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Henry Morton Stanley And His Travels In The Congo.

Updated: Apr 19


It was the year 1887, and Henry Morton Stanley was embarking on a journey up the Congo River, during this expedition he unwittingly set in motion a disastrous experiment.


This expedition marked his third foray into Africa, a continent that had already etched his name in history. His initial voyage in 1871, as a journalist for an American newspaper, had immortalized him with the iconic words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Now, at the age of 46, Stanley found himself leading yet another expedition, venturing into uncharted territories of the rainforest while leaving a portion of his team behind to await essential supplies.


However, the leaders of this Rear Column, hailing from esteemed British families, soon descended into infamy. They presided over a series of atrocities: Africans under their command perished needlessly from disease and poisoned food, young women were kidnapped and bought, and savage beatings and mutilations were inflicted upon the natives. Amidst this chaos, Stanley and the forward portion of the expedition battled through the dense Ituri rainforest. They endured torrential rains, hunger, festering sores, malaria, dysentery, and attacks by hostile natives armed with poisoned arrows and spears. Despite these hardships, fewer than one in three of Stanley's companions survived the treacherous journey through the "darkest Africa."



Nevertheless, Stanley's resolve remained unshaken. His European comrades marvelled at his indomitable will, while Africans revered him as Bula Matari, the Breaker of Rocks. Reflecting on his experiences in Africa, Stanley acknowledged his rough beginnings and admitted that his schooling amidst the African wilderness had shaped him. Despite criticism suggesting that such experiences were detrimental to European character, Stanley saw them as invaluable lessons.


In his time, Stanley's exploits captivated the public imagination. Mark Twain humbly acknowledged Stanley's achievements, while Anton Chekhov hailed his unwavering determination as the epitome of moral strength. Stanley's legacy, forged amidst the trials of the African wilderness, continues to inspire awe and admiration to this day.



Over the past century, his once sterling reputation has tarnished considerably. Historians have castigated his collaboration with King Leopold II in the early 1880s, linking him to the exploitative practices of the Belgian monarch's ivory traders, which later inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. With the decline of colonialism and the waning popularity of Victorian ideals, Stanley has been reimagined as a brutal exploiter, a ruthless imperialist who carved his way through Africa with a trail of violence and exploitation.


However, a new portrayal of Stanley has emerged in recent years—one that diverges from the traditional narratives of either valiant heroism or tyrannical control. This alternative perspective portrays him not as an indomitable conqueror, but as a strategist who understood the complexities of the wilderness and employed long-term tactics that modern social scientists are only just beginning to unravel.


This new version of Stanley was found, appropriately enough, by Livingstone’s biographer, Tim Jeal, a British novelist and expert on Victorian obsessives. Jeal drew on thousands of Stanley’s letters and papers unsealed in the past decade to produce a revisionist tour de force, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer. It depicts a flawed character who seems all the more brave and humane for his ambition and insecurity, virtue and fraud. His self-control in the wilderness becomes even more remarkable considering the secrets he was hiding.


Born in Wales to an unmarried 18-year-old mother, Stanley entered the world against a backdrop of adversity. His mother, who would later have four more illegitimate children by different men, left Stanley in the care of his grandfather after his birth. Tragically, Stanley's grandfather passed away when the boy was just five years old, leaving him once again adrift. Taken in by another family briefly, Stanley's life took a dark turn when one of his guardians abandoned him to the confines of a workhouse. In that moment, as the door closed behind his fleeing caretaker, Stanley was engulfed by an overwhelming sense of desolation—a feeling that would linger with him for a lifetime.



From that point onward, Stanley, then known as John Rowlands, endeavoured to conceal the shame of his workhouse upbringing and the stigma attached to his birth. At the age of 15, having endured menial tasks such as cleaning and bookkeeping during his time in the workhouse, Stanley ventured to New Orleans. It was there that he assumed the identity of Henry Morton Stanley, an American persona he concocted for himself. Claiming to have adopted the name from a fictional kind-hearted cotton trader in New Orleans who had purportedly imparted lessons of moral resistance to him, Stanley fashioned a narrative to shield himself from the harsh realities of his past.

Even at a tender age of 11, while enduring the hardships of the Welsh workhouse, Stanley exhibited a peculiar propensity for self-imposed discipline. He embarked on self-experiments, testing the strength of his willpower by voluntarily subjecting himself to additional challenges. Whether it was abstaining from wishing for more food or sharing his scant rations with others, Stanley demonstrated an early inclination towards self-denial and altruism, perhaps in an effort to assert control over his circumstances.


In hindsight, when Stanley later stumbled upon accounts of the Rear Column's atrocities and misconduct, he reflected in his journal that most observers would hastily label these men as inherently wicked. However, Stanley, having experienced the harsh realities of the African interior, understood the profound transformation undergone by individuals stripped of familiar comforts and societal norms.


Deprived of basic necessities like meat, bread, wine, and the comforting presence of friends and family, these men were thrust into a world of uncertainty and hardship. Ravaged by fever and plagued by anxiety, their once amiable dispositions eroded, leaving behind mere shadows of their former selves.


This phenomenon, as elucidated by economist George Loewenstein, underscores the "hot-cold empathy gap"—the inability to foresee one's behaviour in moments of great adversity or temptation during periods of calm rationality. Loewenstein contends that making resolutions for future behaviour during tranquil moments often leads to unrealistic commitments, akin to agreeing to a diet when one is not hungry.


Thus, Stanley advocates for a more pragmatic approach, one that conserves willpower for critical moments of need. He discovered through his own trials in the African wilderness that there exist mental strategies to preserve willpower for essential tasks when it is most needed.


Stanley's acquaintance with the harsh realities of Africa began at the age of 30 when he embarked on a mission in 1871 to locate the renowned explorer Livingstone, who had been missing for two years. Amidst the perils of the journey—struggling through swamps, battling malaria, and narrowly escaping a massacre during a civil war—Stanley's resolve never wavered. Despite the dwindling numbers of his expedition party, he made a solemn vow to himself by candlelight, pledging to persist in his quest until he found Livingstone alive or discovered his remains. This unwavering determination, forged in the face of adversity, epitomises Stanley's resilience and unwavering commitment to his cause.

Emotional letter written by Stanley to his American publisher, J. Blair Scribner, on the eve of his second expedition “through the Dark Continent.” Despite his misgivings about Africa and its dangers, Stanley was wrong about his prospects: he would live thirty more years, his New York “fellow” Blair, only five

Picture yourself as Stanley, emerging from your tent one early morning in the depths of the Ituri rainforest. The darkness envelops you, a constant companion for months on end. Your stomach, ravaged by parasites and disease, protests with every step. Your diet consists of meager sustenance—berries, roots, fungi, insects—scavenged from the unforgiving wilderness. Starvation Camp, a grim reminder of the toll exacted by hunger and illness, lies behind you, its inhabitants too weakened to continue the journey. Yet, despite the hardships, you remain alive. In the face of such adversity, what action do you take?


For Stanley, the answer is simple: shave. It's a routine he has adhered to faithfully, even amidst the most dire circumstances. As recalled by his wife, Dorothy Tennant, Stanley's commitment to grooming never wavered, even in the depths of the Great Forest or on the eve of battle.


Consider Stanley in a moment of solitude amidst the wilderness. Instead of devoting his energy solely to the search for sustenance, Stanley maintains a peculiar ritual: shaving. It may seem a trivial act in the face of such dire circumstances, but for Stanley, it serves a profound purpose—a cue towards orderliness and self-discipline, as corroborated by recent studies.


In controlled experiments, individuals in tidy environments exhibited higher levels of self-control compared to those in disarray. Whether in a neat laboratory or on a well-designed website, orderly settings subtly guided individuals towards disciplined decision-making and altruistic behaviours.

For Stanley, the act of shaving each day offered a similar cue towards orderliness, conserving precious mental energy amidst the harsh conditions of the African interior. His routine not only reinforced self-discipline but also served as a buffer against the depletion of willpower.



At the age of 33, after his famed encounter with Livingstone, Stanley found love. Despite considering himself inept with women, his newfound celebrity status expanded his social circles in London, where he met Alice Pike, a visiting American. Despite their differing backgrounds, they became engaged, with plans to marry upon Stanley's return from his next expedition.

Embarking on a perilous journey down the Congo River, Stanley faced myriad hardships, including attacks from cannibals and bouts of illness. Yet, through it all, he clung to the hope of reuniting with Alice. Even upon learning of her marriage to another, Stanley found solace in the distraction provided by their relationship—a beacon of light amidst his arduous journey.


In retrospect, Stanley's approach mirrors the successful strategies observed in childhood experiments and medical settings. By focusing on external distractions and fostering a sense of self-forgetfulness, individuals like Stanley manage to endure and overcome even the most daunting challenges.


For example, he attributed the failure of the Rear Column to their leader's decision to delay departure from camp, waiting endlessly for additional porters instead of venturing into the jungle sooner. According to Stanley, taking action would have alleviated their doubts and uncertainties, rather than enduring the deadly monotony. Despite the hardships of traversing the forest with sick and dying men, Stanley found solace in the engrossing tasks at hand, which served as a mental escape from despair and madness.


Although Stanley is often depicted as aloof and severe, particularly due to his famous encounter with Livingstone, there are doubts regarding the authenticity of the renowned greeting "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" According to Jeal, there is no record of Stanley uttering this phrase during the encounter, suggesting it may have been invented later to enhance his image. Contrary to his harsh reputation, Stanley displayed remarkable humanity towards Africans, forming strong bonds with his companions and disciplining officers who mistreated locals.


Stanley emphasised the importance of self-control, asserting that it was more critical than gunpowder in navigating the perils of African travel. He believed that genuine sympathy for the natives was essential for maintaining self-control amidst the challenges of exploration. While religious teachings historically served as a guide for moral conduct, Stanley, like other nonbelievers, sought secular approaches to instill a sense of duty and morality. Despite losing his faith early on, Stanley found inspiration in literature, often quoting verses such as those from Tennyson's "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington" to motivate his companions during their arduous journey through the Ituri jungle.


Not once or twice in our fair island-story, The path of duty was the way to glory.


Stanley’s men didn’t always appreciate his efforts—the Tennyson lines got very old for some of them—but his approach embodied an acknowledged principle of self-control: Focus on lofty thoughts.


Stanley, who always combined his ambitions for personal glory with a desire to be “good,” found his calling along with Livingstone when he saw firsthand the devastation wrought by the expanding network of Arab and East African slave traders. From then on, he considered it a mission to end the slave trade.


Stanley found solace in the notion that he was on a divine mission, sustaining him through hardships, familial rejection, and the disapproval of British society. While his rhetoric may appear grandiose by contemporary standards, he genuinely believed in his purpose. In moments of despair, such as during his journey down the Congo River, he found comfort in the idea that his physical suffering was insignificant compared to his greater, transcendent self, which remained resilient and untainted by his earthly trials.


During times of crisis, Stanley's reflections hinted at a deeper, more secular resilience than mere religious faith. His concept of the "real self" transcended religious notions of the soul, instead emphasising his indomitable willpower. This inner strength, cultivated through a lifetime of adversity and honed in the wilderness, was his true source of endurance and determination.


 



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