Jeremy Robinson, Sean Ellis
Henry Morton Stanley stopped speaking for a moment, studying the hungry faces gathered around him. He sensed that everything — his bold plan, his reputation, his career, perhaps even, in an indirect way, his life — might hang on his next words. He cleared his throat and spoke.
“So I took off my hat, and said, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume.’”
There was a moment of silence, and then the room erupted in laughter.
Stanley hid his relief behind a wry smile. He had been worried that something would be lost in the translation from English to Flemish Dutch, but it was an oft told tale, both by Stanley himself and in countless newspaper articles, which many of the assembled guests had no doubt already read. Now, nearly a decade after the fact, those words remained the perfect climax. Any further elaboration would only dull the impact of his clever punch line.
It was all rubbish, of course. He’d started it merely as a joke, a humorous way to avoid telling the truth, which he had not shared with anyone, but it had taken on a life of its own. The story was now part and parcel of the legend he had created for himself. He had been nurturing and cultivating this image — Stanley, the intrepid explorer, the man who found Livingstone — for a long time now, and soon he hoped to reap the fruits of that long labor. He would capitalize on his notoriety by finding an investor willing to fund his next great expedition.
“An excellent story,” the king said, drawing him aside. “I would hear more of it.”
Stanley had only dared hope for such an audience. “Certainly, Your Majesty.”
“I have followed your exploits with great interest.” The king spoke English, which surprised Stanley. It was unseemly for a king to make an accommodation like that to a visitor in his own house. Leopold, however, did not seem at all put off by it. “Africa fascinates me. A savage, dangerous land, but also, I believe, a place where bold men may accomplish great things.”
“I could not agree more.”
Stanley was not surprised that the conversation had not yet come around to the topic of his exploits. Leopold, like most men of power and prestige, was not so much interested in listening to what others had to say as he was in having an audience. So Stanley merely nodded.
“I have a vision for Africa, a bold vision, but also one that requires the skill of an expert gem cutter, as it were. The wealth of Africa is tremendous. You, perhaps better than any other man living, know this to be true. And you know, better than any man, why it cannot so easily be taken. It is not enough to simply tramp back and forth across the continent, taking out only what can be carried. I want to
“You mean to claim it for Belgium.”
“Belgium has no need of territories. No, you mistake my intent. I mean to own the land for myself. As much as I am able. I want to create a free state in Africa — a commercial enterprise, not a political one. But to do so, Africa must be subdued first; her savages introduced to the ways of civilized behavior and Christianity, so that they may provide the labor we need to reap the bounty of this land.”
“A bold vision indeed,” Stanley agreed. “But I warn you, Africa is not so small a place as it appears on our maps. And I do not speak merely of the distances, though they are considerable. A journey of just a few miles, what we might travel by horse in a single afternoon or by train in just an hour’s time, might take days… days of hacking through impenetrable jungle, all the while plagued by flies and disease, foul water, every manner of deadly beast and of course, there are the African natives themselves to consider. I was three years charting the Congo. It is no place for the faint of heart.”
“I am quite familiar with your search for Livingstone, and the Congo expedition as well. In truth, your familiarity with the place is the very reason I have sought you out.”
Stanley took a deep breath. This was the moment for which he had been waiting. He chose his next words carefully. “I did not reveal everything in the published account. You have said that Africa is a place where bold men may accomplish great things. You are more right than you know. If you will permit me, Your Majesty, I would like to share with you what really happened on the day that I found David Livingstone…”
As he concluded his story, Stanley searched the king’s face for some hint of excitement, but there was none. The king did not smile, nor was there the expected glimmer of anticipation or avarice in his eyes. Instead, there was something much darker. “On your oath, this is the truth?”
“I know not whether the story is true,” replied Stanley, trying not to sound defensive. “Livingstone was recovering from a fever when I found him. I cannot know if he really saw what he claims to have. But I will swear by anything you name, that this is, word-for-word, what he told me.”
“Word for word? It was eight years ago.”
“I wrote it down in my diary, even as he spoke.” Stanley felt his heart pounding with trepidation. He had, on more than one occasion and usually by miserly investors, been accused of exaggerating the potential riches of the unexplored land to fund his expeditions. Did the king think him some kind of confidence artist, teasing him with fabrications, like some gypsy with a treasure map? “I believe it to be true, Your Majesty. I would not trifle with you.”
“Trifle?” The king shook his head. “I’m afraid you’re not fully understanding. This is no mere trifle. Do you grasp the significance of what you have just told me?”
For the first time in almost nine years, Stanley was not certain that he did.
The king made a chopping gesture with his hand. “I do not want to explore Africa, Stanley. I want to
“Your Majesty, I’m not sure I understand how.”
“If the savages knew of this…” The king paused, and then shook his head as if even speaking the words aloud was too dangerous. He gripped Stanley’s shoulder firmly, peered intently into his eyes. “Greatness is set before us, Stanley. I want you to go to the Congo. Establish this new state, so that we may possess all the riches Africa has to offer. I wish to make you my agent. Survey these lands and acquire them for me, so that together we may launch this enterprise. Does this interest you?”
“Then you must do something for me. Tear those pages out of your diary, and never speak of this again. Will you do that for me?”
The request was like a knife through Stanley’s heart. For years he had dreamed of learning the truth behind Livingstone’s story, and now, instead of finding a patron who would help him accomplish that, he was being told to sacrifice it all.
And yet, what was he really being asked to give up? An uncertain reward that might amount to nothing more than a fever dream, in exchange for real wealth, real glory? Perhaps it wasn’t such a sacrifice after all.
He sealed his pact with a single word.
The young man shifted into reverse and applied steady pressure to the accelerator pedal. The engine revved and the wheels began to spin, throwing up a shower of mud in front of the Land Rover, but the vehicle did not move. The driver shifted back into first gear and tried again with no more success. He pounded his fists against the steering wheel in frustration.
“What about the winch?” the youth in the passenger seat asked.
“There’s no time,” another young man said from the back. “They’re right behind us. We must leave the truck, David.”
David, the front seat passenger, shook his head, but the gesture was more an indication of his frustration than a ...