So this Welsh bastard1 walks into New Orleans, starts telling people he’s been adopted by a rich American bloke and changes his name. Wanders up to Arkansas where someone sends him a petticoat, which is as much as to say he’s a coward; can’t have that so he signs up with the Confederate Army in 1861. Taken prisoner, Battle of Shiloh, impressed into the U.S. Army. Deserts. Joins the U.S. Navy in 1864. Deserts. Goes off for what is to David Gilmour an unspecified but “bizarre and foolhardy adventure in Ottoman Turkey” then comes back to America in 1867 to cover the U.S. Army’s campaigns against the Plains Indians.

This is “Henry Stanley,” née John Rowlands, who also didn’t say “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” though he did “find” Livingstone and is the subject of a new biography by Tim Jeal, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Gilmour.

During Stanley’s sojourn in Africa he became known as “the brutal Stanley” for his murderous ways with the natives, though Jeal/Gilmour say this unfair; he was vastly less brutal than, say, Charles “Chinese” Gordon. Stanley’s real sin was talking about it. Gordon: “These things … may be done but not advertised.”

Gilmour hypothesizes a relation between the American stay and the African mission: “Perhaps Stanley reasoned that, as readers of the Missouri Democrat had enjoyed his accounts of Americans fighting the Cheyenne, his new audiences would appreciate descriptions of his battles against ‘savages’ and the casualties (greatly exaggerated) that he inflicted.”

Perhaps: but that’s not quite what Stanley’s Democrat letters sound like. Some of them are in Stanley’s Early Travels in America and Asia, but not all, and maybe not the most interesting ones, either.2

True, he started off awfully breathlessly, talking about how Gen. W. S. Hancock would seek peace but if peace were unavailable then “he proposes, by force of warfare, to bury the hatchet.” And once fighting started, he gave a fairly typical line: what the Government needed was really to license vigilantism.

The only way to fight Indians, at least the Sioux and Cheyennes, is to permit five hundred prairie settlers — men who have lived on the plains from boyhood — men who are skilled in all the devious ways of the savage, to go after them…. Everything would be forgotten, unheard, save the furious cry for revenge. When these men have chastised the Indians after their own fashion, let Eastern Missionaries mingle with the subdued and conquered tribes, and complete the good work. If any Indians are left….

But it looks as though it wasn’t long before Stanley thought these prairie fellows didn’t match up to English expectations: “Were these people [i.e., Indians] on English territory every reader could foresee their fate; but, forsooth, the leading civilized nation of the world must treat them with forbearance. So be it.” And ultimately, he came ’round to this “civilized” way of thinking. Stanley began explaining that the real problem on the prairie was that there was no punishment for an American citizen who shot an Indian, so the Indians were entitled to their revenge. He began to see himself in the Indians:

We have all, whether we be French, or English, Spanish or Russian, German or Italian, gone through the same mill. It was gradual with ourselves, and in the nine cases out of ten, came out of slavery.

He called them “wronged children of the soil,” and realized that assimilation was no kind of just policy either: “They would willingly become citizens if the tribe were not to be broken up, but if they believed that they should be absorbed into one population and that the tribes would disappear, they would at once prepare to die.”

Not long after this, he got the commission to sail for Africa and left the United States.

Stanley retained the imprint of his American experience ever after; Queen Victoria complained in the 1870s that he had “a strong American twang.” But what was that imprint? It appears more complex than Gilmour (quite reasonably) hypothesizes. Stanley came in baying for blood and went out puzzling over a problem. It looks about as if he hoped to see a genocide, and then found out he didn’t have the taste for it. Supposing that’s so: how did that lesson affect his African experience? Maybe Tim Burke can say.

Stanley found in America something that a few other Europeans did — a new and appealing radicalism. “Thank heaven for radicalism; thank the Omnipotent that the world is becoming radical, and takes its doctrines from the general laws which govern the social system…. It is the eternal principle of radicalism that all men are free….” It’s the same thing that Clemenceau saw at about the same time: “the great American Revolution is being carried on without violence,” he wrote of the project of Reconstruction. Both men figured that, what with the mood in America, Indians and African Americans would gain peaceable liberty.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course. But both observers were part of a larger effort by the rest of the world to make something of their own out of the American Civil War. The later Stanley and Clemenceau appear to have hoped that the emancipatory effects of the war would become universalized. The early Stanley — and others — hoped to learn all about unfettered violence from the Americans. The Khedive of Egypt tried to poach a bunch of generals to lead his campaigns (and got one or two). The Prussians got advice from Philip Sheridan on how to wage a total war. Guess some products were more exportable than others.

1Using the term precisely, don’t get exercised dsquared.
2See Douglas L. Wheeler, “Henry M. Stanley’s Letters to the Missouri Democrat,” Missouri Historical Society Bulletin 17, no. 3 (April 1961): 269-286.