The fibbing Mr Stanley, we presume

New book casts doubt on Livingstone greeting

The following correction was printed in the Observer’s For the record column, Sunday February 11 2007

In the article below, we claimed Dr David Livingstone was a ‘Presbyterian missionary’, but he was trained as a Congregationalist and the London Missionary Society which sponsored him in Africa was predominantly Congregational.

‘Doctor Livingstone, I presume.’ Four words that made the explorer Henry Stanley enduringly famous. They have been repeated in history books and entered into common speech. 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 western 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, published by Faber and Faber, is not an attempt to pull down the reputation of its subject. In fact, Jeal believes Stanley was a great man who has been unfairly criticised by African historians. ‘He was our greatest land explorer,’ he said, ‘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 in the Congo 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. Throughout his life he created a web of lies so tight that he was unable to untangle himself.

Jeal reveals that Stanley had always been impressed by the tight-lipped Englishness of army officers, and he particularly loved an anecdote about two English 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 the question: ‘What would a gent have said?’

Jeal, who has had unprecedented access to the Stanley family archives, is now convinced that, because the remark had become so well known, Stanley was forced to go back and conceal traces of an earlier, honest story.

The phrase, which is at once so perfectly English and yet so inappropriately proper, first appeared in print when Stanley wrote his report of the encounter for the pages of the New York Herald 135 years ago. He also regularly referred to the incident in the lecture tours he gave once his exploits had made him a household name.

A handwritten manuscript of one such lecture was sold at Christies in 1999 and gave a standard version of events: ‘Doubtful of the temper he would receive me,’ wrote Stanley, ‘I simply bowed and said, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” He held out his hand in token of kindly welcome and in a few minutes we became warm friends.’

Jeal is sceptical. ‘Why else did he tear up those pages?’ he said, arguing 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!’

The Presbyterian missionary was the first European to see the Victoria Falls and had been missing for five years after setting out on an expedition to establish the source of the Nile. The editor of the New York Herald decided that Livingstone’s whereabouts were still news and so he sent Stanley to Africa to see what he could turn up. The result, dispatched by an early telegraphic system from Zanzibar, was perhaps the greatest celebrity interview of all time.


Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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