Thursday, 3 April 2014

The doubt over Stanley and Livingstone

Dr Livingstone was an English explorer who, in the late 1860s, went missing in Africa. He was presumed still alive and still doing his work as an explorer by people back in Britain, but with no direct work from the doctor, and with nothing but rumour and speculation to go on, no one could be sure.

On 10 November 1871 Henry Stanley, after years of searching, finally found Dr Livingstone, who’d been lost in Africa without any communication for years. Stanley had been sent to find the English explorer by the newspaper he worked for, the New York Herald and, after two years of searching, he'd finally found his man.

However, communicating out of deepest Africa was exceedingly difficult at that time. Quite apart from the lack of technology, a war was raging that complicated things. In fact, in December 1871 newspapers were reporting on messages from Stanley that he’d sent in September, and in May 1872, newspaper relayed news of a dispatch from Dr Kirk in Zanzibar that was sent in October the previous year.

The news that Livingstone had been found was reported in the New York Herald on 2 July 1872. Americans took a certain amount of pride that they had found Livingstone, while England’s own underfunded search expedition had failed, and some journalists reacted with hurt pride that the efforts of Americans were not universally appreciated.

On 23 July, The New York Evening Telegram wrote

“There is only one phase of British character more striking than British patriotism, and that is British stupidity and snobbery in high places.”

And it continued

“Instead of joining in the general jubilee at the glad tidings of the great explorer's safety […] they sit complacently down like so many carrion crows on a carcass to pick it to pieces. President Rawlinson from his chair at the last general meeting of the Royal Geographical Society announced that instead of Stanley having found and reinforced Livingstone it was much more probable that the latter had found and assisted Stanley. Could prejudice and petty malice go further?”

However, at least Rawlinson's version of events had Livingstone and Stanley meeting. Before long, questions were being asked whether Stanley really had met Dr Livingstone at all.

On 2 August, the New York Times ran a story reporting that the French paper Les Temps had quoted a German geographer Kiepert who thought the geographical mistakes in Livingstone’s letter (brought back by Stanley) clearly indicated the narrative was invented by Mr Stanley.

These questions grew and spread until, on 20 August, the paper that had sent Stanley, the New York Herald, addressed these claims, saying that the confirmation by the Foreign Office that the letters were from Livingstone had not been reported in the German papers.

Then, on 28 August, the New York Sun reprinted one of Livingstone's letters next to a letter from Stanley to a Mr Noe on the front page until the headline “Is Stanley Anything But A Fraud?”

“If this conclusion shall be confirmed by subsequent proofs and be adopted universally, there will be no dispute that Stanley is the author of the most gigantic hoax ever attempted upon the credulity of mankind.”

Their theory was based on the testimony of Mr Noe, who knew Mr Stanley. On 29 August, the New York Sun printed an interview with Mr Noe and, after a long conversation about Stanley’s youth and roguish character, the reporter asks “What reason have you to suppose, as you have stated in your letter, that Stanley has not found Dr. Livingston?”

“Nothing,” said Noe, “except that he told me that he meant to go to Africa as the correspondent of the Herald, to get up a big story and make a sensation.”

Along with this interview, the Sun also printed more criticisms of Livingstone's geography of Africa from Colonel Grant, and more handwriting analysis. All of this was followed up on 30 August with more notes on the similarity of Livingstone's and Stanley's handwriting as well as other articles from other newspapers.

Then on Sept 2nd, the New York Sun swiftly changed their story regarding Stanley. Two reporters, one from the Sun and one from the Herald, went to interview Dr Livingstone’s brother in Canada, and heard that the brother was convinced the letters came from Dr Livingstone himself, since they referred to things that Stanley couldn’t possibly have known.

The New York Herald also published this same interview on the same day, and also took the opportunity to print a few letters and articles supporting their man, just as a final statement on the debate. After this, the two newspapers seemed to consider that the matter was settled and it was not brought up again. At least, not that I can find.

It’s a curious episode. It's interesting to see a controversy that became such a talking point and was so convincing to those who supported it, but which vanished so completely once it had been decided.


“Livingstone not dead”, Leeds Mercury, Saturday 06 May 1871
“Mr Livingstone”, North Wales Chronicle, Saturday 02 December 1871
“Dr Livingstone”, Falkirk Herald, Thursday 11 January 1872
“Expected News”, Manchester Evening News, Wednesday 28 February 1872
“Livingstone”, Huddersfield Chronicle, Saturday 06 July 1872
“The Finding of Dr Livingstone”, New York Evening Telegram, July 23 1872
“Livingstone letter”, New York Herald, reprinted in Stanley Berwickshire News and General Advertiser, Tuesday 30 July 1872
“Is Stanley Anything But A Fraud?, New York Sun, 28 August 1872
“Henry Stanley’s Exploit”, New York Sun, 29 August 1872
“Livingstone or Stanley”, New York Herald, 29 August 1872
“Livingstone or Stanley?”, New York Sun 30 August 1872
“New View of Livingstone”, New York Sun, 2 Sept 1872
“Livingstone in Canada: Interview with the Brother of the Great Explorer”, New York Herald, 2 Sept 1872

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