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The Making Of An American Lion
A Welsh waif adopted a new country and a new name and then became—thanks to a New York newspaper—the most famous African explorer of his time
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
On Sunday, December 8, 1872, the manager of the Theatre Comique on Broadway took the unusual step of buying up almost the entire front page of the New York Herald to puff the triumph of his latest presentation. It was called Africa or Livingstone and Stanley , and, to judge from the ecstatic reviews that were quoted, the show was a ringing success. The popular comedy team of Harrigan and Hart had been lured away from their previous engagement at a rival theatre in order to play the leads, and as the Comique was making an all-out attempt to broaden its audience appeal, the Herald ’s lady readers were particularly assured that the theatre and its program offered an enjoyable evening that no well-bred lady need shun.
The theme of the entertainment was, of course, the spectacular rescue of Dr. David Livingstone in Central Africa by Henry Morton Stanley, though the tale had been enlivened by such extra stage characters as “the Congo Dancers of the Land of Crocodiles” and a cast-away Irish lady, Mrs. Biddy Malone, who in Scene vin taught the Africans an Irish war cry. The pièce de résistance of this light-hearted farrago was, to the delight of the audience, the inevitable tableau as Stanley strode on stage in his African kit with an enormous Stars and Stripes to discover a wilting Livingstone at his last gasp. Raising his hat, Stanley uttered the immortal phrase “Doctor Livingstone, I presume,”a remark that sent the Comique’s audience into guffaws of delight.
It was no accident that the Herald had been chosen as the vehicle for the Comique’s advertising. The Herald was the most popular paper in New York. It was at the height of its power and flamboyance; its theatre reviews were crisply written and widely read, and its advertising carried enormous impact. People turned instinctively to the Herald for everything that was racy, gossipy, and entertaining. Above all, it was the newspaper that had “made” Stanley. It was the Herald , in the person of its eccentric millionaireeditor, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., that had sent Stanley into Africa as its special correspondent to look for Livingstone. The Herald had paid all Stanley’s bills, and it was the Herald that had consistently carried as journalistic scoops all of Stanley’s dispatches. Indeed, Stanley’s last cable summarizing his exploits was so lengthy that it cost two thousand dollars to send, a sum that Bennett considered well spent if it helped to reassert the Herald ’s dominance over all its rival New York papers.
What Bennett and the Herald succeeded in doing in 1872 was to create for the American public that rare creature, Leo Africanus Americanus , an African lion from America. Naturally there had been plenty of other African lions before, men like Richard Francis Burton and John Manning Speke, who had searched for the source of the Nile, and Livingstone himself. But they had all been uncompromisingly British. Stanley, by contrast, was presented by the Herald as an American through and through, a bluff, nononsense traveler from the New World who had trod boldly into the heart of Africa, beaten the English at their own game, and carried off the greatest prize in African exploration. In the words of the official citation from Mayor A. Oakey Hall of New York, Stanley was a “young journalist who took the commission of a New York newspaper in his pocket and the American flag in his hand and so started to find a British explorer who had been practically abandoned by his own government in the wilds of Central Africa. …”
The man at the center of this enthusiasm was not, at first sight, obvious timber to turn into a public hero. Thirty-one years old, Stanley cut a rather squat and graceless figure. His arms and legs seemed too short for his thick, powerful body, and his rather rubicund face was chiefly remarkable for its air of determined pugnacity. His hair, once black, had turned a pepper-and-salt color during his African trek, and he behaved with an awkward combination of bluntness and shyness. Queen Victoria, who had met him two months previously, described him as “a determined, ugly little man- with a strong American twang.” When excited he could get carried away, gesticulate wildly, and blurt out all manner of indiscreet remarks, yet at the same time it was common knowledge that he himself took offense easily. Thus the Herald ’s successful publicity campaign to boost Stanley into the headlines was a considerable feat.