to fellow explorers. He gave offense as easily he took it, was always restless, always aggrieved, always certain others were mocking him. At forty-four, he wrote that he had “not found one man—and I have travelled over 400,000 miles of this globe—who did not venture to say something unkind the minute I turned my back to him.”

His distrust of women seems to have run still deeper. He professed to be too timid for courtship. “To propose and be refused,” he told a friend, “would be my death.…” But in fact, he craved companionship and intimacy, pursued young women on both sides of the Atlantic with such single-mindedness that they were frightened off, then denounced them for their faithlessness. (He may also have had sexual relationships with at least two young men, who later threatened him with blackmail, though the evidence is more suggestive than conclusive.)

Action alone staved off Stanley’s depression, and only Africa could provide him with the distinctive kind of action he demanded.

In any case, in 1890 he finally persuaded Dorothy Tennant, the daughter of a British diplomat, to marry him. Though she was much younger than he, she seems to have treated him as more mother than wife, and he responded with a son’s gratitude; it was an enormous relief, he told her, “not to be chilled and have to shrink back.

“Between mother and child, you know the confidence and trust that exist; I never knew it; and now, by extreme favour of Providence, the last few years of my life shall be given to know this thoroughly.”

She persuaded him to renounce his American citizenship, become a naturalized Briton, and stand for Parliament as the candidate of the Liberal-Unionists. Although he was elected as the member for North Lambeth in 1895, he disliked even the minimal sort of flesh pressing required of British politicians, loathed being “herded in the lobbies like so many sheep in a fold,” could not abide having to listen to speakers he believed less well informed than he. Despite recurrent malarial fevers that forced him to shroud himself in blankets on even the warmest summer days, he did enjoy working away at his relentlessly imaginative autobiography and played happily with Denzel, the illegitimate Welsh baby he had adopted.

In 1899 Stanley was awarded the Grand Cross of the Bath by Queen Victoria. But by then sinister reports of Belgian cruelty—floggings, mutilations, butcheries—had already begun to leak out of the Congo. Stanley privately worried over the “moral miasma” that seemed to have encompassed the lands he had laid open to the Belgians, but in public he denied it all—and even paid tribute to King Leopold as Africa’s divinely appointed “redeemer.”

The British Foreign Office was to prove Belgian rule far more barbaric than the first reports suggested, but by then Stanley had been paralyzed by a stroke.

Toward the end he asked his wife, “Where will they put me when I am—gone?”

“In Westminster Abbey,” she assured him.

He was delighted. “Yes, they will put me beside Livingstone.”

But in the end even posthumous legitimacy was denied him. He was cremated and buried in a country churchyard after the dean of Westminster, evidently appalled by the horrors to which Stanley’s explorations in the Congo had led, refused to grant him space near the man he’d yearned to have be the father he had never known.