Dark Safari: the Life Behind the Legend
of Henry Morton Stanley.
401 pages. $24.95.
African Journeys: a Personal Guidebook.
225 pages. $12.95 (paperback).
Amazing what a few well-chosen words can get you. Henry Morton Stanley's famous "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" elevated a rather unpleasant Welshman named John Rowlands into one of the most famous of all Victorian adventurer-heroes, a man whose very name was synonymous with African exploration, and whose greatness was such that they chose Spencer Tracy to put him in the movies.
In fact, Stanley's life was downright cinematic. Born in 1842 out of wedlock to a 19-year-old housemaid in the small Welsh town of Denbigh, he was quickly fobbed off to surly relatives who, in turn, finally dumped him at the St. Asaph Union Workhouse. There, according to Stanley's highly imaginative autobiography, he was subjected to a wide variety of Dickensian terrors.
At 15, he ran off to New Orleans, where he was briefly befriended by a banker named Henry Stanley. Adopting his benefactor's name for his new life in America, Stanley fought with a complete lack of distinction for both sides in the Civil War, covered the Indian campaigns for the West for a St. Louis newspaper, then signed on with James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald.
By 1871, as part of a circulation-building publicity stunt, Stanley was looking in Africa for Livingstone, an irascible missionary-
explorer who wasn't lost. He found him in Ujiji, a small settlement in what is now Tanzania. Several more African adventures followed, each the subject of best-selling memoirs, including a long stint in the service of Belgium's Leopold II, who wished to own as a personal fiefdom much of the Congo watershed, and the infamous expedition to "relieve" Emin Pasha, another eccentric who, like Livingstone, was unaware of his desperate need for Stanley's assistance.
Each of Stanley's expeditions was marked by brutality, murder and pillage, and some featured doses of cannibalism and slave-taking. He died in 1904, a respected member of British society.
Only the refusal of the Anglican Church to allow him to be buried in Westminster Abbey -- ironically, because of growing reports of scandalous conditions in the Congo, a circumstance over which Stanley had absolutely no control, and about which he may have had little knowledge -- betrayed a growing uneasiness about the sort of fellow Stanley really had been.
The sort of fellow Stanley really had been was, of course, often unlike the sort of fellow he and his admirers would have liked us to know. Simply separating the truth from the fiction of Stanley's own account of his life -- completed after his death by his wife -- is a big job for an ambitious biographer.
Fortunately, John Bierman's "Dark Safari: the Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley," in the course of providing a straightforward biography of a highly complex man, also paints a vivid, if somewhat flawed, portrait of a deeply troubled man. No one can dispute that Stanley was a bizarre character, but even as Mr. Bierman strives mightily to unravel Stanley's fabrications, he clearly is more comfortable laying out the facts of Stanley's life than he is providing annotation to them.
Explaining Stanley apparently is critical to Mr. Bierman, but, alas, it soon becomes too great a task. "Dark Safari" contains, for
example, some of the most ham-fisted psychoanalysis this side of Joyce Brothers. According to Mr. Bierman, Stanley's life is a thoroughfare of woe that begins in "abandonment, rejection, betrayal" -- the first three words in the book -- and ends in a state of apparent paranoia.
Later, Mr. Bierman turns to diagnosis, labeling not only Stanley a paranoid but also Edmund Barttelot, his first officer on the ill-fated Emin Pasha Relief Expedition. Barttelot's "paranoia" is manifested to Mr. Bierman when the young Englishman, abandoned for months by Stanley in a malarial backwater and facing disaster, issues a contradictory order to a subordinate. Stanley's paranoia stems from "his harsh early life and his crippling lack of self-esteem."
Mr. Bierman also sees latent homosexuality as an important component of Stanley's psychological makeup, although even the sketchy and circumstantial evidence he offers for this diagnosis is contradicted everywhere in this book. His effort to suggest "sexual ambiguity," as he puts it, often is clumsy and clearly unjustified, but latent homosexuality is the presumed sin of most eminent Victorians these days. Once, as Lytton Strachey recognized, simple dipsomania would have done for character assassination, but that's inflation for you.
Happy, Mr. Bierman's subject is compelling enough to take us through such troubling touches: Stanley leads Mr. Bierman on a grand and glorious adventure. When he is not overreaching, the author is a solid storyteller, a careful and enterprising researcher, and, surprisingly, a compassionate advocate for a man who never showed compassion -- even if because he never received it.
For those more interested in emulating Stanley's adventures in Africa, John Hemingway's "African Journeys: a Personal Guidebook" is a thoroughly practical guidebook; its sequence of "Advisories" on topics as diverse as "Third-World Food Precautions for the Super-Jittery," "The Best Way to See the Serengeti" and "How to Walk into the Stone Age" would be enough for most visitors to Kenya to justify packing this book along. But his richly anecdotal, highly evocative reporting precedes each advisory, investing "African Journeys" with the gritty, instinctive credibility of lively travel writing, the affability of an old Africa hand and the immense charm of good gossip.
Mr. Boyles is the author of "African Lives" and the forthcoming "Man Eaters Motel" (Ticknor & Fields), a traveler's guide to East Africa. He lives in Pennsylvania.