- 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
The second lecture of the series was even worse. The audience was noticeably smaller, and the long-suffering reporter from the Herald who had been kind enough about the first effort could stand the tedium no longer. “Mr. Stanley,” he snarled in his review, “has utterly mistaken the necessities of the platform. His map of Central Africa is not used, and the specimens of cloths which he brings on the stage are quite useless, for he does not know how to make his hearers interested in them by making them illustrative of his subject. … he overlooks the personal and the peculiar, and treats only of the geographical and commonplace. … All this is unnecessary, and it would be cruel to Mr. Stanley not to say so.”
Of course the cruelty was in being so caustic. Chastened, Stanley threw in his hand. The remainder of his lecture series was discreetly cancelled—so discreetly, indeed, that some thirty people showed up at Steinway Hall the following session and were surprised to find the building locked and in darkness. ”… After repeated knocking,” the New York World reported, “the janitor appeared to tell them that Stanley would not be appearing any more in the Hall owing to the fact that the former receipts of the lectures delivered did not meet expenses.” The World , which had been looking for just this opportunity, gleefully published Stanley’s discomfiture on its front page, and the Steinway management hastily arranged a substitute program of vocalists and piano with galleryseats for as little as twenty-five cents.
The lecture failure was only one of Stanley’s disasters. While he was in the full flush of popularity, Horace Greeley died and the papers were swamped with his obituaries. In particular the Tribune , usually reliable for a contest with the Herald , went in heavily for memorabilia about the late Presidential candidate who, after all, had helped to found the newspaper. Then the Fifth Avenue Hotel burned down, and there was not even mention of whether Stanley had moved out beforehand or how he had escaped the blaze, which killed several of the maids. Typically, Bennett seized this chance to splash on his front page the new “Bennett building” currently under construction and supposedly fireproof. Moreover, Christmas was due, and so Africa came off the boards at the Comique, and a pantomime was put on in its place. By the end of the holidays almost the only scrap thrown Stanley’s way was a puff for his book How I Found Livingstone , which was put on the list of recommended holiday reading. Thus in April, when Stanley left New York and sailed for his next journalistic assignment, his departure was scarcely noted.
Over the next eighteen years Stanley’s career was to be an astonishing series of coups. Returning to central Africa in 1874, he was to make a masterly trek lasting more than a thousand days. It took him clear across the middle belt of the continent and solved two of the foremost problems of African geography, namely, the extent of Lake Victoria relative to the Nile and the course of the Congo River.
The Congo voyage itself was a great adventure. Travelling in a forty-foot open boat of Stanley’s own design—it could be dismantled and carried in sections overland—the explorer floated, blustered, and fought his way down the length of the previously unknown waterway. Of his three white companions two died of fever, and the third was drowned in the Congo’s rapids. Sharp battles were fought against river tribes who attacked the strangers with squadrons of war canoes, and conditions eventually became so treacherous that the Zanzibar! coxswain went mad and rushed off into the jungle shrieking “The sea! the sea!” Yet scarcely had Stanley emerged from this ordeal when he plunged back into Africa, this time at the request of” King Leopold of Belgium, to develop the enormous Congo basin. Stanley’s campaign was of Pharaonic proportions. Commanding a small army of white volunteers and Zanzibari porters, he built a roadway around the worst cataracts, dragged steamers overland to launch them on Stanley Pool, as the inland lake of the Congo was called in his honor, and laid the foundations of the Congo Free State.
But these remarkable achievements were still in the future when Americans were casting a critical eye over the brand-new African lion presented to them so glibly by the New York Herald in 1872. Indeed, the people of the United States had earned themselves the privilege of treating Stanley exactly as they wished—handsomely, shabbily, or not at all—for the fact was that Stanley owed a tremendous debt to his country of adoption. He derived from the United States not only his initial fame for the Livingstone rescue but also to a large degree his selfconfidence, his education, and what savoir-faire he had. In many ways his life was the American dream come true, and it was by a quirk of history that he achieved renown in an African, rather than an American, context.