Skip to main content


The Darkest Continent

May 2024
6min read

In the spring of 1891, nearly twenty years after Henry Morton Stanley introduced himself to Dr. David Livingstone on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, Oxford University awarded the grizzled, stumpy explorer an honorary degree. As he made his way forward to receive it, an undergraduate shouted out, “Dr. Stanley, I presume.”

The subsequent laughter greatly embarrassed Stanley. His sense of humor was meager at best, and about himself, nonexistent; but there may have been more to his discomfiture than that, for no one, least of all Stanley himself, seems ever to have been entirely sure just who he really was. His achievements as an explorer of what he was the first to call the Dark Continent should have been enough to satisfy anyone’s ambition: in four expeditions between 1871 and 1889—and in the face of illness, intermittent warfare, the deaths of his companions, and a hundred other obstacles—he explored Lake Tanganyika, circumnavigated Lake Victoria, paved the way for a British protectorate at Buganda, identified the Ruwenzori range as the legendary Mountains of the Moon, traced the twisting course of the Congo, established outposts, built roads, and—when Britain proved insufficiently enthusiastic about colonizing the lands watered by the great river—helped establish the Congo Free State under Leopold II of Belgium.

Yet, as John Bierman’s recent biography Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley (Knopf, $24.95) ably demonstrates, none of his accomplishments were ever great enough to overcome his own self-loathing, soften his distrust of others, or slake his thirst for the warm approval that had been conspicuously denied him as a boy. The authentic adventures that crowded his life are all vividly chronicled here, but it is his other life, the one he fabricated for himself to conceal the drab, dispiriting truth about his origins, that held my attention.


Stanley’s illegitimacy seems to have been the central fact of his existence. At his birth at Denbigh, Wales, in 1841, the pastor of his parish church recorded him as “John Rowlands, Bastard.” His father may have been the town drunk, whose name the boy would jettison as soon as he could, or a local landowner who had paid the drunk to admit paternity, or yet another, still more transient lover—Stanley was never sure—but his slatternly mother never showed the slightest interest in him. Her early rejection, he remembered, was “so chilling that the valves of my heart closed, as with a snap.”

They would rarely open.

He was farmed out, first to indifferent relatives, next to utter strangers, and then was locked away inside an authentically Dickensian workhouse.

Abandoned children often reinvent their childhoods, idealizing absent parents or fantasizing for themselves wholly new ones. But few have ever done so for so long or with such dogged consistency as did the man who named himself Henry M. Stanley. When fame first came to him, he stubbornly insisted he had been born in America; later, as an old man, he would fabricate a brand-new boyhood for himself, one in which he was often ill-treated but always a hero.

He claimed that he broke out of the workhouse at fifteen, after beating the sadistic master with his own blackthorn cane; in fact, he had been the master’s special favorite and simply left to live with an uncle. At sixteen he went to sea as a deckhand and jumped ship at New Orleans.

There, he would later write, he was taken in at eighteen by a benevolent cotton broker named Henry Stanley, who not only adopted him but bestowed upon him his own name. “In my earliest dreams and fancies,” Stanley would write of this extraordinary moment, “I had often imagined what kind of a boy I should be with a father or mother. What ecstasy it would be if my parent came to me, to offer a parent’s love as I had seen it bestowed on other children.…My senses seemed to whirl about for a few half-minutes; and finally I broke down, sobbing from extreme emotion.” Tragically, Stanley continued, his adoptive father died shortly thereafter.

In reality Henry Stanley lived on into the 1870s, and no adoption ever took place, except in Stanley’s imagining. Indeed, Bierman offers evidence that the authentic Henry Stanley had done his best to rid himself of the importuning young man who clung to him with such alarming intensity.

In the end Stanley simply commandeered the broker’s first and last names, entered the Confederate army, was captured at Shiloh, then enlisted in the Union army in order to avoid imprisonment and became a U.S. citizen.

His middle name, Morton, was sheer invention, added later, in part to make his journalistic by-line seem more impressive. Some of his early reporting was invention too, and it seems miraculous that he got away with it; when he wrote at twenty-five that a cup of camp coffee poured for him while covering Indian warfare on the Western plains was better even than “the best Mocha I ever drank in an Egyptian khan,” no one objected that he had not as yet been within a thousand miles of Egypt.

His first expedition to Africa, in 1871, did more than merely make him famous. In finding Livingstone for the New York Herald , he seems also to have found, however fleetingly, the surrogate father for whom he’d always yearned; basking in the famous missionary’s paternal approval, Stanley wrote: “I have come to entertain an immense respect for myself and begin to think myself somebody, though I never suspected it before.…I get as proud as can be, as though I had some great honor thrust on me.” When Livingstone died two years later, Stanley was disconsolate. “I loved him as a son,” he told the missionary’s daughter, and he would subsequently justify his own, sometimes bloody-minded African adventuring as part of a filial mission to carry on Livingstone’s work, expunging the slave trade by introducing European commerce.

Action alone staved off Stanley’s depression, and only Africa, as far as he could get from the white world in which he always felt himself an interloper, and where he was surrounded by blacks willing to follow his orders without question, could provide him with the distinctive kind of action he demanded.

Whenever even momentarily at rest, Stanley made trouble for himself, picking quarrels with the rich and wellborn, feuding with everybody from fellow journalists to fellow explorers. He gave offense as easily he took it, was always restless, always aggrieved, always certain others were mocking him. At forty-four, he wrote that he had “not found one man—and I have travelled over 400,000 miles of this globe—who did not venture to say something unkind the minute I turned my back to him.”

His distrust of women seems to have run still deeper. He professed to be too timid for courtship. “To propose and be refused,” he told a friend, “would be my death.…” But in fact, he craved companionship and intimacy, pursued young women on both sides of the Atlantic with such single-mindedness that they were frightened off, then denounced them for their faithlessness. (He may also have had sexual relationships with at least two young men, who later threatened him with blackmail, though the evidence is more suggestive than conclusive.)

Action alone staved off Stanley’s depression, and only Africa could provide him with the distinctive kind of action he demanded.

In any case, in 1890 he finally persuaded Dorothy Tennant, the daughter of a British diplomat, to marry him. Though she was much younger than he, she seems to have treated him as more mother than wife, and he responded with a son’s gratitude; it was an enormous relief, he told her, “not to be chilled and have to shrink back.

“Between mother and child, you know the confidence and trust that exist; I never knew it; and now, by extreme favour of Providence, the last few years of my life shall be given to know this thoroughly.”

She persuaded him to renounce his American citizenship, become a naturalized Briton, and stand for Parliament as the candidate of the Liberal-Unionists. Although he was elected as the member for North Lambeth in 1895, he disliked even the minimal sort of flesh pressing required of British politicians, loathed being “herded in the lobbies like so many sheep in a fold,” could not abide having to listen to speakers he believed less well informed than he. Despite recurrent malarial fevers that forced him to shroud himself in blankets on even the warmest summer days, he did enjoy working away at his relentlessly imaginative autobiography and played happily with Denzel, the illegitimate Welsh baby he had adopted.

In 1899 Stanley was awarded the Grand Cross of the Bath by Queen Victoria. But by then sinister reports of Belgian cruelty—floggings, mutilations, butcheries—had already begun to leak out of the Congo. Stanley privately worried over the “moral miasma” that seemed to have encompassed the lands he had laid open to the Belgians, but in public he denied it all—and even paid tribute to King Leopold as Africa’s divinely appointed “redeemer.”

The British Foreign Office was to prove Belgian rule far more barbaric than the first reports suggested, but by then Stanley had been paralyzed by a stroke.

Toward the end he asked his wife, “Where will they put me when I am—gone?”

“In Westminster Abbey,” she assured him.

He was delighted. “Yes, they will put me beside Livingstone.”

But in the end even posthumous legitimacy was denied him. He was cremated and buried in a country churchyard after the dean of Westminster, evidently appalled by the horrors to which Stanley’s explorations in the Congo had led, refused to grant him space near the man he’d yearned to have be the father he had never known.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.