By John Vogel
About the time David Livingstone was hitting the shores of South Africa, a bastard child was being born in Wales that would end up crossing his path.
Henry Morton Stanley, born John Rowelson, was born to an unwed mother in 1841. His birth certificate indicated that dad wasn’t in the picture, and wasn’t totally known. Forced to live with the less than vogue title of bastard, Rowelson got the hell out of Dodge at age 18 and sailed for the United States.
Arriving in New Orleans in 1859 not knowing what the hell he was going to do, he managed to catch a gig with known trader Henry Hope Stanley, who happened to be childless. They began working together, with Rowelson learning the business. Everything was going great until the Civil War kicked up.
Rowelson enlisted in the Confederate Army under the name Henry Morton Stanley, and fought and was captured during the battle of Shiloh. Within 2 months, Stanley found himself fighting for the Union Army. Within 18 days, he was discharged for severe illness, probably from the prison camp. In no time, he joined the Union Navy, serving during a handful of naval engagements. Learning the basics of writing reports and keeping record, he found himself with a newfound skill: journalism.
By war’s end Stanley found himself working and living as a journalist, willing to go anywhere, write about anything and, assuming he survived, get paid for meeting the word count.
By 1867, Stanley had already reported on the steady expansion west and had seen the American Frontier. Looking for more exotic flair than typical cowboys and indians, he set his sights on the Ottoman empire. He secured gear, a team and passage with enough funding to help him get along. None of this mattered when he ended up having to talk his way out of an Ottoman prison where he was threatened with a life term. Managing to work his way out of that, he hitched a ride to Ethiopia with the British Army, hellbent on liberating a British envoy and hostages held by the Ethiopian emperor. Working on behalf of the New York Herald, he was the first to report firsthand accounts of battles fought and won by the British.
By the time the last hostage was released, Stanley set his sights on writing a column for the Herald focusing on global adventure, exotic locations and exciting encounters. He traveled throughout Africa, Europe, Central Asia and India. By 1871, he had covered revolutions, historic landmarks and even, supposedly, carved his name into the Persepolis in Persia (Iran). He received an assignment to head to Zanzibar to gear up for a trek along the Nile in search of a lost explorer.
Members of the British adventure circles were worried about this explorer, one of their own whom they hadn’t heard from for quite a while—around six years actually. They were eager to know about his health and progress.
Knowing the explorer was heading north toward the established areas of Eastern Africa, Stanley set his sights on what is now Tanzania. In the process, he lost a prize stallion to tsetse flies, faced abandonment from his porters, and damn near fell to financial ruin. After 700 miles of rugged tropical jungle, he managed to find Lake Tanganyika, and of all things, one explorer.
By this point, six years after Livingstone departed for the headwaters of the Nile, one of his 44 letters made it home, much of the expedition staff were gone and his health was anything but well. Regardless, Stanley and Livingstone managed to explore the area between Lake Tanganyika and the Nile river, but never found the headwaters as he’d set out to do.
Stanley failed to dissuade Livingstone from his exploration, and was forced to continue exploring the region alone. Word made it back to England that Livingstone was alive, but not well. Livingstone continued to search for the headwaters, eventually dying in modern day Zambia. His heart was buried near where he died, but his body made the journey back to England, thanks to his comrades, and was interred at Westminster Abbey. His only regret was not being able to watch his six children grow up.
Meanwhile, after serving a stint as a scout for King Leopold of Belgium, Stanley returned to England and became a member of Parliament. He served five years, eventually retiring and passing away in the United Kingdom in 1904.
I’d say that’s one hell of a life.