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Who was John Rowlands? What, in truth, was the “special work” he was sent to do?

Synopsis 1

In 1841 a son is born to a housemaid in Wales. The father is unknown but the birth is registered in the records of the local church as John Rowlands, Bastard, after the village drunk. The boy is brought up speaking Welsh, abandoned by his mother, rejected by his family, sent to a workhouse and becomes the school bully. At sixteen, he escapes to Liverpool, gets a passage to the USA as a deck-hand and learns the brutal reality of Victorian shipboard life.

In New Orleans he jumps ship with his companion and finds to his astonishment that she is, in fact, a girl. John Rowlands claims he was then adopted by and took the surname of a cotton magnate but many years later the whole story is revealed as complete fiction.

In Arkansas he becomes adept with guns and joins the Confederates at the start of the American Civil War. At the battle of Shiloh, he is captured by the Unionists. He switches sides. Soon though, sick and depressed by the war, he returns to Wales but is rejected again by his family. He crosses the Atlantic once more. A few years later he becomes a reporter in Missouri and sets off on a series of adventures in the Middle East. Eventually he meets James Gordon Bennett Jr., son of the founder of the Herald Tribune, and asks for a job (because Bennett Jr. had exactly the same name as his father he was known as Gordon Bennett; his life was so extraordinary his name was often uttered to express disbelief). This leads our hero to scooping the main story of the British expedition led by General Napier against Emperor Theodoros of Abyssinia: he bribes the telegraphist in Cairo to delay all other cables about the campaign. The Herald prints the news of the victory at Magdala before London has even received the information.

In 1884, the journalist-turned-explorer is double-dealing with the British in East Africa and a megalomaniac King in Europe, described by his own father as “subtle and sly”. Believing he would make more money from the hoped-for Belgian annexation of the Congo Free State, the explorer sets off for the mouth of the Congo river in June 1887 with six hundred Africans and eight European ‘officers’ who soon find out that they have signed up to serve under an outrageously rude and ill-tempered commander. The average life expectancy of those eight young officers at the start of the expedition turns out to be five and a half years.

Their mission is to find a mysterious German, Eduard Schnitzer, who fled south after the murder of a British general with a death-wish in Khartoum a few years earlier. Schnitzer has a colourful past. He was born in a wealthy Jewish family the year before Rowlands, practiced medicine in the Ottoman Empire and converted to Islam, taking the name Emin Effendi Hakkim (photo below). After a dangerous liaison with the Transylvanian wife of an Ottoman Pasha, who died suddenly and presumably conveniently, Schnitzer took the latter’s widow and children back to Germany. Tiring of her and them shortly thereafter, he absconded to Egypt, ending up in Khartoum with a new Abyssinian wife and working for the evangelist General Gordon, who promoted him to the rank of Pasha as Governor of Equatoria. After the assassination of Gordon by the Mahdi’s forces in 1884, Emin was cut off and forgotten about for four years.

Guiding the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition is the most notorious of the Arab slave traders, Tippu-Tib, who knows the Congo better than anyone else. He agrees to join up on condition he can take his retinue of ninety-six people, including his thirty-five wives and concubines. The real reason for taking Tippu-Tip is to provide the sponsoring monarch with the vast pile of ivory secreted by the slave trader in the middle of Africa.

Whatever could go wrong on the expedition does go wrong. The promised boats are never supplied for the journey upstream. The column is split early on. The greenish gloom of the forest is terrifying. Pygmies and hostile tribes attack the column remorselessly. Inter-tribal fighting among the porters, pilfering and desertion start immediately but worse is to come. Victorian society, cocooned in self-righteousness, would later turn away in disbelief when the full horror of what happened to the rear column became known. Starvation, malaria, dysentery, typhus and smallpox resulted in a huge death toll, but later stories leaked of appalling brutality, murder and cannibalism that not even Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness was able to describe.

In April 1888, the expedition meets up with the German Pasha. It is quite clear who is in need of rescuing, and it is not the Pasha, who arrives by boat in his immaculate white uniform. Furthermore, the Pasha has no desire to relinquish his post.

On April 20th, two of the expedition leader’s officers, Parke and Jephson, see an ice-covered mountain range and report it to their leader who seems “a good deal interested” but subsequently scoffs at the report.

It takes a further year of bullying and cajoling by the leader of the Relief Expedition before he manages to get the whole combined force of more than 1500 to set off on the 2000km trek to the coast, a journey beset by disease and attacks from hostile tribes. By December 1889, the 550 remnants of the caravan reach Bagamoyo on the East African coast. The Pasha is immediately welcomed by the Germans there as one of their own citizens. The furious explorer and his party are sent packing by ship back to Egypt.

The central figures of the expedition are hopelessly incompatible. The one, aggressive, arrogant, charmless, chippy and a terrible liar. The other an intellectual, a polyglot, a polymath, scientist and physician; courtly, evasive and exasperatingly indecisive. It is therefore unsurprising that the two men fall out and never talk on the year-long journey to the East African coast, and indeed never communicate again.

Two years later Emin Pasha returns to Uganda attempting to annex the country for Germany, but he is caught by Arab slave-traders, tied to the ground and has his throat cut.

Synopsis 2

In March 1887, arguably the world’s greatest and certainly most-renowned explorer of the Victorian age, the American, Henry Morton Stanley, sets forth on his most challenging and daring adventure in search of the imperilled and beleaguered Governor of Equatoria, Emin Pasha, the sole survivor of Britain’s failed attempt to take over Sudan and at the same time open up central Africa for commercial exploitation. The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition is viewed throughout Europe and America as an altruistic and lofty-minded enterprise.

The expedition sets off from Zanzibar by ship, rounds the Cape of Good Hope and starts 200km upstream of the mouth of the Congo river. Tippu-Tib is appointed proconsul of the Congo Free State and is expected to enforce an injunction against slaving and promote the trade in ivory, rubber and gum copal (a resin) under the beneficent aegis of King Leopold II of the Belgians.

Over a year later Stanley reaches Emin Pasha and his Egyptian and Sudanese entourage on Lake Edward to the west of Lake Victoria.

On May 24th 1888, Stanley writes “ eyes were directed by a boy to a mountain said to be covered with salt… what I gazed upon was not the image or semblance of a vast mountain, but the solid substance of a real one, with its summit covered with snow”.

The next day Stanley receives a letter from Emin Pasha, which ends: ’Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on your most splendid discovery of a snow-clad mountain’.

This was the principal scientific achievement of the relief expedition. With this sighting of the Ruwenzori, the last piece to the solution of the age-old riddle of the Nile’s sources fell into place. This range, the Mountains of the Moon, had up to then existed only in legend, dating back to the days of Ptolemy.

Eighteen months later Stanley arrives back on the east African coast with Emin Pasha. Stanley is given a hero’s welcome and feted in England, America, Australia and New Zealand. He renounces his American citizenship, becomes both a naturalized citizen of his native land and a Member of Parliament. He marries the love of his life, adopts a son and lives a further fourteen years.


Both synopses are accurate: Stanley was the ultimate achiever, the Bula Matari, the Smasher of Rocks, who led from the front, bullying everyone and bulldozing everything in his path. While all other characters in the exploration of Africa had both supporters and detractors, Stanley seems to have been described by all as a nasty piece of work. Numerous descriptions in other accounts described him as “a howling cad” and “a bounder”. He was also cruel and murderous, preferring to shoot rather than talk his way out of trouble.

I have my own maxim about books, namely that there is a lot of truth in fiction, some truth in biographies and not much in autobiographies. Or should I be generous and say that autobiographers tend to be, adapting Edmund Burke’s phrase, ‘economical with the truth’? Having just waded through Stanley’s 1000-page In Darkest Africa for the third time, the contrast between his account of events and those of others is remarkable. Stanley and the truth were by no means close acquaintances.

In an era of modern medicine, radio communication, air travel and the Internet it is almost impossible to imagine the hardships of 19th century exploration in Africa. Stanley’s first ventures in the Congo (1874-77) and again in 1881 were to thwart (on behalf of King Leopold of the Belgians) the French moves led by Pierre de Brazza to annex the Congo Free State. His Emin Pasha expedition cost the lives of thousands, but he achieved what few others could have achieved. Though he could at least have given credit for the ‘discovery’ of the Ruwenzori to the rightful people.

Whatever Stanley’s faults, he was a remarkable man. Even a cursory look at his childhood explains so much about his later character. He craved, earned and received glorification. At the end of his life he declared “I was not sent into the world to be happy, nor to search for happiness. I was sent for a special work”. But the reality is that his travels were more an escape from a society in which he had always felt acutely uncomfortable.

It is sad that both his name and his achievements have mostly been forgotten.



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