20 November 2004 | theowinthrop
The Victorian Saint and the Great Exp(lor/loit)er
David Livingston was the greatest Scottish/British missionary of the 19th Century, in helping to spread Christianity in Africa. He also did what he could to make an end of the slave trade in Africa. Finally, a typical Victorian with insatiable curiosity, he explored much of central Africa, discovering Lake Nyasa (the third largest lake on the continent) and striving to find the source of the Nile (he mistakenly believed in an ancient story that it was a set of huge fountains in central Africa). In 1870 rumors started to spread that Livingston (who had not been heard of for several years) was dead. Probably, in the back of his contemporaries minds, were memories of the death of Sir John Franklin in 1847, while searching for the Northwest Passage. Franklin's two ships of men died of exposure and starvation, but their fate was not fully discovered until 1859. For years it was believed some of the men might still be alive. So it was reversed in Livingston's case - the worst was feared for the missionary.
Enter an American publisher of vision - James Gordon Bennett Jr. The son of a Scottish immigrant who created America's first successful daily newspaper, the New York Herald, Gordon Bennett had a scandalous and colorful career in the U.S., and finally decided to go to Paris and create a European counterpart to his American paper. He built better than he knew. The New York Herald is no longer in existence, even after it absorbed it's rival the New York Tribune to become the Herald - Tribune (the New York paper died in 1966 after a major newspaper strike). The Paris Herald - Tribune still flourishes to this day.
Gordon-Bennett Jr. was full of good ideas. He promoted ballooning and aviation (a Gordon-Bennett prize was given to balloonists for many decades).
He loved scoops. In 1871 he decided that he should subsidize a reporter to try to locate the fate of Livingston. He found a useful American reporter in Henry Stanley. He summoned Stanley to Paris.
Stanley's real name was John Rowland. He was English born, but had immigrated to America as a poor boy, went into the south, worked on a plantation and was adopted by it's owner. He adopted that man's last name (Stanley). In the American Civil War he fought as a Confederate, but deserted, then joined the Federal Navy and saw the end of the war as a Union sailor. He drifted into reporting for the New York Herald, which was how he came to Gordon-Bennett's ken.
In choosing Stanley Gordon-Bennett made a brilliant decision. The reporter had brains and determination, and he pushed through with his expedition. Finally, in October 1871, Stanley found David Livingston and made his immortal greeting "Dr. Livingston, I presume?" He stayed with Livingston for a few weeks, and then returned to England.
Despite great proof that he had found the Doctor, many people did not choose to believe Stanley. Then proof from Africa came verifying it, unfortunately it came with news that Livingston had died (in 1873). Livingston's body was returned to England - his heart was carefully removed and buried in Africa.
Now considered a "blooded" African traveler and writer, Stanley decided to enter the field of exploration. He returned several times to Africa, and would finally settle the issues of Lake Victoria (see THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON review), and Lake Tanganyika. His four treks through the African continent made Stanley the greatest of the African explorers.
But explorers, especially newspapermen, need to make a living. Enter King Leopold II of Belgium. One of the smartest monarchs of his day, Leopold managed to connive himself into the position of being owner (not monarch, but owner) of the territories that would be called the CONGO (a larger area than the nation of the Congo today). Leopold wanted the natives to be "pacified" before exploiting them as a work force to milk resources in the territories. Stanley was all too willing to be such. He earned his income - a large income. The natives were beaten, tortured, killed by Stanley and his forces of mercenaries. The Congo was organized into a mock-political colony, but in reality it was a slave labor camp that made Leopold one of the richest men in the world. It's capital would be called Leopoldville, and it's second city (with becoming grace) Stanleyville. Few in the 19th Century noticed what was happening. One was the Italian African Explorer Brazza, who tried to stop some of the atrocities and bring them to world attention. He did not succeed in the latter (Leopold was a master at killing bad news items), but a town was built in the Congo named for him - Brazzaville.
Stanley remained a British national hero until his death in 1904. That year Leopold found that the bad news finally came out - two British diplomats in the Congo, Edward Morell and Roger Casement, published documents and photographs of the atrocities. Leopold was forced to give up the personal ownership of the territories (which became the Belgium Congo). Eventually the colony was broken up into several independent countries (after long, bloody civil wars). Their current governments are not the greatest examples of democracy. But there is a universal dislike in their citizens towards the memories of Leopold and his tool. Leopoldville and Stanleyville are no longer named for them. However Brazzaville retains it's name to this day.
Spencer Tracy performance as the explorer is a good one, as is Cedric Hardwicke's as the missionary. Henry Hull is a good Gordon-Bennett (though not as colorful a newspaper editor as his great turn in JESSE JAMES and THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES). But the film is trying to tell the story on a high tone level. It properly shows the great man Livingston was, but it makes the self-centered Stanley look like he's convinced into bringing Livingston's Christian message to Africa. The real Stanley would have given lip-service to Livingston's ideals, and then pocketed his blood money from Leopold.