Mr. Stanley, I Presume?

Biographer Tim Jeal tries to salvage the reputation of Henry Morton Stanley, but there's only so much one can do to save this colorful 19th-century adventurer from himself.

"Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer" by Tim Jeal, Yale University Press, 570 pages, $18 (paperback)

Henry Morton Stanley is mainly known today for a peculiar question that he allegedly posed to Dr. David Livingstone on October 27, 1871, in the thick of the African jungle. The pair met after a prolonged and arduous search that adventurer Stanley had conducted to save the sainted missionary Dr. Livingstone. Legend has it that when Stanley finally located Livingstone, he merely remarked with dry British wit: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

But this never happened. While Stanley wrote in his memoir of the fascinating expedition that he did indeed - and with those words - encounter the missing missionary, his biographer has no doubt whatsoever that the historic meeting went completely differently, and that Stanley did not ask the famous question on that occasion. Author Tim Jeal seeks to save Stanley from himself and from the bad reputation he made for himself. Before researching and describing Stanley's life, Jeal wrote a biography of Livingstone.

All the biographers who preceded him, the writer asserts, relied too heavily on the testimony of Stanley himself. Stanley was a great adventurer, a brave man and also, according to Jeal, an important explorer. At the same time, he was a liar, he hid evidence and he deceived his contemporaries, others who came later, and sometimes also himself. And all of this happened, Jeal writes, because scholars hitherto ignored a basic fact: Livingstone, Stanley, and all the others who took part in the takeover of Africa, operated during the Victorian era. Never trust a Victorian to tell the truth, maintains Stanley's biographer, and never judge the people of that period by the accepted and sanctified standards of another time.

Stanley concealed every detail of his life - even his name. The man we know as Henry Morton Stanley was born, in a forsaken and neglected Welsh town in 1841, as John Rowlands. His mother, who had children with three different men during her lifetime, abandoned the baby to the care of her father. The sensitive and devoted grandfather died when the boy was 5 years old. His mother did not want him, other relatives ignored him and his father's identity was never known. Young John was sent to an institution for abandoned children, forgotten and suffering. When he reached adolescence, he quit the place and tried his luck in the New World: He ran away to America, and in New Orleans took on a new name, joined the U.S. Army, fought in the Civil War, deserted from the army, and eventually devoted himself to one of the biggest enterprises of his generation.

The missionary David Livingstone had gone missing deep in the African jungle, and Henry, who sought to make a new life for himself, volunteered to go look for him. Respectable Victorian society could not tolerate his dubious origins, but Stanley wanted to gain entry to that society. He accepted its rules and behaved in accordance with its dictates. The best and most successful means of hiding his inferior Welsh origins was to highlight his American identity. However, Stanley knew that if his adopted country were to make a point of investigating him, he might get into trouble with its authorities as well.

Readers of Stanley's book about the quest for Livingstone - and these were legion - delighted in the adventurer's account and also enjoyed the illustrations that accompanied the text. Everyone saw the moving picture of the meeting, in which one of Stanley's men is carrying an enormous American flag. Stanley wanted to say to his readers: I went to Africa in the name of the new, democratic country, the one that has absolutely nothing to do with the imperialist battle to conquer Africa.

Allegations of violence and cruelty were associated with Stanley and his expeditions over the years. His biographer takes issue with the harsh treatment of his hero. Why was Stanley made a target of the fury of all the world's liberals? Why did Livingstone become a saint? After all, in all his years of wandering around Africa on his God-given mission to lead the idol worshipers to the bosom of Christianity, Livingstone did not succeed in the least. There is talk of a lone convert who accepted Christianity in the wake of Livingstone's sermons, but those who delve into the matter discover that even that individual eventually reverted to the faith of his ancestors.

Stanley's detractors base their case particularly on the methods he used to maintain strict discipline among the porters, African and others, who accompanied him on his dangerous expeditions. Every once in a while, he recounts, when episodes of desertion and theft grew numerous, he would publicly flog the violators. He also reported on the results: The iron-fist policy would restore a measure of order and discipline to the expedition, if only for a time. Stanley came to symbolize the harsh and indecent hand of imperialist zeal in Africa.

His biographer says that no white traveler in Africa refrained from these reprehensible methods. Even Livingstone, whom everyone loves to praise to the heavens, did not condemn the practice, and occasionally also flogged his wayward servants. In general, Stanley makes frequent reference to such exploits in a bid to portray himself as a tough and effective leader.

Different picture

On examining Stanley's journals and other hitherto missing documents, a completely different picture emerges. Henry Morton Stanley may not have been among the pioneers of Africa's freedom and independence, but he is nevertheless distinguished from other explorers and adventurers in his humane attitude toward its sons. He was horrified when locals' lands were stolen, he stood up for them when they were subjected to demeaning treatment, and most importantly, he fought with determination against slave traders of all stripes, who operated on the continent with a cruel hand.

Where, asks Tim Jeal, are all the stories about the Arab-African traders who kidnapped children and forced them into slavery, who traded away Africa's wealth and bounty without giving a thought to the rights of the native peoples? The liberals and those with Africa's best interest at heart made matters easy for themselves and found a symbol to latch on to. But Stanley was no worse than others, and in many instances was actually better.

Stanley led three very long and difficult expeditions in Africa, but history has pegged him as a mere adventurer. The explorer's crown was taken from him. That, too, is a matter his biographer wishes to rectify. Stanley, who made an important contribution to the study of the origins of the Nile and the geography of the Great Lakes, and who mapped and documented the twists and turns of the great Congo River, was ejected from the distinguished group of discoverers and explorers.

The name of King Leopold II of Belgium is entangled, and rightly so, with one of the worst and most horrifying affairs in the saga of European-African relations. The king of one of the smallest countries in Europe wanted a stake in Africa, an abiding source of wealth for his personal use. The tales of abuse, killings and exploitation by his emissaries in the Congo have gone down in infamy.

Stanley's ties to this cruel tyrant did nothing to exonerate his name and legacy. Indeed, Leopold relied on Stanley's fame and prestige, and dispatched him on explorative and mapping expeditions to the Dark Continent - ostensibly in the name of progress and concern for the fate of its inhabitants. Stanley took the bait and set off on the king's mission. Later, the Belgian king had no use for the services of Stanley, with whom he never shared his real intentions vis-a-vis the continent.

On that front as well, his biographer says, Stanley was a victim of his lust for adventure and a fierce yearning to achieve a measure of respectability to conceal his questionable past. He was convinced that while he was establishing various stations along the Congo River and paving roads through Africa, he was working on behalf of a philanthropic association, whose sole aim was to improve the living conditions of local tribes and to develop trade with European countries.

Stanley's biographer is well aware of the significance of and lessons to be learned from the work he undertook. At times it even seems as if he does not trust his readers' ability to recognize the importance of his findings, and keeps reminding them of this, as if to say, "See what an important, interesting and innovative book I have written," and this is unfortunate.

Jeal is also aware of the rules governing biographical writing and of the role it plays in historical research in general. When his research turned up new testimony and documents about Stanley, his enterprise and accomplishments as an explorer and discoverer, the author was determined to present these to readers. Let it be said to his credit, however, that even though Jeal wants to salvage Stanley's vilified reputation and give him his just desserts, he is not one of those blind disciples who view every act by their hero as a sign of greatness. After all, when all is said and done, Henry Morton Stanley, or more precisely, John Rowlands, is the immediate cause and main culprit of the entire saga of dissimulation, obliteration and concealment that characterizes his own legacy.

His biographer needed psychological insight - and, particularly, an in-depth and thorough knowledge of the customs and way of life of the society in which his subject was brought up - to be able to produce a complex and interesting portrait of the man who met Dr. Livingstone in the thick of the jungle.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian, and the editor of Am Oved's main nonfiction series, Ofakim (Horizons).