March 21, 1871: Stanley sets off to find Livingstone

·Christy Karras
In this article:
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  • Henry Morton Stanley
    Welsh journalist and explorer (1841-1904)
  • David Livingstone
    Scottish explorer and missionary (1813-1873)

The phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” — often delivered in a nasal English tone — sounds like a joke to many of us, a phrase we’ve heard and seen in TV, movies and cartoons. When I was a kid, it never occurred to me to think there might have been a real-life story behind the famous words.

But there really was a Livingstone, and there really was a Henry Morton Stanley who went looking for him when he disappeared in what would have been called, at the time, the deepest heart of Africa.

The two men were explorers of the sort you see often in Victorian lore. Think pith helmet, khakis, gun and a stiff upper lip. We probably picture Victorian explorers in such attire because photos of Stanley show him decked out in just that way.

In actuality, Stanley wouldn’t have had an English accent; he was born Welsh and, after an impoverished childhood, moved to America, where he reportedly adopted the local accent and became a journalist. His reporting abroad led him to spend his life embarking on explorations that would make him rich and famous — and would eventually result in European colonization of Africa (Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is based on such explorers).

Stanley had already embroiled himself in a lifetime’s worth of adventures by the time the New York Herald sent him to Africa to find David Livingstone, a famous Scottish explorer and missionary who seemed to have vanished into a region previously unexplored by Westerners.

Stanley left Zanzibar (Tanzania) on March 21, 1871, with 200 porters and the finest equipment and horses. He soon ran into trouble, and many of his porters deserted him or died of disease. Nine months and 700 miles later, he finally found his man and uttered that famous phrase – or did he? Stanley reportedly recounted that he did, but he destroyed his own diary account of the two men meeting, and Livingston didn’t recall it.

Nevertheless, it lives on as a symbol of one man’s tenacious travels in search of another.