- Historic Sites
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
Not that everything was plain sailing for the returned hero. Stanley had brought back with him from Africa the seeds of a virulent illness, probably a combination of malaria and dysentery. This was to plague him for the rest of his life, and a bout of this illness laid him low on the evening he was scheduled to attend another gala reception, this time with the American Geographical Society in the Cooper Institute. Instead he was obliged to send a lastminute apology for his absence by the hand of John Livingstone, who stood in for him. Later that week, however, he made amends by attending the splendid banquet that the geographers gave for him at Delmonico’s. Nearly two hundred people attended. Stanley was in great form, flourishing his prize snuffbox from Victoria and announcing that “it is peculiarly pleasant and gratifying to receive such honour as this from, as I may say, one’s own kindred. It is not often a prophet is honoured in his own country, but I think, though I am not exactly a prophet, that at least a traveller can be recognised in his native land.”
Naturally enough, an instant Stanley industry flared up in the wake of his success. Besides the Africa show there was a skit in another review that depicted the Royal Geographical Society’s council in London as a conclave of doddering old savants who collapsed with shock when Stanley strode in on their committee meeting and announced that he had found Livingstone. A local humorist, Don Bryant, managed to attract New York audiences by giving spoof lectures in a pseudo-explorer style on the adventures of an African who came to New Jersey to search for the source of the Somerset River. Meeting a native, he inquired “Brrzknokho rkndorokledklokulla,” which—predictably—was translated as “Dr. Livingstone, I believe? My name is Stanley.” Meanwhile a Philadelphia publisher quickly got together with a San Francisco accomplice to prepare a book that allegedly gave the full account of the Livingstone rescue. The book was enticingly dressed up in an engraved cover showing African animals surrounded by jungle foliage. In fact it was nothing but a hodgepodge stolen from Stanley’s earlier published dispatches and padded out with imaginary African geography and zoology lifted from other African journals. There were also Stanley’s photo portraits on sale, Stanley mementos, and Stanley jokes. The only other national figure to rival him was Jay Gould, arrested that same week for manipulating nearly ten million dollars’ worth of Erie Railroad stock. And even here a touch of Stanley mania intervened. The Herald reporter hotfooted down to Wall Street to interview the notorious financier, caught sight of his prey in the Street, and, so the report alleged, intercepted his man by going boldly up to him and asking “Mr. Gould, I presume?”
But as with other overnight heroes, the yeast of excitement eventually turned sour for Stanley. The acclaim was simply too much to sustain, and heady indulgence brought its usual retribution on the morning after. Stanley’s nemesis was the series of African lectures that had been booked in advance by a quicksilver impresario at the allegedly enormous sum of thirty thousand dollars. A successful lecture series would have won for him the final acme of public approval (Harriet Beecher Stowe was speaking that same month at the Y.M.C.A. ), and Stanley was due to appear at the prestigious Steinway Hall. Tickets were offered at the steep price often dollars for eight lectures or—as the first night approached—at one dollar per performance. Carried away with his commercial prospects, the promoter oversold his program badly. Advertising in the papers, he claimed that Stanley’s topics would include LIFE IN CENTRAL AFRICA; THE HORRORS OF THE SLAVE TRADE; TRIUMPHS OF CHRISTIANITY IN THE FABULOUS LAND; MARCH OF THE HERALD EXPEDITION INTO THE LAND OF THE MOON; THE BATTLE OF THE JUNGLE; TRIBUTE TO THE KINC, OF UBBA; LIVINGSTONE’S MISSIONARY AND SCIENTIFIC WORK; THE CAVERNS OF TANGANYIKA; THE DISCOVERY OF DOCTOR LIVINGSTONE; DOCTOR LIVINGSTONE1S STORY; MARCH TO NYASSA LAKE AND THE FAMOUS CAZEME; THE TREASURES OF THE WONDERFUL LAND; THE MYSTIC NILE AND ITS SOURCES , etc., etc. Shrewd critics might have pointed out that it all sounded too much like P. T. Barnum’s advertisement in the next column, which announced “Dwarfs, Giants and Nondescripts” [in] his Great Hippodrome, along with “Colonel Routh Goshen the Largest Human Being in the Known World. Admiral Dot, Twenty Five Inches High” and a “Madagascar Family of Albinoes, and Wax Figures without Number. …”
Stanley’s inaugural lecture was a near-fiasco. It started out well enough with the podium evocatively decorated with African shields and spears, the Stars and Stripes that Stanley had carried at the head of his caravan, a huge map of Africa, and the impish Kalulu. But Stanley himself was a flop; he droned on monotonously, his text was dry and poorly organized, there were too many long and incomprehensible African place names in it, and people at the back of the hall could not hear him.