“Dr Livingstone, I presume” said Henry Morton Stanley to Dr David Livingstone in 1871, after the former had tracked the latter down to where he had been lost for years in the wilds of Africa. At least, that is what is supposed to have happened, but the story and the truth may be somewhat distant from each other.

For one thing, we only have Stanley’s account to rely upon, and as he was one of the chief actors in the incident and also its sole reporter, it should come as no surprise that he played up the drama of the meeting. He was, after all, a professional journalist.

Dr Livingstone

David Livingstone was a medical doctor and a Christian missionary, born in 1813. He is best known today for the “I presume” story and the fact that he was the first white man known to have seen the Victoria Falls (on the border between present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe). This was on his first missionary journey to southern Africa in the 1850s, during which he crossed the continent from east to west. He named the falls in honour of Queen Victoria, and was generally lauded on his return to Britain.

Indeed, Dr Livingstone the explorer was considerably more successful than Dr Livingstone the missionary, given that he could only be credited with two successful conversions to Christianity during his whole career.

One of the great unknowns in the 19th century was the whereabouts of the source of the River Nile. This mighty river, which had always been of huge importance to the countries of Sudan and Egypt, clearly originated deep in the heart of Africa, but exactly where was a mystery. Dr Livingstone’s second journey, in the 1860s, was undertaken with a view to solving that mystery.

However, after a time his despatches back to Britain came to a halt, with nobody knowing what had become of him. Although five years elapsed between his final despatch and the rescue mission of Henry Morton Stanley, interest in Dr Livingstone’s fate had been kept alive by a press campaign. Without it, the British people would probably have forgotten all about him.

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley (born in 1841) had started life as John Rowlands. He had been born in Wales but emigrated to America at the age of 17 and fought on the Confederate side during the civil War. He later became a journalist on the New York Times. He saw nothing wrong with slavery, and that was an attitude he took with him to Africa.

The general impression one has from the story is that Stanley trekked for many months through inhospitable terrain and eventually tracked Dr Livingstone down to his remote hiding place. The reality was a bit more prosaic. Stanley merely started on the east coast of Africa and headed west until he reached the shore of Lake Tanganyika. It is believed that his treatment of the porters he employed to carry his equipment was little short of brutal.

Once at Lake Tanganyika Stanley accosted the first person he saw and asked him if he knew where a white man might be staying. The man in question, who was Dr Livingstone’s personal assistant, proceeded to take Stanley straight to the man himself!

Because Stanley was writing reports for an American newspaper, he then, so he said, asked Livingstone for his opinion on the candidates for the next Presidential election. No doubt he reported that the great man endorsed the candidate backed by the New York Times, but it is surely absurd to believe that a Scottish doctor, lost in Africa for five years, would have had the slightest knowledge of, let alone interest in, American party politics!

What happened next

Dr Livingstone may not have been all that keen on being “rescued”. Had he wanted to, he could no doubt have made reversed the journey that Stanley made to find him, and done so at any time during his five years of silence. The fact remains that he did not, and neither did he return to Britain after the famous meeting. He died in Africa two years later.

Henry Morton Stanley continued on his journey and traced the whole course of the River Congo to the Atlantic Ocean. He became active in the exploitation of the Belgian Congo on behalf of King Leopold III, particularly in the matter of developing a slave trade to produce workers for Leopold’s mines and rubber plantations. Ironically enough, one of Livingstone’s chief concerns had been to put an end to slavery in Africa.

Stanley lived to 1904, ending his days with a knighthood and a seat in the British House of Commons. It might have been best had there never been a clamour for Livingstone to be found. The “I presume” story sounds adventurous and romantic, but there was another, much darker, side to it.


Stanley Meeting Livingstone at Lake Tanganyika
Credit: The Illustrated London News, 1872