The most startling thing about Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, a new biography of Henry Morton Stanley, is Tim Jeal’s claim that Stanley’s famous greeting never happened. Jeal argues that Stanley never said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” when he found David Livingstone in the African wild. For those with only a passing knowledge of African exploration, this will come as a shock. The only thing most people know about Stanley is that he was an American journalist sent out to find Livingstone and that he uttered his famous line on finding him. According to Jeal, most of that is untrue. Stanley was not an American; in fact, his real name was not Stanley. He was not primarily a journalist; at least in later life, he abandoned journalism for exploration. The famous line was an invention, albeit by Stanley himself when writing about the incident and in press interviews. Moreover, Jeal recounts that Livingstone, the renowned explorer and missionary, was not actually lost when Stanley found him.

This is revisionism with a vengeance, and perhaps not all of it is to be believed. On the issue of the famous line, for instance, Jeal’s argument is mainly based on the absence of evidence (a page torn from Stanley’s diary and a lack of any confirmatory statement from Livingstone) rather than on positive new information. In the end, the truth about Stanley, as Jeal demonstrates, is that he became inextricably associated with the famous line, even mocked for it, which is ironic if he indeed never spoke it and only invented it because he thought it made him sound like the proper English gentleman he wished he were.

According to Jeal, Stanley’s life was full of such ironies. He not only was mocked for saying something he only pretended he said but also was savagely criticized for doing things he only pretended to have done. Throughout his life, Stanley told lies to create a better impression of himself, lies that came back to haunt him. Most notably, he exaggerated the number of Africans he killed in order to appear strong. As a result, he was reviled for being callously cruel and in the end was denied a burial spot beside Livingstone in Westminster Abbey.

All this is not to say that Jeal criticizes Stanley for telling lies. Throughout this very sympathetic biography, Jeal is at pains to defend Stanley at every turn, to justify his actions, even his lies and his killings, or at least to excuse them and understand them, in an attempt to have readers pity Stanley and to admire the way he overcame his difficult background and became a “Homeric” hero. In this way, Jeal sets himself at odds with both the debunking fashion in biography writing, in which biographers set out to condemn their subjects, and the current views on Stanley, colonialism, and African history. This aspect of his revisionism is in fact far more significant than his attempt to discredit the “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” story. Jeal sets himself against the proponents of “postcolonial guilt” and attempts to justify nineteenth century European colonialism in Africa.

Jeal begins by tracing Stanley’s origins as an illegitimate child named John Rowlands in Wales. Sent from relative to relative and eventually ending up in a workhouse, the young Stanley had a hard time of it, especially in Jeal’s version of events. Frank McLynn, an earlier biographer, downplays the suffering, but Jeal plays it up. McLynn, writing in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, adopted the debunking tone, painting Stanley as cruel, even sadomasochistic, and also latently homosexual. Jeal’s aim throughout is to refute McLynn and portray a humane, compassionate, fully heterosexual Stanley.

Escaping from the workhouse, Stanley went first to Liverpool and then to the United States, landing in New Orleans, where he changed his name. Jeal did not discover the name change; in fact, it was included in Stanley’s own autobiography, published after his death. However, one of Jeal’s new claims is that Stanley’s account of how he came by his new name is false. Stanley was not adopted by a rich merchant by the name of Henry Stanley who bestowed his name on the penniless refugee. Instead, young John Rowlands simply appropriated the original Henry Stanley’s name in order to create a more impressive life story for himself. Again, Jeal is understanding, summoning popular...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)