on 9 March 2007
I have rarely read such a riveting book as this one. The story of Stanley's life is extraordinary and dramatic enough in itself, and Tim Jeal tells it with the vividness that we are accustomed to from his earlier superb biographies of Livingstone and Baden-Powell. But the book is not just a gripping read, it is also an eye-opener. Having had access to previously unused documents, Jeal gives us for the first time a full picture of the real Stanley, who emerges as a towering figure of enormous significance in the history of Africa. Jeal's account of his involvement in the Congo, for example, vindicates Stanley from the charges that have often been levelled against him. While we are shown his warts, Stanley comes across as fundamentally decent and likeable human being. This is a book to which I shall return.
on 6 March 2007
They don't make heroes any more like the Victorians, but not even they made more than one Stanley. He was bombastic, he lied, he was desperate for love, he created a new identity for himself, he deserted twice from the US forces in the Civil War, he prospected for gold, he became a famous journalist, he thought up the biggest journalistic scoop of the 19th century and then he sorted out the Nile/Congo sources. He went back to Africa again and again even after classic near death experiences. And this was a boy who spent ten years of his childhood in a workhouse which his family never visited. Why didn't he just give up? This is a stunning book about the human will to survive and make something of life. You feel you are with Stanley in the jungle and on the great rivers. You understand what it took to travel aross the continent when malaria killed scores of explorers. No maps, no transport except human porterage, and walking for months and even years and facing more dangers than can be imagined. Yet Stanley needed love like the rest of us and after numerous disasters, eventually found it. A terrific unputdownable book.
on 5 March 2007
This biography is incredibly moving and revealing. It is a miracle that Stanley ever became one of the all time great explorers - perhaps the greatest. He was abandoned by his parents at birth and later dumped in a Welsh workhouse by his uncles from age six to fifteen - enough to wreck any life one would think. But Stanley survived this disaster by re-inventing himself. First he emigrated to America,where he pretended he had been adopted so he could tell his unloving and selfish family that someone else had truly valued him. He then proved his worth to them by becoming a successful journalist and then by carrying out the first and most surprising celebrity interview in history, finding Dr Livingstone in central Africa. With new papers, Tim Jeal tells the story of all Stanley's romances with women - many of them very sad, as when the rich woman who married him did so when really loving another man and only married Stanley for his fame. Stanley comes across as a complicated but trusting man who wanted to believe in people but was often deceived by them. With his great journeys he ended the unsolved geographical mysteries of cenral Africa. Jeal's descriptions of these journeys are detailed and very gripping and show just how brave a man he was. In his greatest journey he traced the Congo to the Atlantic and lost half his expedition -either killed by Africans, or by fever, or drowned shooting rapids. This was a man who was thrown away but through immense courage claimed a place in history. He loved his adopted son as no-one had ever loved him. A moving end to his story.
on 17 March 2007
I first came to Tim Jeal's writing when I read his fascinating biography of Baden-Powell. His new biography of the intrepid adventurer and explorer Henry Stanley makes BP look like a boy scout. Stanley had a shockingly bad start in life but went on to have one of the most amazingly varied lives you could imagine. Well imagine no more. Jeal, with the help of new sources in Belgium, paints an entrancing portrait and for the first time gives a reliable and intimate picture of Stanley's private life, and a very exciting description of his journeys. He also shows that Stanley has been unjustly accused of brutality, and always opposed the exploitation of Africans. It is tragic to learn how often Stanley was betrayed, but quite remarkable that through it all achieved so much with his life. It's a big book for a BIG man, just under 500 pages, thoroughly researched, balanced and a pleasurable and fascinating read. What's next?
on 29 May 2007
In one of these reviews a gentleman has said the truth about Stanley should not be known in light of the tragedy of events in the Congo. That man acts as if he has read this book cover to cover. Maybe if he had as I have he would have known that his argument is way off base.
Stanley cared about the African people. He devoted his life to leading the fight against slavery and was beloved by his Wangwana followers. He died just as King Leopold's evil schemes came to light. One can call him blinded by Leopold's rank and lies but to be honest every major statesman in Europe at the time believed Leopold was a good guy and didn't know of his slave labour ideas or the way people in the Congo were being killed and mutilated.
Moreover recent history in the Congo has NOTHING to do with Stanley but again we are reminded that because it is a sad place now it is ok for Stanley's good name to be dragged through the mud. It is precisely because of such injustice that the truth must be told. He was a great man, not perfect but a good man too.
Read it for yourself and don't be put off by people with an agenda of their own. Quite how it is insensitive to rescue a good man's reputation when others suffering was not affected by him in any way is beyond me. Respect the Congo's brutal history, cry for it, but to cry is not to defame the dead who should be honored.
Read it today too, it's a great read, best book ever in my view. But then it's my current flavour of the month. Last month it was Toll's 'Six Frigates' . :)
on 13 January 2013
Born an illegitimate child of a working class mother and abandoned by his family at a 19th century workhouse at the age of six, Henry Morton Stanley would grow up to be the greatest explorer of his generation - and, perhaps, since the Spanish Conquistadors. How did this fatherless man rise from the lowest rung of a class-obsessed society to achieve world fame? How is it that despite his achievement he has become the ugly face of European imperialism? These were some of the questions that led me to buy Tim Jeal's 'Stanley'. I was not disappointed.
This book is a sympathetic portrayal of Stanley. The book draws on Stanley's personal papers, which were purchased by the Belgian government from Stanley's descendants in 1982. The collection included letters, diaries, and correspondence on Stanley's explorations in Africa. Jeal's description of Stanley's early life, his sojourn in the United States, his early adventures in Turkey were pulled from Stanley's Autobiography. It is clear from the material that by his early twenties, Stanley had demonstrated that he was leader of men - he could keep his cool under immense pressure and provoke intense loyalty among his followers.
The best part of the book is the description of Stanley's journey from Zanzibar on the East African coast to the headwaters of the mighty Congo River and then on to the mouth of the Congo in Southwest Africa. After reading this chapter, my reaction was, 'wow'! Stanley's achievement was superhuman. He had traced the treacherous river for almost 5,000miles, circumnavigated Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika fought off hostile slavers, cannibals, rapids, starvation, and unimaginable tropical disease to trace the path of Africa's most enigmatic river. In the process, he had lost many members of his expedition or had seen them descend into savagery along the way.
Throughout the book, the author challenges modern-day portrayals of Stanley as the ogre of European imperialism. Jeal shows, instead, that in many ways, Stanley was ahead of his time: he had profound respect for the African tribes that he encountered during his explorations; he was loyal to his African companions whose company he often preferred to those of fellow Europeans; and he used violence as a last result (unlike the supposedly saintly David Livingstone). In other ways, Stanley was a man of his time: he genuinely thought European colonisation would save Africa from the debilitating effects of the Arab slave trade. He also he thought European civilization superior to Africans' and that colonisation was the only way to bring Africa into the modern world.
Jeal overstretches this contrarian analysis. For example, he infers that Stanley's role in setting up the Congo Free State as a personal fiefdom for the Belgian King, Leopold II, was benign. Stanley had agreed to work for the now notorious Belgian king out of sense of duty to the natives of the Congo. This suggestion contradicts Stanley's character as portrayed in the book. Stanley was no fool. He knew that the cunning Leopold wanted a personal colony. Yet, given the absence of law and government along the Congo, Jeal suggests that Stanley believed Leopold's state would somehow provoke men's gentle nature. I played along with Jeal, but I was unconvinced.
IS IT AN 'OBJECTIVE' BIOGRAPHY?
This biography is a story about a victor. It is told essentially from British perspectives. I sorely missed the perspectives of Stanley's faithful Zanzibari servants. What might they have said about Stanley? Tim Jeal, by relying on Stanley's papers, excludes the Zanzibari perspectives. Indeed, it might be impossible to obtain Zanzibari. This biography, therefore, is not an objective portrayal of Stanley. Tim Jeal should not pretend that it is. He omitted the voices of the Stanley's most trusted lieutenants - his porters, servants and loyal Zanzibari men who accompanied him on his expeditions. Apparently, no one in nineteenth century Britain thought to record these mens' stories. Jeal continues cheerfully in this tradition. Sadly, Jeal does not reflect on this omission and how it may have biased his portrait of the man.
Despite pleading (in the introduction and in the afterword of the book) that he wanted to portray Stanley as objectively as possible and redeem Stanley's reputation from being a 'scapegoat for postcolonial guilt' (pg. 475), Jeal's politics is apparent throughout the book. For instance, Jeal's judgment of the hypocrisy of the British society - especially of the press - colours the narrative. He reminds readers, for instance, that while the press had criticised Stanley for flogging his sub-ordinates and decimating entire villages during his expeditions, the press conveniently ignored worse massacres committed by subjects of the Crown such as Gordon and Lord Kitchener. True, but that neither makes Stanley's antics more palatable nor the account more objective.
Furthemore, Stanley's role in history is more sinister than Jeal lets on. Stanley served Belgium's King Leopold in plundering the Congo. (For those interested in this history, I recommend Adam Hothschild's excellent book, King Leopold's Ghost, Mariner Books.) It is difficult to whitewash that history. Why not confront it head on and accept it for what it is, instead of contorting history in the name of "objectivity" and contrarian journalism?
GOOD LITERATURE CREATES EMPATHY
As an African raised on a rich diet of anti- and post-colonial literature, I regarded men like Stanley, Livingstone, and Cecil Rhodes--the great and the good of the British colonial enterprise--as scoundrels from the 'bad old days' of empire. I could not even bring myself to read the book; 'Stanley' sat on my bookshelf for nearly four years. Yet, as I read 'Stanley' I began to admire Henry Morton Stanley for his courage, capacity for reinvention, grace, and leadership qualities. Tim Jeal tells a vivid and compelling story of a shy man who challenged the stifling strictures of British society, embarked on the greatest expedition of the nineteenth century, and made history. The mark of good literature is its ability create empathy between reader and its characters, regardless of temporal or spatial barriers between them. Tim Jeal's biography of the great explorer reaches that high mark.
Unfortunately a couple of reviewers have given this book one star based on their own prejudices rather than on the merits or otherwise of this book. So to redress this balance I give a well deserved 5 stars because quite simply this is one of the best biographies I have read for years. I have read The Scramble for Africa, and King Leopold's Ghost, and this book does nothing but add to the knowledge and understanding of this specific period of history. I think this book is remarkably well balanced, trully "warts and all", but it opens Stanley up for inspection in a vivid and detailed manner. Of course with the benefit of hindsight we can instantly pick at all of Stanley's faults, but he was of his time, a remarkable man then and would be now and if we should berate him for anything it is that he seems to be amongst the first to have mastered journalistic "spin". So he wasn't shy in emphasising his "successes" and burying the less wonderful aspects of his experiences and there are passages detailing brutality that still shock but there are more accounts of his bravery, his willingness to alleviate natives' suffering and a genuine wish to "explore" that he surely comes out ahead of the game in that regard. His was a fascinating and endlessly exciting life and this book offers a gripping account of it