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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
Stanley’s original name had been John Rowlands, and he was the illegitimate son of a Welsh girl who had promptly handed the infant over to the care of his grandfather living in the small Welsh town of Denbigh. There he was looked after until he was six years old, when, on the pretext that he was being taken on a visit to his Aunt Mary, he was walked down to the local workhouse and callously handed over to the workmaster, to be held in his custody until placed in suitable (and probably menial) employment. Stanley’s life in the workhouse was a nightmare. Like the other inmates he was wretchedly fed and clothed, forced to work in freezing conditions, and savagely tormented. The chief culprit in lliis Oliver Twist existence was the workmaster, a crippled brute of a man who had lost a hand in a mining accident, been put out to pasture in his present job, and took out, his malice on his wards. Later he was found to be certifiably insane. At fifteen, according to his memoirs, Stanley got into a fight with the workmaster, knocked him clown, and Heel from the workhouse before his tormentor regained consciousness. Briskly handed on from one relative to the next, Stanley finally obtained a job as a cabin boy aboard the American packet ship Windennere , sailing from Liverpool to New Orleans.
It was not a happy introduction to Americans, because the Yankee packets were notoriously hard driven, and the youthful Welshman was swindled and mistreated. He signed on as a cabin boy, but it was an old trick whereby the moment the vessel put to sea, the “cabin boy” was kicked forward to take his place with the regular sailors and had to serve his passage as a cut-price deck hand. Similarly, it was common practice to haze the newcomer so badly toward the end of the trip that the victim jumped ship at the first port without collecting his wages, which were pocketed by the captain. Certainly the technique worked well with the Welsh truant. At New Orleans Stanley scurried off the packet ship and, after spending one night bedded down among the cotton bales on the levee, headed into the city to look for work.
It was at this time that he had what can best be described as one of those tremendous strokes of good luck based on coincidence that were to propel him to fame. Trudging up Tchapitoulas Street early in the morning, past the commercial houses and stores, he saw a middle-aged man, prosperously dressed in a dark alpaca suit and tall hat, seated outside No. 3 store, the premises of Speake and McCreary, wholesale and commission merchants. Judging by the man’s appearance and the way his chair was tilted languidly back against the stone porch, Stanley mistook him for the proprietor and, walking over, blurted out, “Do you want a boy, sir?” “Eh?” the man replied with a start. “What did you say?” “I want some work, sir,” answered Stanley. “I asked if you wanted a boy.”
The stranger so casually approached was to alter the future explorer’s life profoundly. The man’s name was Henry Stanley, and he made a comfortable living as a commission agent, selling hardware and general goods to cotton planters and merchants along the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Not only did he help provide the young Welsh immigrant with his first decent job, but he also befriended him, educated him, arranged his commercial training, eradicated the boy’s singsong Welsh accent, and finally adopted the waif. This adoption took place soon after the death of the commission agent’s wife and was a curious little ceremony in which Stanley senior, who turned out to have once been a travelling minister, made the sign of the cross on the lad’s forehead and baptized him. It was only then that Stanley learned how the commission agent had always wanted to adopt a boy and had even visited the local orphanage in search of one. So that the words of the young runaway suddenly approaching him in the street with “Do you want a boy, sir?” had voiced his inner feelings.
His protégeé␁s gratitude was boundless. The former John Rowlands, waif, took his benefactor’s name, listened to every word his mentor spoke, com- piled a log book of his advice, and even went so far as to adopt his style of handwriting. The first time that young Stanley received a letter from his foster father, he noted the signature and copied it for his own, retaining the distinctive flourish that was to appear on all Stanley’s later correspondence. When Mr. Stanley senior died of yellow fever on a business trip to Cuba in 1861, the future African explorer was almost inconsolable.