On the evening of August 5, 1877, a small group of black men arrived at the town of Boma, located near the Congo River. The men carried a note from Henry Morton Stanley, explaining that his expedition was on the brink of starvation and they desperately needed food. By dawn, the note had reached Portuguese traders, who arranged to send Stanley rice, potatoes, and fish. The traders, some of whom were familiar with Stanley’s travels, realized that Stanley had traveled all the way across Africa, from east to west. This suggested that he was now the first European to chart the course of the Congo River from start to finish.
The chapter opens at the tail-end of Stanley’s expedition across Africa. Stanley was the first European to cross the Congo River—an undeniably heroic achievement that, tragically, paved the way for the brutal Belgian intervention in the Congo. Notice, too, that Stanley’s survival depended on the African men who brought his note to the Portuguese traders. Over and over again, good deeds done by Africans only invite more exploitation.
After finding David Livingstone, Stanley had set out on another expedition through Africa, sponsored by the New York Herald and the London Daily Telegraph. Before leaving, Stanley signed a marriage pact with a young heiress named Alice Pike. He then left with a team of almost 400 people, traveling into central Africa. As Stanley traveled west, he and his men killed countless innocent people with the latest rifles and elephant guns. In his dispatches, Stanley wrote that, on more than one occasion, he ordered his men to open fire on Africans because he thought they were mocking him. Some humanitarians criticized Stanley for his cruelty and pettiness, but many Europeans and Americans celebrated Stanley’s brashness and courage.
Stanley continued to crave social respectability—perhaps explaining why he signed a marriage arrangement with an heiress. Also, notice that Stanley didn't try to hide his cruelty to African people; there were plenty of people in Europe (maybe even most of them) who celebrated Stanley for his racism and sadism. Leopold II succeeded in colonizing the Congo partly because he convinced powerful Europeans that he would treat the Congolese benevolently; however, the disturbing truth is that many powerful Europeans didn’t care how Leopold treated the Congolese.
Reading Stanley’s memoirs, one is struck by how much of his expedition was spent measuring and surveying African land, as if measuring it for future conquest. Stanley also describes himself giving inflated speeches to his men—speeches which, in all likelihood, he never gave. The expedition travelled down the mouth of a huge river, known as the Lulaba, and some on the expedition guessed that this river would eventually turn out to be the Congo River. For months, Stanley and his crew traveled down the river, noting the rich flora and fauna nearby. Frustratingly, there are no records of African responses to Stanley’s expedition—only Stanley’s interpretations of Africans exist in archives. However, other European travelers later heard descriptions of Stanley’s expedition, passed between many different people. In some of these descriptions, Stanley is described as a frightening, jeering, one-eyed man.
The passage reemphasizes Stanley’s talent for self-promotion and exaggeration, as well as his cruelty to the African people (and to his own men). While no written records of African impressions of Henry Morton Stanley have survived into the 21st century, oral tradition tells of Stanley as a monstrous, intimidating beast, which suggests that he wasn’t kind to the native people he encountered. This imbalance of sources (many written records from the European perspective, but none from African perspectives) sheds light on the difficulty of reconstructing the stories of colonialism.
In the final stages of the expedition, Stanley and his crew faced starvation and—thanks to the rapid currents of the river—drowning. Furthermore, men were dying of malaria, dysentery, and other diseases common to the area. In the end, it took Stanley two years to travel to the west coast of Africa. By the time he arrives, his betrothed, Alice Pike, had married someone else.
Throughout history, diseases have prevented different civilizations from interacting with one another. In this case, the presence of tropical diseases like malaria delayed Stanley in traveling across the Congo River. Alice Pike’s broken engagement characterizes Stanley as a somewhat pathetic character—he struggled for social recognition that continued to elude him, even as he continued to grow more and more famous.
In the months leading up to the end of the expedition, Leopold had learned a lot about Stanley. He read countless articles about Stanley’s travels, and decided that Stanley had the temperament to lead Leopold’s conquest of the Congo. Leopold sent Stanley a telegram of congratulations, and arranged for General Henry Shelton Sanford, a former American ambassador to Belgium, to invite Stanley to Belgium. Sanford was born into a wealthy Connecticut family, but lost vast sums of money on foolish business ventures throughout his adult life. After his tenure as Belgian ambassador ended, Sanford decided to stay in Belgium, and he became heavily dependent on Leopold for money. Thus, when Leopold instructed Sanford to find a way to bring Stanley to Belgium, Sanford worked hard to do so. After a few false starts, Sanford succeeded in getting Stanley to accept Leopold’s invitation.
It was Stanley’s violent and cruel accounts of his voyage across Africa that drew Leopold to him; this undermines the possibility that Leopold was at all sincere in his professed humanitarian ambitions. Leopold recognized that he would need Henry Morton Stanley in order to colonize the Congo; thus, he enlisted the aid of Henry Shelton Sanford to persuade Stanley to travel to Belgium. As a savvy (and ruthless) politician, Leopold knew how to manipulate people into doing his bidding—indeed, he used Henry Sanford as a pawn, recognizing that Sanford was almost entirely dependent on him for his income.