One can see the attraction of Henry Morton Stanley for the modern biographer. There is the intriguing rags-to-riches story of a Welsh bastard and orphan, whose childhood in the workhouse seemed to mark him out for a life of crime, and whose shifty adventures in early manhood gave little indication of the great explorer to come. Then there is the sexual ambivalence, the ‘was he or wasn’t he homosexual?’ and, after his late marriage, the ‘did he or didn’t he do it with his wife?’ What about the modern reader? Will he read one volume, let alone two, on the life of H.M. Stanley?
The justification for a new biography of a much-written-about subject tends to be either scholarly – new material come to light – or critical: new slant on a known personality. John Bierman does have some fresh material. ‘New documentary sources,’ he writes, ‘include the hitherto unpublished expedition journals of William Grant Stairs and memoirs of Alice Pike Barney’; he also pays generous tribute to Richard Hall’s earlier biography, ‘a model of hard-nosed and painstaking investigation’. Hall was the first to reveal Stanley’s secret engagement to Alice Pike. Unfortunately, his excitement over this discovery led him to make the tactical error of beginning his book in the middle – with Alice. Bierman does not make that mistake, but nor does he add a great deal to Hall’s account (the ‘hitherto unpublished’ memoirs of Alice Pike turn out to be pretty worthless, as he admits). A former foreign correspondent himself, he is at his best describing Stanley’s journalistic stints, both in America, Stanley’s adoptive country, and in Abyssinia, where he made his name as a reporter – two episodes which Frank McLynn, surprisingly in a much fuller work, skips over. McLynn offers both a scholarly and a critical justification for his two volumes: ‘Neither Richard Hall’s Stanley (1974) nor Frank Hird’s H.M. Stanley: The Authorised Life (1935), the best of the biographies so far and the only ones to make use of Stanley’s private papers, contains footnotes enabling the reader to check their treatment of the sources. Nor has any but a half-hearted attempt been made to probe the enigma of Stanley’s psyche.’ The last word is the key one. In the preface to Burton: Snow upon the Desert, his recent biography of another explorer, McLynn writes: ‘Yet scholarship does not a biography make, at least not unaided. I am fully persuaded of the validity of psychobiographical techniques, even though there are increasing signs of hostility to this methodology in English literary circles.’ Well, Stanley is certainly a suitable case for treatment and, for the most part, McLynn treats him fairly and sensibly.
Both authors do a reasonable job of sorting the fact from the fiction in Stanley’s childhood as he himself described it in his posthumously published Autobiography – in particular, the time he spent as an inmate of the St Asaph Union Workhouse. Stanley could not resist appropriating to himself Nicholas Nickleby’s thrashing of Squeers. Dickens was a favourite author, and Bierman also detects his hand in Stanley’s account of his adoption in New Orleans by the man whose name he subsequently took as his own (his original name was John Rowlands): ‘If the workhouse tyrant of his tender years is Wackford Squeers, the kindly benefactor of his adolescence is surely Mr Brownlow.’ Stanley not only took Henry Hope Stanley’s first and last names (it was a while before he settled on a suitable middle name): he also took considerable liberties with the truth of his relationship with Henry Hope and his wife, precluding awkward questions about its rupture by killing off both adoptive parents in his Autobiography some two decades before they actually died.
The difficulties of dealing with a compulsive liar are obvious. For instance, Stanley tells of a lad called Dick Heaton who, like himself, sailed from Liverpool as a deck hand and jumped ship in New Orleans, and then shared a bed in a boarding-house for some days with him. The point of the story is that Dick, who is excessively modest and shy about undressing, is really a girl – a fact only revealed when Stanley catches sight of ‘his’ breasts, which at first he mistakes for ‘tumours’. Neither biographer is taken in by this story of mistaken sexual identity, Bierman says it ‘sounds a lot more like fantasy than truth’. McLynn finds it ‘unconvincing naturalistically’, and searches for a deeper meaning. ‘It is utterly implausible,’ he writes, ‘for a former inmate of St Asaph’s to tell us, as Stanley does, that he knew nothing of female anatomy and had never seen a girl’s breasts before. The true significance of the tale is Stanley’s uncertainty about his own sexual identity.’
Where McLynn scores heavily over Bierman is in his account of Stanley’s extraordinary trip to Turkey. By this time (1866) he had fought for the South in the American Civil War, been captured and earned his release by enlisting in the Federal Army, though illness prevented him fighting for the other side. He now persuaded two other young men to accompany him on a voyage to Turkey. The younger one, the 17-year-old Lewis Noe, he subjected to all kinds of humiliations, finally tying him to a tree on some flimsy pretext and whipping him till the blood ran. Worse things would happen to the unfortunate Noe, including homosexual rape, but Stanley was not – at least, not directly – responsible for that. The whole Turkish episode is so bizarre that Bierman, while doubting Stanley’s anodyne version, still can’t bring himself to believe Noe, whose motives in telling the story after Stanley had become famous, he says, ‘may have been mercenary’, although ‘there is no evidence’ that the New York Sun ‘paid him for his revelations’. Not entirely happy with this explanation, however, Bierman tries again: ‘More likely he was motivated by personal animus ... the mere fact of Stanley’s having been present when Noe was raped by the Turks may be sufficient to explain his vengeful outburst.’ McLynn, by contrast and with a wealth of evidence to support him, has no doubt that Noe was telling the truth: ‘There would be many more beatings of servants and underlings in the future to lend credence to Noe’s story. The true significance of the Turkey experience is the way it conflates the themes of lying and fantasy with those of sexual ambiguity and sado-masochism. Both strands were organically linked in the Stanley personality.’
McLynn points out that for Stanley ‘true equality with a man was ... impossible, since a genuine equal would also be a potential rival for the esteem of the world. So Stanley chose men who were inferior to him in one way or another, in age, social status or, if it came to it, will-power. Lewis Noe was the first of a long line.’ His diagnosis of repressed homosexuality finding a sadistic outlet is entirely convincing, but his attempt to link this with Stanley’s abortive love affair with a Greek girl called Virginia Ambella two years later is less happy and gives ammunition to those who deride psychobiography. ‘It is of great significance,’ McLynn writes (his use of the word ‘significance’ is irritatingly frequent), ‘that Stanley twice visited the scenes of 1866, and that Greece was at war with Turkey. Since the association of Turkey would be with Noe’s homosexual rape, which in turn confronted Stanley with the reality of his homoerotic feelings, what more natural than that he should turn to a Greek female, virtually the polar opposite of Turkish sodomy, to expunge these feelings?’ Oh yes?
Stanley’s problem with women, according to Dr McLynn’s casebook, was that old and familiar one of seeing them as either madonna or whore. His ‘profound ambivalence’ meant that while he might ostensibly be courting Virginia Ambella – or Katie Gough-Roberts, or Alice Pike or even, first time around, Dorothy Tennant (who later married him) – what he was unconsciously courting was rejection. In ‘Dolly’ Tennant, perhaps, he met his match, someone as sexually repressed as himself and in some respects odder, since she was, at the age of 34, still addressing her daily diary entries to her adored, but long-since deceased father. McLynn resists the temptation to talk of an ‘Electra complex’ but finds it ‘significant’ ‘that one of her contacts in the art world, Sir John Millais, used her as a model for a painting called No! which shows a girl on the point of sending off a letter rejecting a proposal of marriage.’ Dolly did indeed reject Stanley before having a change of heart (while he was on his last African journey, the gruelling Emin Pasha Relief Expedition).
To McLynn it is ‘very clear’ that Stanley ‘unconsciously willed the rejection that Dorothy Tennant ... meted out to him’. This is, apparently, ‘the hidden subtext of the letters where he had seemed to go out of his way to pick fights with her over Gladstone and the working man’. That really is twisting the facts to fit the thesis. Stanley had met Gladstone at the Tennants’ house, and whereas Dorothy admired the GOM, he did not: politically, he was a deep-dyed Conservative and she was a bleeding-heart Liberal: so it was natural that he should try to convert the woman he hoped to marry to his way of thinking. To suggest that ‘this was part of the syndrome of simultaneous attraction and repulsion that characterised all Stanley’s dealings with women’ is pushing it. Stanley’s bitterness – ‘That woman entrapped me with her gush,’ he wrote to Sir William Mackinnon – is evidence that, on this occasion at least, he was courting Dolly, not rejection. The fact that the marriage, when it finally took place, was almost certainly a mariage blanc does not alter that. Near the end of his life, the adoption of a son brought him a measure of personal fulfilment.
It was the proprietor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, who had the idea of sending him to Africa to find Livingstone (and was for ever after intensely jealous of the glory he achieved). The rest, as they say, is history. After the Livingstone episode came the most extraordinary of all feats of African exploration: the 999-day east-to-west crossing of the continent which traced the course of the River Congo. The expedition required courage and phenomenal will-power, and McLynn’s first volume ends with Stanley’s arrival on the Atlantic coast more dead than alive, at the zenith of his achievement.
Each of McLynn’s two volumes is organised around a central relationship. In the first it is, of course, Stanley’s relationship with Livingstone, whose rescue made Stanley famous and transformed his life in other ways too. You hardly need to be a psychologist to recognise that, for Stanley, Livingstone became the father he never had (just as, for Livingstone, Stanley was the kind of son he would have liked to have had). The focus of the second volume is his relationship – political rather than personal – with the sinister Leopold II, King of the Belgians, who used him as an instrument of his ambition to acquire a colony in Africa. Stanley was unlucky in his choice of patron (or unlucky to have been chosen by him), for his Herculean labours in founding the Congo Free State were to be discredited when that state turned into a gigantic forced labour camp where those who failed to produce rubber and ivory in sufficient quantity to satisfy Leopold’s voracious appetite were likely to have their hands and feet cut off by his agents. The grisly details of the King’s exploitation of his private domain were only beginning to emerge, through the effort of men like Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, at the time of Stanley’s death.
Stanley’s last expedition, to relieve Emin Pasha in 1888, brought out the best and the worst in him. Politically, he was playing a deep game, serving at least two masters, the Belgian Leopold and the British businessman and imperialist Sir William Mackinnon, neither of whom was interested in Emin Pasha’s plight, only in his potential to be of use to them. Stanley’s own intention was to solve the last remaining geographical mysteries of Central Africa and, in order to do that, he was not above appropriating his subordinates’ discoveries. The ‘Napoleon Bonaparte of African exploration’ was the most paradoxical of leaders: on the one hand, a great motivator and inspirer of others, a clever military tactician, always pushing on towards his goal, a leader by example who crossed the terrible Ituri forest three times, when once was enough to kill off many; on the other, impatient and distrustful of his officers, for whom he never had a word of praise, brutal to his men, whom he flogged mercilessly and hanged on occasion, careless of lives under his command – he set a bad precedent by leaving his weakest men in the vulnerable Rear Column, and then dumped more of the sick and dying at various points along the route.
His treatment of Emin himself was abominable: he tricked him into leaving Equatorial Africa when Emin was reluctant to go, deliberately separating him from a number of his men who did want to leave but were not given the chance to do so, and then kept him virtually as a hostage. It would not be too much to say that Stanley, far from relieving Emin Pasha, destroyed him. His behaviour towards his own white officers was scarcely better: of the five officers whom he had left in an impossible position with the Rear Column for over a year, two were dead by the time he returned, a third invalided home, another stranded down the Congo River; only one was left with the remnant of that column. Stanley accused his officers of brutality towards their men while providing a supreme example of it himself. Yet it is true that the same Zanzibaris enlisted in his service time after time, suggesting that though he was a man of his age, paternalistic to a degree, Stanley was not a racist in the manner of Sir Richard Burton or Sir Samuel Baker.
Obviously, there is considerable overlap between these biographies. Bierman’s is stronger on Stanley’s early experiences in America, his journalistic apprenticeship and his days as a war correspondent: but it is hardly the definitive work. McLynn’s, despite its occasional excesses, may well be: it is authoritative, accurate and exhaustively researched; and it gives a convincing account, not just of Stanley himself, but also of African exploration and the tricky tangle of 19th century imperial politics.