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When great men make history
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.