The first Englishman to travel far up the Congo River was John Rowlands. Rowlands was born into a poor Welsh family, and his parents weren’t married—a major taboo at the time. He grew up in a workhouse, where he, like other young unwanted children, was forced to work in a factory. In spite of the harsh living conditions, Rowlands distinguished himself as a student in his Sunday school classes. At the age of 15, he left the workhouse and became a sailor aboard a merchant ship traveling to Louisiana. He lived in New Orleans for many years, working for a cotton factor (a kind of businessman who specialized in selling Southern cotton to international buyers). Around the time he turned 18, he gave himself a new name: Henry Morton Stanley. Throughout his adult life, Stanley distorted the details of his early life, sometimes presenting himself as heroic leader who led a mutiny in his workhouse (despite all the evidence that nothing of the kind ever happened). One detail about Stanley’s life is clear, however—he was confused and intimidated by women, and seems not to have had any sexual experience with them.
Right away, Hochschild conveys a sense of Stanley’s insecurity about his identity and social status. In a time when class and social status were all-important in Britain—to the point where it was almost impossible to marry or take a job outside one’s own social rank—Stanley was born to a working-class family. He spent much of his adult life trying to gain enough success and fame to become an upper-class English gentleman. Because he was eager to forget his working-class past, Stanley frequently distorted the truth about himself. While Hochschild doesn’t try to “psychoanalyze” Stanley to excess, he does (somewhat dubiously) link Stanley’s ambition and his confusion with his insecurities surrounding women.
Stanley fought as a Confederate in the Civil War, but switched to the Union side after being captured. Later, his good memory and penmanship led him to a position aboard the frigate Minnesota. After the war, he lived in St. Louis and became a successful newspaperman. He traveled to India to report uprisings against the British Empire, and later covered the Abyssinian War, which was the “scoop” that made him successful. By the time he was 27, Stanley was a regular foreign correspondent for the New York Herald, one of America’s most popular newspapers. While stationed in London for the Herald, Stanley learned about the so-called “Scramble for Africa”—the competition between the European powers to colonize the interior of the African continent. At the time when Stanley was writing for the Herald, African exploration was a subject of great fascination for Europeans and Americans. Indeed, some of the first truly international celebrities were African explorers. Africa fascinated European politicians, too, because African represented a source for resources that could feed the Industrial Revolution: rubber, metal, and slaves.
Stanley’s ability to lie about his own past may have helped to make him a successful newspaperman—at the time when Stanley was reporting in India, “yellow journalism” was common in newspapers—journalists regularly exaggerated stories in order to attract and entertain more readers. Notice, also, that Stanley was a “hired gun” for most of his adult life—he regularly switched sides and allegiances in order to find a good job, which suggests a lack of internal moral conviction. This section also details the stew of reasons for the Western fascination with Africa: the need for resources, political competition (the stakes of which were power and reputation), and an appetite for sensationalist news, which Africa could provide aplenty.
By the middle of the 19th century, many European countries, including Britain and France, had abolished slavery. However, they had only done so after many hundreds of years of using slavery to build up their own empires. For the most part, British and French anti-slavery leaders didn’t use their influence to denounce European countries that practiced slavery; instead, they directed their furor at “safe” non-Western targets, such as the slave traders of the Arabian peninsula. Furthermore, many anti-slavery activists in Britain and France continued to believe that European countries had the right to colonize Africa and farm the land for raw materials. Many of these activists were pious Christians who believed that European explorers had a duty to spread the gospel to Africa, even as they extracted rubber, ivory, and gold from the continent.
Hochschild conveys some of the hypocrisy of social activism in Britain and France—Britain claimed to be a moral leader because it abolished the slave trade, but Britain only did so after many hundreds of years of profiting from slavery. Hochschild will show a similar kind of hypocrisy in the international Congo reform. Also, notice that the rise of Christian evangelism coincided with European industrialization and imperialism. In effect, Christianity provided a perfect “alibi” for colonial invasion: colonists could always claim to be spreading the gospel to the native peoples rather than exploiting resources. This is not to say that there weren’t some sincere, Christian evangelists among the European colonialists; however, it’s undeniable that evangelism was a convenient excuse for imperialism.
In many ways, the life of the explorer David Livingstone exemplifies the complex British attitude toward Africa in the mid-19th century. Livingstone was Christian, hated slavery, yet believed in Britain’s right to claim raw materials from Africa. Livingstone explored many different areas of the African continent, preaching Christian doctrine wherever he went and becoming a national hero in the process. In 1866, Livingstone went missing in the midst of an expedition, prompting an international investigation. The New York Herald sent Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone. Over the next four years, Stanley, a savvy self-promoter, traveled south from Zanzibar, sending dramatic telegraph cables about his exciting expedition to find Livingstone. In private, Stanley sent other telegrams to a young Welsh woman he’d been wooing. At the end of his journey, Stanley claims to have greeted Livingstone with the famous words, “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” The story of Stanley’s journey to find Livingstone quickly became a legend.
David Livingstone was one of the most famous British people of the 19th century: his “heroic” exploration of Africa brought honor and renown to the British Empire. Therefore, when Livingstone disappeared in the course of one expedition, his disappearance sparked an international outcry. The famous story that Stanley greeted Livingstone with the words “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” is possibly apocryphal, but it proves that Stanley had a knack for self-promotion, and knew how to spin a memorable story for the newspapers.
Stanley’s account of the Livingstone expedition is revealing in the frank way he talks about Africans. He describes how he and his soldiers flogged Africans for deserting the expedition, and notes, again and again, that Africa was largely empty (“unpeopled”) and ripe for European colonization. Although Stanley’s accounts of the expedition were popular in France and America, he was disliked in Britain for being a “working-class Welshman,” and not a “real English gentleman.” Stanley was greatly disappointed by his reception in England; additionally, the young Welsh woman with whom he’d communicated throughout his time in Africa married someone else. Furious, Stanley resolved to return to Africa.
Here, Hochschild introduces a disturbing theme of the book: the open, almost banal way that Europeans of the late 19th century talked about inflicting pain on African people. At the time, many Europeans believed that Africans were sub-human, little better than animals. But even as Stanley looked down on Africans, the entire English establishment looked down on Stanley for being a working-class Welshman rather than a real English aristocrat. Stanley was hungry for acceptance, which is partly why he wanted to continue exploring Africa.