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Henry Morton Stanley, so the tale goes, was a cruel imperialist who connived with King Leopold II of Belgium in horrific crimes against the people of the Congo. He also conducted the most legendary celebrity interview in history, opening with, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
But these perceptions are not quite true, Tim Jeal shows in this grand and colorful biography. With unprecedented access to previously closed Stanley family archives, Jeal reveals the amazing extent to which Stanley’s public career and intimate life have been misunderstood and undervalued. Jeal recovers the reality of Stanley’s life—a life of almost impossible extremes—in this moving story of tragedy, adventure, disappointment, and success.
Few have started life as disadvantaged as Stanley. Rejected by both parents and consigned to a Welsh workhouse, he emigrated to America as a penniless eighteen-year-old. Jeal vividly re-creates Stanley’s rise to success, his friendships and romantic relationships, and his life-changing decision to assume an American identity. Stanley’s epic but unfairly forgotten African journeys are thrillingly described, establishing the explorer as the greatest to set foot on the continent. Few biographies can claim so thoroughly to reappraise a reputation; few portray a more extraordinary historical figure.
Winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
Listen to Tim Jeal's interview on WILL AM, Focus 580 with David Inge. Download the program with Real Player or Windows Media Player.
John Rowlands - who would one day be known to the world as Henry Morton Stanley - was five and a half when a great disaster befell him. His grandfather, Moses Parry - once a prosperous butcher, but now living in reduced circumstances - dropped dead in a potato field on the outskirts of the Welsh market town where John had lived all his life. The place was Denbigh, the date 22 June 1846, and the old man was seventy-five years old.
John was born illegitimate, and his eighteen-year-old mother, Elizabeth Parry, had abandoned him as a very young baby and had then cut off all communication. She would go on to have five more children - by two, or possibly three other men - only the last child being born in wedlock. Yet all these children would be granted some attention by her, unlike her rejected firstborn, John, who would be doubly disadvantaged, since he would never meet the man named as his father in the parish registers. It is not known why John alone should have been abandoned by her. From his earliest months, he was cared for by Moses Parry, his maternal grandfather, which was why Moses' sudden death was such a shattering blow. Twenty years after the event, John - by then calling himself Henry Stanley - was moved to write a tribute to his grandfather on a scroll of special blue paper. In his best calligraphy, he described Moses' cry, as he raised both hands to his chest and fell, taking just three more breaths before dying. Every detail recorded by a local journalist was precious to the grown-up John, who ended by listing the virtues of the only relation who had ever cared for him: 'Let us emulate his goodness, his kindness, his good deeds, for they were worthy of EMULATION.'
The old man had taken a liking to John from the beginning, and shortly after the boy's birth had thrust a gold sovereign into his mouth so he could bite on it and guarantee himself a prosperous future. His grandson would remember him as 'a stout old gentleman, clad in corduroy breeches, dark stockings, and long Melton coat, with a clean-shaven face, rather round, and lit up by humorous grey eyes'. The little boy accompanied Moses everywhere, including to the town's Wesleyan chapel, where he would struggle not to fall asleep among the lavender-scented pews. At home, sitting on the old man's knee, John was taught to write his letters on a slate.
After his grandfather's death, John's uncles, Thomas and Moses junior, decided - though they were prosperous butchers - that John would have to leave his late grandfather's cottage in the shadow of ruinous Denbigh Castle. At first they arranged for him to be boarded out in an overcrowded cottage close to his old home and placed in the care of its owners, Richard and Jenny Price, a couple in their fifties, four of whose children still lived with them. Richard maintained the castle bowling green and was known as 'the green-keeper'. He also dug the graves at nearby St Hilary's Church, where John had been baptized. The Prices were very poor and refused to look after John for less than half a crown a week, perhaps u60 in today's money. In the day, John briefly attended the Free School in the crypt of St Hilary's Church. After a few months the place was closed down because 'the floor and seats were broken, and damp from the churchyard penetrated into the crypt'. No arithmetic had been taught there and few children could even read words of one syllable. John took away with him the memory of 'a terrible old lady with spectacles and a birch rod'.
At the Price's cottage, John played on the grassy slopes beside the Castle, just as he had done when living with his grandfather. He also continued to witness the arrival of the well-dressed members of the bowling club, whose refreshments were sent up to the castle by various purveyors, in baskets with the names of their businesses on the sides. The boy studied these names carefully. '"Well, John, what do they mean?" asked a member of the Price family. He answered in Welsh, "Byddigion," which is the infantile word for "gentlefolk".' His precocious awareness of his own low social status would make the next development in his life all the harder to bear.
About six months after his arrival at the Prices, when the little boy had settled in well, his uncles decided to stop paying for his keep. Richard and Jenny Price suspected that John's relatives were gambling on their being too fond of the boy to part with him. The Prices were having none of this and told their twenty-seven-year-old son, also called Richard Price, to get John Rowlands ready for a journey.
Richard's own account of what happened was given to a journalist forty years later, at which date he still lived in the cottage where John had once been cared for. 'So I requested my mother to dress him ... Then I put him to stand on that chair there, and taking his little hands over my shoulders, I carried him down through the town passing the houses of his well-to-do relatives ...' For part of the journey, Richard let the boy walk. The six-year-old John was very anxious and often asked in Welsh: 'Ble rydan ni'n mynd, Dick?': 'Where are we going, Dick?' John had been told that he would soon be seeing his aunt Mary, who lived in a hamlet to the north of Denbigh. When their eight-mile journey ended at the doors of the St Asaph Workhouse, and Richard Price turned to leave, having rung a bell that clanged deep within the building, the child asked him where he was going. 'To buy cakes for you,' replied the shamefaced Price, before hurrying away. The 'false cajolings and treacherous endearments' lavished upon him during that journey on 20 February 1847 would live forever in Henry Stanley's memory. 'Since that dreadful evening,' Stanley would write in his fifties, 'my resentment has not a whit abated ... It would have been far better for me if Dick, being stronger than I, had employed compulsion, instead of shattering my confidence and planting the first seeds of distrust in a child's heart.'
There has been a lively debate among scholars about how humane, or inhumane, the St Asaph workhouse really was - with one historian arguing that a child in this newly built institution was better housed, better fed, better clothed and better educated than many a boy or girl reared with his or her parents in a rural cottage. Yet emotional deprivation is immensely more damaging than ignorance or poverty. Nor should the main social objective of workhouses be forgotten. Apart from preventing the poor from starving in the streets, they were meant to deter people who had failed to provide for themselves from ever failing again, and to persuade anyone who might be thinking of relying on the state, rather than on his or her own labour, to reconsider.
The new arrivals, whether adult paupers or deserted children, were subjected to a humiliating ritual. First they were washed in cold water, then their hair was cropped short and, to complete the removal of their individuality, they were clad in identical drab fustian suits if male, or striped cotton dresses if female. If, for any reason, they ever left the workhouse, which required permission, they would at once be recognized as inmates. It was as if, wrote Stanley, they had committed a crime, and yet their only offence was to have 'become old, or so enfeebled by toil or sickness that they could no longer sustain themselves', or, if young, their sin was to have been deserted. Workhouse inmates were at the bottom of the social heap, in a cruelly snobbish society, and were made to know their place every day of their lives. They rose at six, and were penned into their dormitories at eight in the evening. Their bread and gruel was unappetizing, and meant to be. Husbands and wives were separated, parents and children too, and even brothers and sisters were kept apart. 'It is a fearful fate that of a British outcast,' wrote Stanley, 'because the punishment afflicts the mind and breaks the heart.'
Stanley exaggerated and lied about the level of brutality at St Asaph - his most notorious false claim being that a boy had been beaten to death by James Francis, the schoolteacher. The workhouse records were kept with bureaucratic thoroughness, and they show that nothing of the kind took place when Stanley was there; as they do again, on the day on which Stanley claimed to have left for good, after having beaten his teacher insensible, following a brutal assault by the man. The only diary record of his early years is a brief and fragmentary affair, written by him four decades later in Swahili - as if, even then, he had still needed to distance himself as far as possible from the pain of those days. The entry for 5 January 1854 reads in translation: 'He [Francis] hit me a lot today for no reason. I will never forget,' and this perhaps explains his need to console himself with fantasies about overcoming the man who had symbolized his captivity. There was no adult at St Asaph willing, or able, to comfort him. 'It took me some time to learn the unimportance of tears in a workhouse. Hitherto tears had brought me relief in one shape or another ...' His inability to convey in words the extent of his mental suffering accounts in part for his exaggeration of the physical violence in the workhouse.
The inspector's report on St Asaph in the year of Stanley's admission was very bad. The girls - there were nineteen of them - were said to have been corrupted by prostitutes and from them 'had learnt the tricks of the trade'; the men had taken part in every possible vice, and the boys slept two in a bed, an older with a younger, 'so that from the very start ... [they] were beginning to understand and practise things they should not'. The master, as distinct from the teacher, was censured for being drunk and 'taking indecent liberties with the nurses'. In the words of the report, the teacher, James Francis, aged thirty-two, had 'received no training, and speaks very broken English and appears to understand the language imperfectly'. Out of thirty boys, ten were learning to write but 'only one copy-book was well-written'. Yet Stanley would state a dozen years after leaving: 'I had a pretty fair education during my ten years in St Asaph workhouse.' And he was being serious - vice, brutality and low academic standards had also been prevalent in the country's most famous schools, such as Eton and Winchester. Nor was it disastrous that a teacher should speak poor English in a school where the first language of most children was Welsh. In fact the inspector's reports improved so much as the years passed, that a satisfactory situation was recorded by 1856, the year in which Stanley left. Francis even received an efficiency award and a rise in salary.
Stanley learned to read and write, and even to love books - though the only novels given him to read were pious morality tales. He was good at arithmetic and geography and could write remarkably neatly at an early age. From time to time he was even called in to help with the workhouse accounts. His teacher, James Francis, who had left the mines after losing his hand in a pit accident, asked Stanley, as head boy, to deputize for him when he was away, and rewarded him with small gifts. Stanley did not, however, escape all punishment, and he would never forget being beaten after an illicit blackberrying expedition. On several occasions, Francis called on Stanley's uncle Moses and 'urged him to do something for little John, since he was an excellent scholar and endowed with extraordinary talents'. But Moses always refused to help.
Why Stanley chose to represent Francis as a sadistic monster will never be known with certainty. Francis was a bachelor, and his many gifts to chosen boys would undoubtedly raise eyebrows in any school today. The fact that homosexual practices among the boys were remarked upon by the inspectors suggests a possible reason for Stanley's hatred. An unwanted sexual advance by his bachelor teacher may account for his violent antipathy. His mother's promiscuity meant that, as a young man, Stanley was disgusted by overt sexuality, and especially by prostitutes. In his letters to his first serious girlfriend, he insisted that he had remained 'pure' in the workhouse. A sexual advance by his teacher would therefore have been an especially shocking betrayal. A simple withdrawal of favour hardly seems adequate motivation for Stanley's vilification of someone who had once rewarded and praised him.
A momentous event occurred in December 1850. The boy was a month short of his tenth birthday. Without warning, during the dinner-hour, Francis took John aside and 'pointing to a tall woman with an oval face, and a great coil of dark hair behind her head', asked him if he knew her.
'No, sir,' I replied.
'What, do you not know your own mother?'
I started with a burning face, and directed a shy glance at her and perceived she was regarding me with a look of cool, critical scrutiny. I had expected to feel a gush of tenderness towards her, but her expression was so chilling that the valves of my heart closed as with a snap.
In reality, the boy's longing to be loved by his mother had not been turned off as if by some convenient tap. Elizabeth Parry had never before come to see John during his four years in the workhouse, and now she only came because she and two of her other children had been admitted as destitute paupers. But this did not stop him dreaming of winning this aloof woman's love. Despite his rage at being thrown away by a mother who kept her younger children with her, he would for many years persist with attempts to please her, even after humiliating setbacks. No photograph of Elizabeth Parry as a young woman survives, though Stanley once carried one with him everywhere. A photograph of her aged about fifty - the only one known to exist - is published for the first time as this book's Plate 3. The square shape of her head is very similar to her famous son's, as is her resolute and determined expression.
People who are shut up in institutions often have fantasies of escape and freedom, of climbing over walls, living in woods, and walking for days towards far horizons. It is easy to see why Stanley's years in the workhouse would predispose him towards travel in a limitless continent. Stanley felt imprisoned and cut off. It was as if he and the others 'were in another planet ... Year after year we noted the passing of the seasons, by the budding blossoms, the flight of bees, the corn which changed from green to gold.' Meanwhile, in his own words, he 'vegetated within the high walls surrounding our home of lowliness'. On rare occasions, when permitted to visit the small town of St Asaph, John, with his pale face and fustian garments, was amazed at the good fortune of the local boys who could eat raisins and sugar, and wear colourful neckties. The desire to escape was in him early. When he was ten, he ran away to Denbigh. But the outcome of this trip was so painful that he never wrote about it.
Once over the wall, John had nowhere to go except to his neglectful relatives. So he headed for the house of his uncle Moses Parry, whose successful butchery business enabled him to live in Vale Street, the most desirable address in town. In 1851, Moses and his wife, Kitty - who had played the leading role in forcing little John out of the house where he had been born - had two sons: a baby and a boy of three. They also had two servants. In the 1880s Kitty told a journalist how she had woken one morning to find John at her door. She asked him in Welsh where he had come from.
'With twinkling eyes, he replied: "Dw'i wedi dengid." ("I have escaped.") Since daybreak, he had walked eight miles ... I washed his face and hands and then gave him a good breakfast. During the rest of the day he played about the place with his cousins. That night I put him to bed with one of my boys. Late that night,' continued Mrs Parry, 'his uncle Moses came home and I told him that his sister, Betsy's little boy was in bed upstairs. Moses was on bad terms with his sister, and he ordered me to send him back to St Asaph in the morning.'
Moses was a respectable tradesman, and the feckless Elizabeth with her four illegitimate children was not the kind of sister who would help anyone's business, but his mother's promiscuity was not John's fault. He had spent a happy day and night in an ordinary home and witnessed the natural affection between a mother and her sons. Yet his prosperous uncle sent him back to the workhouse in the name of respectability. Years later, a tugboat skipper who had been at St Asaph with Stanley wrote to him saying that he well recalled the morning when he came back from his cousins' house in a state of collapse. John Rowlands's prostration had been due to his forcible return to a loveless institution, after having been part, albeit briefly, of an ordinary family.
Excerpted from STANLEY by TIM JEAL Copyright © 2007 by Tim Jeal. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 3, 2010
Great book. There was so much to Henry Morton Stanley, unknown until this book. It is truly a magnificent and well written book. I highly recommend it to all history buffs. Stanley was truly a superior explorer and endured hardships and privations that we cannot possibly imagine. This book tells it all, in no uncertain terms. Bravo, Mr. Jeal. An incredible story!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 20, 2010
Posted May 30, 2009
I didn't know much about Stanley prior to this book, but now I feel like I know everything about him from his humble beginnings to his world renown fame. The book was a good mix of fact and personal information enough of both to keep the reader interested until the end of the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.