Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa


During the decades of empire (1870–1914), legendary heroes and their astonishing deeds of conquest gave imperialism a recognizable human face. Henry Morton Stanley, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Charles Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand, and Hubert Lyautey all braved almost unimaginable dangers among “savage” people for their nation’s greater good. This vastly readable book, the first comparative history of colonial heroes in Britain and France, shows via unforgettable portraits the shift from public veneration of the...

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Heroes of Empire: Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

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During the decades of empire (1870–1914), legendary heroes and their astonishing deeds of conquest gave imperialism a recognizable human face. Henry Morton Stanley, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Charles Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand, and Hubert Lyautey all braved almost unimaginable dangers among “savage” people for their nation’s greater good. This vastly readable book, the first comparative history of colonial heroes in Britain and France, shows via unforgettable portraits the shift from public veneration of the peaceful conqueror to unbridled passion for the vanquishing hero. Edward Berenson argues that these five men transformed the imperial steeplechase of those years into a powerful “heroic moment.” He breaks new ground by linking the era’s “new imperialism” to its “new journalism”—the penny press—which furnished the public with larger-than-life figures who then embodied each nation’s imperial hopes and anxieties.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal Of African History
“An utterly enthralling and elegantly-crafted work which grips from its arresting opening sentence.”
Times Higher Education - Joanna Lewis
“An extremely readable book comparing Henry Morton Stanley, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Charles Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand and Hubert Lyautey.”
Journal Of Modern History - Raymond Jonas
“A fascinating book.”
Victorian Poetry - Rachel K. Bright
“Berenson’s writing style is easily accessible to all levels of study, making this a valuable addition for teaching and research.”
From the Publisher
"An utterly enthralling and elegantly-crafted work which grips from its arresting opening sentence."--Journal of African History

"An extremely readable book comparing Henry Morton Stanley, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, Charles Gordon, Jean-Baptiste Marchand and Hubert Lyautey."--Times Higher Education

"A fascinating book."--Journal of Modern History

"Recommended for students and scholars of African colonial history, as well as for those who like to read about adventurers in Africa."--Library Journal

"Berenson's writing style is easily accessible to all levels of study, making this a valuable addition for teaching and research."

--Victorian Poetry

Library Journal
From 1870 to 1914 Britain and France jostled for control of central and western Africa. The penny press of the day churned out procolonial propaganda that made heroes of the men and few women who ventured to Africa carrying out their countries' expansionist aims. Berenson (history, New York Univ.; The Trial of Madame Caillaux) focuses on five of these "charismatic heroes": Charles Gordon, Henry Morton Stanley, Jean-Baptiste Marchand, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, and Hubert Lyautey. During their lifetimes, they exerted a great deal of influence over colonial policymaking, unified the people of their home countries, and exemplified the types of values many felt were lacking in France and England at the time. Instead of focusing on these explorers' treatment of native Africans, the author's intention is to explore how the five were viewed and understood by their contemporaries through examination of the popular press's coverage of their exploits. In doing so, Berenson adds to the growing body of literature on African colonialism that refutes the old theory of "public indifference" toward British and French expansion. VERDICT This book is recommended for students and scholars of African colonial history, as well as for those who like to read about adventurers in Africa.—Jason Martin, Univ. of Central Florida, Orlando
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520272583
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Berenson is Professor of History and Director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University. He is the author of Populist Religion and Left-Wing Politics in France and The Trial of Madame Caillaux (UC Press).

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Read an Excerpt

Heroes of Empire

Five Charismatic Men and the Conquest of Africa

By Edward Berenson


Copyright © 2011 Edward Berenson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94719-1


Henry Morton Stanley and the New Journalism

"DR. LIVINGSTONE, I PRESUME." who doesn't know these words? Only a few other quotations from history class have managed so well to resist the ravages of time and memory. "Four score and seven years ago" and "Let them eat cake" come to mind, as does "Give me liberty or give me death." These other quotations distill certain great moments in the past—the Civil War, the French and American revolutions—and that is perhaps why we remember them. But why "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Why do we remember this simple salutation uttered by a Welsh-American journalist in search of a scoop?

Readers will recall that "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" was the greeting proffered by Henry Morton Stanley when, after an arduous journey, he met the Scottish explorer David Livingstone on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. The likely date was 27 October 1871. James Gordon Bennett, Jr., editor of the New York Herald, had sent his ace correspondent Stanley to East Africa to interview the explorer, who had spent some thirty years traveling in the southern half of the continent. Livingstone became a popular mid-Victorian figure in 1857 when he published his widely read Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, which narrated his African expedition of 1854–56. The Scottish explorer returned to Africa from 1858 to 1864, and on this expedition, his reputation suffered. He quarreled with his Europe an lieutenants, ineptly lost his wife to malaria, and failed to discover a navigable river route to the interior. Faced with heavy journalistic criticism, the British government ordered Livingstone home. By the time of his next African voyage in 1866, his countrymen had largely forgotten him. He likely would have remained obscure, spending the rest of his days wandering unnoticed around the Great Lakes region of Africa. But Bennett and his London bureau chief, Finlay Anderson, decided they could create a journalistic coup by declaring Livingstone "lost" and then having their correspondent meet him on his return to "civilization."

What then has made "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" such an indelible phrase? Is it the almost absurdly laconic quality of the greeting, its flat commemoration of a moment so manifestly more significant than the words themselves? Is "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" in other words, the quintessential "English understatement," one that makes Stanley's salutation an emblem of high Victorian culture, with its stiff-upper-lip propriety and emotional restraint? Or is it an example of a certain dry, ironic wit—a stiffly funny comment both on the implausibility of such a meeting and on the unlikelihood that the older white man could be anyone else?

There are doubtless elements of truth in all these possibilities, but problems arise as well. In the first place, neither man was particularly known for his stiff upper lip. Livingstone was given to violent mood swings, and Stanley, when neither angry nor depressed, spoke in the loud, loquacious tones of his own popular journalistic prose. The second problem is that when news of the Livingstone-Stanley meeting first reached London, few commentators found Stanley's salutation particularly English, and no one found it witty. On the contrary, the phrase "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" immediately became an object of ridicule and mirth. Fellow journalists mocked Stanley's listless words, finding the poverty of his language laughable and absurd. In one music hall routine after another, clowns in blackface and African wigs declaimed, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" And when Stanley received an honorary doctorate at Oxford in 1890, an undergraduate broke up the house with the cry, "Dr. Stanley, I presume?"

Although British commentators have long found Stanley's salutation a joke, school textbooks, especially in the United States, have leant it a certain dignity, just as the explorer had intended. "What I would not have given," Stanley confided to his diary, to "vent my joy [on finding Livingstone] in some mad freaks ... twisting a somersault, slashing at trees." But his sense of "the dignity that a white man ... ought to possess" and "the presence of the grave-looking Arab dignitaries of Ujiji restrained me, and suggested me to say with a shake of the hand, 'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'" Of course, the Swahili Arabs whose dignity Stanley wanted to exceed were appalled by the impoverished emotions he and Livingstone displayed. And had they known Stanley's reasons for behaving so strangely, they doubtless would have been equally dismayed by the tone of racial superiority so characteristic of the Europeans they met. Late in life, Stanley told an interviewer, "I couldn't think what else to say."

These considerations add a certain thickness to the phrase "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" But they do not fully explain its uncannily secure place in our historical memory. It may be that these words represent considerably more than an enduring Victorian joke, stripped in some quarters of the ironic commentary that made people laugh. Could they signal a historical juncture nearly as important as the Civil War or the French Revolution, a cultural turning point central to the history of the modern world?

Part of the reason we remember Stanley's greeting doubtless stems from the charisma attributed to him. But his personal charisma developed only later in his life, not until the spring of 1890 when he returned home in apparent triumph from what would be his final African voyage. Twenty years earlier, what counted was the transmission worldwide of a perhaps invented greeting uttered in a place until then unknown. The message, not the messenger, held extraordinary appeal. When Stanley and Livingstone shook hands in Ujiji (Kigoma-Ujiji in present-day Tanzania), thousands of miles from London and New York, news of their greeting marked the ascendancy of the world's first mass medium, the industrially produced penny press. This new cultural force possessed the ability to bring even those places most distant and least familiar to Europeans and Americans into the realm of everyday knowledge and rapid communication. Stanley's sensational reports of his search for Livingstone and their dramatic meeting gave his readers the feeling of gazing at a region of the world utterly mysterious to them. His dispatches made the globe seem much smaller than it had ever been.

When Lewis and Clark took their landmark voyage to the west coast of North America early in the century, no one was surprised that they remained incommunicado for long periods of time. No one, that is, thought they were lost. There were legitimate fears that they might have died, but people interested in their explorations did not expect to know where they were. By the late 1860s, however, the Western press had developed to the point that it seemed nothing existed outside its domain, and people had become accustomed to learning about events almost immediately after they occurred. Correspondents reported on wars in distant places and on politics, crimes, and tragedies at home. Railroads and telegraph lines allowed accounts of such events to reach millions of people within two days or less, compared to weeks or months just a decade earlier. The world not only appeared to be shrinking in the late 1860s but also seemed to hold fewer and fewer mysteries and offer fewer places to hide. If no one in London had heard from Livingstone in over a year, he must be lost—lost in one of the increasingly rare parts of the world still beyond the reach of a newly powerful press.

By finding Livingstone in a once unknown part of Africa, Stanley promised—or threatened—to open even the remotest corners of Africa to the scrutiny of "civilization." In the 1920s, Ernst Jünger would look back on Stanley's explorations as marking the eminently depressing closure of the final frontier, the obliteration of untamed, unknown, uncultivated spaces of the globe. "That's most likely the reason I felt so little sympathy for this character Stanley," Jünger wrote. "To illuminate the dark continent, discover the sources of legendary rivers, map once-wild territories—all that seems repugnant to me. Repugnant as well was the eruption of Americano-European energy in such lands.... It is as if the immense Congo were now enslaved to the clock." The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed similar sentiments when he said that thanks to Stanley, whom he admired, "there are no more mysteries. The brilliant horizons toward which we have raced have been extinguished one after the other." Explorers like Stanley, added André Malraux, have made us "lose the feeling that we distance ourselves in time as we distance ourselves in space." These are comments of individuals writing after the disillusionment of the First World War and do not reflect views of Stanley held in 1871. But they suggest how later generations would see him and why his meeting with Livingstone might have assumed great significance for those worried about the rationalization and bureaucratization of modern life. For men like Jünger, the vanquishing of the unknown represented the end of a radical freedom found only in uncharted realms of the planet.

Beyond the ability to encapsulate a shrunken world, to make its unknown, unexplored regions wither away, the Stanley-Livingstone meeting provided a spectacular occasion for a new kind of journalism, a reportorial style first developed in the United States and rapidly adopted in France. Only in Great Britain did the new, emotional, sensationalist approach to journalism lag behind. British journalism's resistance to the new "American" ways until the final years of the century would complicate the reception of Stanley's writings in his native country, sapping them of legitimacy and credibility among those accustomed to a sober, high-toned journalistic mode. But across the Atlantic and the English Channel, Stanley's account of the Livingstone event represented a dramatic, perhaps paradigmatic example of the new form of journalism, one that told stirring and often sensational stories focused on individuals while eschewing overt political argument and debate. His kind of reportage lay behind the eruption of charisma in the late nineteenth century and ultimately helped make Stanley himself a charismatic man.

When newspaper editors turned to the sensational, popular mode, first in New York (1830s) and then in Paris three decades later, they distanced their journals from political parties, trade unions, and other polarizing institutions. Their goal was to attract as many readers as possible; to do so, they focused on topics and phenomena that would bring people together rather than split them apart. Accounts of crime and scandal attracted great interest, and the most successful journalists perfected the ability to exploit such stories' voyeuristic appeal.

Working people had long been exposed to such faits divers (miscellaneous facts), as the French called them, first through oral storytelling and later through printed canards, chapbooks, ballads, and libelles. Until the nineteenth century, most of these narratives focused on miraculous and supernatural events. It was only in the more secular postrevolutionary age that the fait divers became preoccupied with crime. And during the course of the nineteenth century, the narrative style of the fait divers shifted dramatically as the technology of journalism progressed. Thanks to the advent of instantaneous communication first via telegraph and then telephone in the latter part of the century, journalists could for the first time report a story as it was happening, conveying the immediacy of an ongoing, unfinished situation. The static depiction of the crime itself, on which the traditional crime story had focused, gave way to an unfolding story of a criminal, judicial, or journalistic investigation. The narrative, therefore, became inscribed in time, inscribed in an extended present that melded into an uncertain future. Readers were invited first to witness the story and then to participate in it as events played themselves out.

Because crimes occurred every day, the crime story became the staple of the new journalism in France and the United States, its dominance such that the fait divers' distinctive style, with its dialogue, characters, action, suspense, and progression of events, would spill over into most other forms of reportage. Articles concerning national politics and international affairs, social problems and intellectual dilemmas, took on an anecdotal narrative form. Journalists no longer analyzed events and issues in detail but refracted them through descriptions of people and personalities, recounted in a style designed to create suspense, stimulate emotions, and pique the reader's curiosity.

What made the new journalistic mode so popular? Historians have emphasized the extent to which urban life became a spectacle, a shimmering, fast-moving tableau of people and events. People of different social classes and regional and national origins mixed promiscuously on sidewalks bordered on one side by surging traffic and on the other by shop windows enticing strollers to come in. Goods were on display, and so were the people hurrying or sauntering by. Newspapers packaged and reproduced that sensational reality and turned it into yet another commodity to be consumed.

Suggestive as this portrait is, it fails to explain why the mass press found as many readers outside the cities as within them or why many of the scenes of crime and disaster took place in the rural sphere. The crime that launched France's Le petit journal into the stratosphere of commercial success, Jean-Baptiste Troppmann's brutal murder of a family of eight (1869), took place in the woody Paris surrounds. The quest for a spectacular version of reality was thus not an urban phenomenon but a democratic one, the result of growing public participation in politics, schooling, the army, and cultural life. By the last third of the nineteenth century (earlier in the United States), ordinary people knew more about the world than ever before, and the knowledge they had acquired made them hunger for even more. It was a hunger incapable of satisfaction, a hunger that could make people aware both of the limits of their lives and the possibility that those limits could be overcome—even if in the form of voyeuristic identification with individuals who seemed to loom above ordinary life. The newspaper brought a large, exciting world into millions of homes, allowing a glimpse of extraordinary people and events to readers safely ensconced in their daily routines. As the French commentator Henry du Roure put it at the time, mass journalism "gave readers what their own lives did not provide them: ... a life of romance ... of incredible adventures and overwhelming sentiments, of blood, sex, and death."

Henry Morton Stanley was the first major overseas correspondent to adopt the new sensationalist, voyeuristic style, emphasizing as he did his dangerous, suspenseful adventures, violent battles with "savage" peoples, and the awe and mystery of uncharted, exotic terrain. He took his readers to far-off locales, narrating his escapades as he experienced them, leaving his audience in breathless anticipation as to what would happen in the next dispatch. By 1872, when Stanley's accounts of finding Livingstone began to appear, American readers were accustomed to his brand of journalism and had no trouble believing in the reality of his tale. But British readers, especially those of the middle and upper classes, had little experience of such reportage and relegated it to the realm of fantasy and make-believe.

Nothing in Stanley's early life marked him as a man destined for charisma and fame. Henry Morton Stanley, registered at birth in 1841 as "John Rowlands, bastard," had a nineteen-year-old Welsh housemaid for a mother and three different men who might have been his father. After growing up in a workhouse for poor orphans, Rowlands, age seventeen, moved to Liverpool, where he signed on as cabin boy on a ship bound for New Orleans. Already, Rowlands had distinguished himself as intelligent, persistent, and resourceful, but as a young man with some serious flaws of character and personality. One distant relative summed him up as a "full faced, stubborn, self-willed, round-headed, uncompromising, deep fellow. In conversation with you, his large black eyes would roll away from you as if he was really in deep meditation about half-a-dozen things besides the subject of conversation.... His temperament was unusually sensitive; he could stand no chaff, nor the least bit of humor."

Stanley had, at best, a sporadic commitment to the truth and the deep insecurity of an individual who had grown up without the love of his parents or the haven of a family home. Whatever the psychological or biological roots of his personality problems—there is some evidence he suffered from a condition known today as bipolar disorder or manic depression—Stanley was rarely happy, frequently morose, extraordinarily sensitive, and prone to explosive anger. His will was keen, however, and his self-discipline and ability to endure extreme suffering and physical deprivation almost unimaginably strong. But he was socially awkward, reluctant to form emotional bonds with other people, and possessed a streak of cruelty that could turn his anger into self-punishment or violent attacks.


Excerpted from Heroes of Empire by Edward Berenson. Copyright © 2011 Edward Berenson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents



1. Henry Morton Stanley and the New Journalism
2. Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and the Making of the French Third Republic
3. Charles Gordon, Imperial Saint
4. The “Stanley Craze”
5. Jean-Baptiste Marchand, Fashoda, and the Dreyfus Affair
6. Brazza and the Scandal of the Congo
7. Hubert Lyautey and the French Seizure of Morocco



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