Africa: Stanley never said ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’; and other lies

Henry StanleyFrom the New Zealand Herald:

The lying Mr Stanley, I presume

By Vanessa Thorpe

LONDON – “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.”

Four words that made the explorer Henry Stanley enduringly famous but unfortunately it looks as if he never said them.

An exhaustive study of Stanley’s life to be published next month contains new evidence about the first meeting in Africa between the lost missionary Dr David Livingstone, and Stanley, the adventurer who had spent two years looking for him.

They met in 1871 in Ujiji, now in Tanzania, but the initial account in Stanley’s diary of the moment when he spotted Livingstone just refers to “a pale-looking white man in a faded blue cap”.

The following two pages have been ripped from the book.

“Stanley told lies, that is the problem,” said author Tim Jeal. “And a liar can never subsequently tell the truth.”

Jeal’s new biography, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer is not an attempt to pull down the reputation of its subject.

“He was [Britain’s] greatest land explorer and I can say that as I am Livingstone’s biographer too. The essential picture of Stanley is wrong.

“It is sad and ridiculous that this inane comment is known by millions, whereas his work as an explorer and cartographer … has been forgotten.”

Stanley was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, Wales, in 1841, but he later faked an American parentage.

It was, according to Jeal, the first of many fabrications he put together.

Jeal reveals that Stanley was impressed by the tight-lipped Englishness of Army officers, and he loved an anecdote about two gentlemen who had passed each other in the wilds of Palestine and merely lifted their caps to each other.

As a result he invented the famous phrase about his meeting with Livingstone, having asked himself: “What would a gent have said?”

Jeal is convinced that, because the remark became so well known, Stanley was forced to conceal traces of an earlier, honest story.

The phrase, which is so perfectly English and yet so inappropriately proper, first appeared in print when Stanley wrote of the encounter for the New York Herald 135 years ago.

Jeal is sceptical. “Why else did he tear up those pages?” he argues it was Stanley’s “old insecurity about his background that led him to invent it”.

As Livingstone’s biographer 30 years ago, Jeal noticed that, while Stanley’s papers often refer to the phrase “Dr Livingstone, I presume”, Livingstone’s journals do not mention it.

Instead the doctor tends to recount the reaction of his servant, Susi, who cried to Livingstone: “An Englishman coming! I see him!”

King Leopold II of Belgium

Stanley also:

helped create Léopold’s Congo Free State, ruled by the Belgian monarch as a personal domain, and British possessions on the upper Nile in the 1880s.

King Leopold II‘s infamous Congo colony alone led, it is estimated, to the deaths of ten million Africans.

So, lying was certainly not the only problem with Stanley.

The David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project is a collaborative, international effort to use spectral imaging technology and digital publishing to make available a series of faded, illegible texts produced by the famous Victorian explorer when stranded without ink or writing paper in Central Africa: here.

4 thoughts on “Africa: Stanley never said ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’; and other lies

  1. It is about time the truth gets published. For more about the true Stanley, read the excellent book “King Leopold’s Ghost”. Gruesome, but well written and well researched. I have spent quite a bitr of time the last 2 years working in Tanzania (teaching medical staff about HIV-treatment), including Tabora and Ujiji, and I am often disturbed by the veneration with which this charlatan and profiteer is treated by tourists and businesses (there are many Stanley Hotels, and Stanley Roads). Many Tanzanians consider Stanley for what he really was: half a step up from a slave-trader. But most keep their opinions to themselves, so as not to upset the tourists…


  2. Hi Guy, thanks for this comment. I agree. While exposing Stanley’s lies and noting his role in colonialism, the new biography, as far as I understand, nevertheless considers him a “great explorer”. Well, one might call travelling so far through unknown country a quality; but does it outweigh other, negative, points?


  3. Pingback: Belgian King Leopold II’s crimes in Congo, statue in Ostend | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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