- An Apology for a Pathological Brute
I am surprised that I managed to complete my reading of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, the detailed and painstakingly argued biography by Tim Jeal, without decomposing from revulsion. No one who knows anything about African colonial history can fail to [End Page 806] be provoked by one of the most relentless and carefully researched works on Morton Henry Stanley, the nineteenth century journalist-adventurer whose early claim to fame was locating David Livingstone, perhaps the most famous European adventurer, in the belly of Africa. But if there is any consolation in my labor, it is that the book says more about the West and Tim Jeal than it does of Africa. In a work that will be despised by many Africans, but almost certainly lauded in the West, Jeal bares open that which is wrong with the Western perception of Africa.
For a work from a writer who claims some objectivity, the book is a concerted—even emotional defense—of the chilling life of a man many Africans would rather forget. Stanley is many things, but certainly not an objective reportage of one of the most controversial colonialist-adventurists just as much of Africa was coming under the boot of the West. From the outset, Jeal embarks on a journey of redemption and salvation in which the writer seeks to recast history through the interpretation of a life lived in blood, racial hatred, and ignominy. Typical of Jeal, the most important achievements by Stanley are the conquest of Africa’s cartography. It is all about the white European conquest of Africa. Africans are themselves only accoutrements in this large European narrative of history.
A typical example of this obsession with the feats of the so-called discoverers of Africa is the uninterrogated assertion that Stanley was the “first man in history to have followed that great river [the Congo River] 1,800 miles from the heart of the continent.” One finds it inconceivable that Africans themselves had never attempted and accomplished such a feat. But perhaps to Jeal and his fellow Westerners, Africans do not count as “men.” To Jeal, before Stanley and Livingstone, “apart from the apparently inaccessible central and sub-Saharan Africa, the only significant parts of the planet left unexplored were the equally daunting polar regions, along with northern Greenland and the north-east and north-west passages.” The allusion is clear: only beasts—or sub-humans—can live in such remote and inhospitable regions.
Even in his narration of Stanley’s early life, Jeal makes implausible apologies for a sad and unforgiving childhood. From his “illegitimate,” dysfunctional, abusive, and abandoned childhood, it should be clear that Stanley suffered life-long traumas that shaped and deformed his identity for the rest of his life. Several of these include his proclivity for brutality and sadism, his penchant for outright lies and impossible exaggerations about his identity and paternity and achievements. Not to mention his obvious racial self-hatred and desire to be classified as either English and later as an American rather than the Welshman that he was. But rather than use the inhumanity of British society to explain why Stanley later became a pathological brute—including his racial animus toward American blacks during the Civil War—Jeal instead excuses and minimizes these distortions of character.
Jeal struggles mightily to explain away or diminish Stanley’s every perceived character flaw or failure. One curious instance is Jeal’s attempt to swat away arguments that Stanley may have been gay or at least bisexual. He perceives homosexuality as a problem that must be explained away or discounted. Elsewhere, Jeal states, rather incredulously, that Stanley was not a racist. This in spite of the fact that Stanley had murdered in cold blood or flogged mercilessly many Africans who were in servitude to him on his expeditions. What Jeal misses over and over again is the permission that [End Page 807] Europeans like Stanley gave themselves as the arbiters over the life and death of many an African.