The Welsh Explorer: Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley Courtesy Wikipedia

Henry Morton Stanley was a curious fellow. Prone to exaggeration, he had something akin to an inferiority complex. His abandonment by his mother and lack of a father figure while growing up caused Stanley to latch on to people he liked. He was jilted a few times, ridiculed for his understatement “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, occasionally denied his Welsh roots, among other things. But equally as fascinating as his famed later life is his early life, before his ‘discovery’ of David Livingstone.

John Rowlands, more well known to us as Henry Morton Stanley, was born on 28 January 1841 in Denbigh, Wales. His parents were not married at the time of his birth and he never knew his father. Stanley was abandoned by his mother, Elizabeth Parry, and lived with his maternal grandfather. But his happy life would not last long. In 1846 his grandfather died, leaving the boy without anyone to care for him. There were relatives, of course, but they passed Stanley around ‘like a bad nickel‘. Finally his uncles placed Stanley in the care of the Prices, who were paid to keep Stanley under their roof. When his uncles stopped paying, the Prices placed Stanley in the St. Aspah Workhouse. It was a sad and miserable existence, but Stanley did receive an education. In 1850 Stanley’s mother and half-siblings also entered the workhouse. Parry seemed to have a very great dislike for Stanley. In 1851 Stanley ran away to his uncle Moses Parry’s home. Stanley enjoyed himself for a short time playing with his cousins, before Moses sent him back to the workhouse.

In 1856 Stanley was discharged from the workhouse and he went to live with his cousin, Moses Owen. At the outset the pair got along well. But Stanley’s illegitimacy embarrassed Owens’s mother and, mother and son started abusing Stanley. Stanley was eventually passed off on relatives in Liverpool, who were barely getting by, where earned a little by getting odd jobs. Stanley and the family got along well, but the relationship soon began to sour. He was suckered into becoming a cabin boy in 1858. Having endured a cruel trip, Stanley deserted in New Orleans.

It was in New Orleans where Stanley claimed to have met a man by the name of Henry Stanley. The man apparently adopted young Rowlands and gave him his name. This may or may not be true. Stanley did go to work for a man named James Speake. But Speake died of yellow fever, and Stanley found himself out of a job. So he journeyed a bit farther west, finding himself in Arkansas.

Camp Douglas, Illinois. Where Stanley switched sides Courtesy Library of Congress

When the Civil War broke out Stanley joined the Confederate Army. When he was taken prisoner, Stanley (rather than rot in prison) joined the Union Army. He deserted in 1862, venturing back to Liverpool. Stanley visited his Liverpool relatives, before setting out to visit his mother. Elizabeth Parry now Jones had done well for herself. She owned and operated two pubs. Oddly enough, she was embarrassed by Stanley’s wasted condition. Shortly after, she sent him away.

Stanley sailed back to the US and by 1864 had enlisted in the US Navy. That stint didn’t last long either. In 1865 Stanley convinced his shipmate, Lewis Noe, to desert with him. Stanley had planned for the boy to act as a bounty jumper, but when Noe’s parent got wind of his desertion they fearfully convinced him to join the army. Which he did. Stanley fumed over this unexpected turn of event and traveled to Colorado. There he took on a job as a journalist and a side job that helped earn him the needed money. He also befriended William Cook. Afterwards, Stanley convinced Cook and Noe to come along with him on an adventure to Turkey. Noe was jealous of Cook’s friendship with Stanley, and came to resent Stanley. The expedition ended in utter disaster.

Stanley’s graffiti at Persepolis, Iran Courtesy Wikipedia

Stanley paid a visit back to Wales, this time masquerading as a naval officer. Back in the US he got a steady job with the Missouri Democrat, writing on the conflict between whites and Indians (and in the end siding with the Indians). Stanley graduated to the New York Herald and was able to convince the owner to allow him to go to Ethiopia, where he would report on a war there. In circumstances that worked for Stanley’s best benefit, the Welshman reported on the war and ensuing British victory and was able to get the news to the Herald far ahead of time.

In 1871 the New York Herald sent Stanley on an expedition meant to ‘find’ the missionary/explorer David Livingstone in Africa. Any hopes of locating Livingstone looked grim as Livingstone, apparently, didn’t want to be found by any whites.  The trip was a hard one and it didn’t help that the two oddballs Stanley had chosen to come along were trouble through and through. Along the way Stanley reluctantly joined a tribal war, which went badly for the party Stanley had sided with. The friendly tribe fell to a cannibalistic people. But the expedition escaped from danger. Now if they could just shake the fever and tsetse flies.

“Dr. Livingtsone, I Presume?” Courtesy Library of Congress

In October Stanley learned of a man in the area fitting Livingstone’s description. Stanley did indeed locate Livingstone and arrived bearing an American flag, drawing a great deal of attention. Stanley stated that he greeted Livingstone with “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. It was an enjoyable stay, as Stanley found Livingstone a kindred spirit (although they did disagree on some things). At first, Livingstone was unimpressed with the fact Stanley had been sent by the Herald. But his attitude changed when he learned the paper was willing to aid him, something his contacts had failed to do. When the time came for Stanley’s departure it was a sad goodbye. Stanley turned down the opportunity to travel with Livingstone, due to his commitment to the Herald. Shortly after Stanley’s visit, Livingstone would die.

Back in Great Britain, Stanley preferred to be known as an American. He didn’t want his Welsh heritage bandied about in the papers. Good ol’ mum would do just that. At Dover, Stanley was met by his drunken half-brother and cousin. Relatives would continued to come forth wanting money, threatening to blabber about Stanley’s life in the newspapers. When confronted with the question on whether he was Welsh, Stanley denied it.

The newspapers said Stanley had never met Livingstone, although many officials confirmed Stanley had indeed done so. By late 1872 Stanley was ready to return to Africa and seek adventure as an explorer.

Note: Hopefully, another on Stanley’s post-Livingtone discovery will appear sometime in the future.

Source : Jeal, Tim. Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer.

68 thoughts on “The Welsh Explorer: Henry Morton Stanley

  1. This is fascinating – and very different from the story told in Wales. You’d think this would make a great epic movie but it sounds as if the plot would get just too complex with so many twists and turns and his psychological issues. Thanks for posting and look forward to part 2!


    • I think you’re right. I’m afraid to say that before this biography I never knew how complicated Stanley’s life had been. My knowledge was limited to his quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” and I had thought he was an American!

      “and very different from the story told in Wales”, Can you by chance point me in the direction of any books like that? I’d be curious to see the differences.

      Thank you for pointing me in the direction of Stanley!


  2. I had read part of this story before, but it was nice to read more about it. He was an interesting character. The way he presents his cultural identity is interesting. He changes his background to help him in each individual situation. Even today we find people who do this. Even people in top political positions. 🙂


    • I think throughout much of his younger life he was undecided on how he wished top resent himself, even experimenting around with his name.

      Thanks for your comment.


    • I think Stanley did about everything in the Civil War. He served on both sides, he was prisoner, he was in the army and the navy. Quite a record! Thanks for your comment.


  3. Wow, that was amazing !!! I once read a book about Dr. Livingtone and it was really good.
    Keep up the good posts J.G.
    God bless
    Rebecca 🙂


  4. Great post! What a dreadful young life he had. It is amazing what was seen as acceptable treatment of children (and still is in some places around the world I’m sure 😦 )
    Looking forward to the next Livingstone post…. no pressure 😉


    • I guess because Stanley was illegitimate, his relatives thought it was alright to chuck him in a workhouse. What really got me was when Stanley became famous overnight and they had the nerve to come crawling out of the woodwork wanting money. I think the only people of his relations that ever treated him like family were his Liverpool relations.

      Sorry, didn’t mean to go out on a rampage 😉 Thanks for your comment!


    • It is always the way, isn’t it. The loser family only wants to recognize the rejected one when they can wring something out of it for themselves. The poor guy. At least he had those first few happy years with his grandfather.


    • Yep, I haven’t delved much beyond his Livingstone discovery so I’m curious to learn whether or not his life had a happy ending. I’m also very curious if his mother ever made up and accepted him. If I was him I probably would have given up ages ago trying to gain her approval. He sure was a determined soul.


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