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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
But Stanley had very much more than an emotional attachment to America through his foster father. His African training also really began at New Orleans. He was taken on as an assistant at Speake and McCreary’s store, and it was here and upriver that he developed his remarkable flair for organization and detail that was later to characterize his expeditions. At his prime in Africa, Stanley the explorer was capable of handling vast amounts of men and materials. It was nothing for him to control a marching column of porters three-quarters of a mile long and directed by bugle calls; and on the Congo he was to supervise the operation of an entire fleet of steamers carrying an army of natives with all their stores and munitions deep into the heart of the continent. All this was foreshadowed in his apprenticeship as a Mississippi commission agent: the bags and bales, the lists of lading, the best ways of packaging, all the expertise that oiled an intricate commercial structure operating far from its base. Years afterward, when he became the first white man to navigate the length of the Congo River, he would draw on this American background, even discovering that the same sort of calico and sheeting that he had once handled on the Mississippi were being used as currency by the Kenya natives. On the Congo he would benefit from his memories of a flatboat trip he had made down the Mississippi and (in 1866) a similar voyage down the River Platte on a homemade raft.
Other tricks of the trade were also to be learned along the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. Firstly, Stanley developed a phenomenal memory, which in later years was to stand him in such good stead as a newspaper reporter. Toward the end of his life his memory was so good that he could recall the precise names of casual acquaintances he had met as a teen-ager, and as a correspondent he was able to quote verbatim some conversations that he had heard five years before. River life also accustomed Stanley to constant travel, moving incessantly from one riverside market to the next and one plantation to another. Here, too, in the frontier atmosphere of Arkansas, where for a time he worked in a general store at Cypress Bend, he acquired an intimate knowledge of firearms, one of the main stock items, so that he could distinguish between a Sharp and a Ballard rifle or define the advantages of the Tranter over the Colt. Moreover, he learned to use these weapons. Cypress Bend had more than its fair share of feuds and larceny, and Stanley felt it necessary to practice with his gun behind the store until he became an accurate shot. Ironically, Cypress Bend also introduced him to another aspect of his future career, for it was there in the Arkansas bottom lands that Stanley first contracted ague, probably malaria, which reduced his weight to ninety-five pounds through repeated attacks of shivering, delirium, and nausea. With some truth he would one day point out to those who feared the dangers of ill health for white colonists in East Africa that fever was more virulent and widespread along the lower Arkansas River.
The outbreak of the Civil War swept Stanley, somewhat reluctantly—he did not support the war or favor either side—into the Dixie Greys, a Confederate volunteer unit attached to the 6th Arkansas Regiment. On the second day of Shiloh he was taken prisoner by Union skirmishers and shipped north to Camp Douglas, a prison compound on the outskirts of Chicago. While conditions were not as bad as those at Andersonville, they were desperate enough to break all but the most hardy prisoners. Stanley was shocked. The inmates were emaciated, so many dying from dysentery and typhus that when Stanley saw the wagons call daily at the hospital he likened the corpses they collected, each wrapped in a blanket and piled one upon another, to “New Zealand frozen-mutton carcasses … carted from the docks!”
After six weeks in the prison he volunteered to join the Northern forces and thereby obtained his release. Yet it was already too late. The young man—Stanley was only twenty-one years old—had scarcely been enrolled in the United States Artillery when he came down with a fierce attack of dysentery. As soon as he was fit enough to walk, the hospital authorities were only too glad to discharge him from their care and the Union forces, a physical wreck.
The next period of Stanley’s life, from June, 1862, to the spring of 1867, was a mélange of half-baked ideas, half-finished projects, and misadventures. He went back to sea temporarily, survived a shipwreck off Spain, visited his mother in Wales but was rebuffed, and for the last eight months of the Civil War was enlisted as a clerk in the United States Navy. He saved enough money to launch an abortive expedition to Turkey, but he and his American companion were plundered by brigands and came home crestfallen, with financial aid from the American minister and consul general.