- 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
Yet there were two incidents in this period that had an important effect on Stanley. While in the Navy he was an eyewitness to the Federal attack at Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and wrote to newspapers describing the battle. Similarly, his dispatch recounting his misadventures in Turkey under the headline OUTRAGE TO AMERICAN TRAVELLERS IN TURKEY appeared in the press and attracted some attention. The result was that at the age of twenty-five Stanley decided to become a professional journalist, and, obtaining a roving commission from the editor of the Missouri Democrat , he set out in the spring of 1867, armed with note pad, pencil, and a valise of clothing, to report on the Army’s campaigns to pacify the Cheyenne and Sioux Indians. Stanley’s western tour was the last purely American lesson he learned, and in some ways it was the most important. His observations of the Indians, the workings of the negotiations between them and the military, the behavior of Generals Hancock and Sherman, who led the missions, and the exuberant development of the trans-Mississippi West that he wrote up, were all to shape his hopes for and ideas of Africa’s peoples and prospects. He would paraphrase and quote to Congo natives speeches he had heard delivered to the Sioux; when attacked by Africans he reacted as if they were Indians on the warpath; and he dreamed of developing interior Africa in the same style he had seen in western America.
On his western travels, too, Stanley evolved his style of writing. His dispatches to the Missouri Democrat noticeably improved from the rather stilted early efforts to his more fluent descriptions of the cow towns and mining settlements that he visited toward the end of his journey. Stanley was never to become a really polished author, although he eventually wrote more than ten large volumes based on his travels. Instead, he could be relied upon to give a rambunctious, colorful account of his own escapades and impressions, written at phenomenal speed. And this was precisely what he gave the readers of the Missouri Democrat , whether telling them about the redoubtable chief Satanta of the Kiowa, who dressed in a captain’s coat, with epaulets and leggings ornamented with jingling small brass bells, or describing Wild Bill Hickok, who was already a popular schoolboy hero. Hickok was working as a dispatch rider when Stanley met him, and evidently they struck up a friendship, for Stanley claimed that Hickok picked up a man who had insulted Stanley in a saloon and threw him over a billiard table.
Above all, Stanley’s western dispatches brought him before the editors of larger city newspapers. Besides the Missouri Democrat , his reports appeared occasionally in papers in Chicago and New York, and it was in the latter city in 1868, after coming back from the West, that he asked James Gordon Bennett, Jr., for a job as an overseas correspondent for the Herald . Bennett gave him a trial posting as the correspondent to report on the British military campaign against Abyssinia, and Stanley succeeded brilliantly. On his way there he bribed the telegraph master at Suez to give priority to any dispatches for the Herald , transmitting them before any other traffic. Thus Stanley’s descriptions of the British victory at Magdala were sent over the wires even before General Robert Napier’s official announcement to the British government. By another stroke of Stanley’s luck, the cable to England then broke, and for the next few days Her Majesty’s government found itself obliged —to its intense annoyance—to learn about the country’s great victory exclusively from the columns of the New York Herald .
The Abyssinian scoop confirmed Stanley as a crack correspondent and in due course led to the imperious summons to editor Bennett’s presence for the great journalistic commission that would result in Livingstone’s rescue. In typical Bennett style neither money nor time was to be any hindrance to his reporter’s quest. As he put it to Stanley: “Draw a thousand pounds now; and when you have gone through that, draw another thousand, and when that is spent, draw another, and when you have finished that, draw another thousand, and so on; but, FIND LIVINGSTONE.”
Nearly everything about Stanley’s expedition was markedly American. With the backing of an American newspaper Stanley arrived in Zanzibar on a Yankee ship on January 6, 1871, and went promptly to seek the help of the American consul there, deliberately taking care to keep his real intentions hidden from the British diplomatic representative. The American community of Zanzibar could not have been more helpful. Because there was no money waiting for Stanley from Bennett, the consul, Captain Francis R. Webb, advanced Stanley money to buy stores. Webb’s wife herself stitched together the American flag that was to be borne, Stanley ordered, by the tallest Negro in his column. And the small American mercantile community at Zanzibar, mostly New Englanders (Salem had a long tradition of trade with Zanzibar), helped him to assemble his stores and even presented him with a horse on which to lead his expedition.