Monday, 28 January 2013

Breaker of Rocks

Henry Stanley "finds" Dr Livingstone in Africa
I hate to advocate neglect, poverty and Dickensian brutality. But they worked for Henry Morton Stanley.

The great explorer was born in Denbigh, north Wales, on this day, 1841, the illegitimate son of a farmer and a teenage girl. Abandoned by his mother, he was baptised John Rowlands and taken in by his kindly grandfather.

But in 1846 the old man died. No other relative was willing to step up. So, without being told where he was going, the lad who would one day re-brand himself as Henry M Stanley was packed off to St Asaph workhouse, and left there. He was six years old.

St Asaph was never as cruel and brutal as Stanley would later make out. But it was certainly no picnic either. Like all Victorian workhouses, it was a grim, humiliating place. Inmates wore uniforms. Husbands and wives were kept apart. Beatings were commonplace. Meals were bread and gruel.

Stanley never got over it. First the shame of his illegitimacy, the pain of his mother’s betrayal, the grief of his grandfather’s death; then an overwhelming anger at being dumped in a loveless institution for the best part of a decade. The traumas of those early years never left him. But instead of destroying him they made him as hard as stone. Henry Stanley the explorer seemed to be virtually indestructible, a titan, a man of almost superhuman drive and ambition.

They say Stanley died on 10 May 1904, though I’m not sure I believe it. He’s buried in the quiet churchyard at Pirbright, Surrey, far from the childhood home that caused him such pain. Fittingly, his gravestone is a huge block of granite, taller than a man. And into it is carved the nickname he earned among Africans in Congo. Two words: Bula Matari. It means “Breaker of Rocks”. 

For more on Stanley try Stanley: Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal – a great book

No comments:

Post a Comment