March 21: "Dr. Livingston, I Presume?"

This Day in History

“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

On this day, March 21, 1871, journalist Henry Morton Stanley began his search for the missing missionary and explorer to Africa, Dr. David Livingston. Upon finding him in the remote jungles of Tanzania, Stanley reportedly said, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

A few years prior, Livingston embarked on a two-year journey to chronicle and map the unknown areas of Africa, particularly to find the source of the Nile River. Six years passed without the public hearing a word on his progress, leaving many to fear that Livingston had died along the journey. Anticipating a sensationalized story at hand, the publisher of The New York Herald sent Stanley to find what happened to the doctor. 

The publisher chose well. Stanley was accustomed to overcoming obstacles. Before he explored the hidden jungles of East Africa, Henry Morton Stanley had already trekked miles of his own personal journey. Born John Rowland in Wales in 1841 to an unwed teenager, he was abandoned by his mother and raised by relatives before he was old enough to be sent to a workhouse at age 5. Growing up as an illegitimate child in Victorian England, Stanley was a societal outcast and suffered much abuse from his workhouse supervisor. 

At age 18, he escaped his poor childhood and bought passage to America. In 1859 he arrived in New Orleans and adopted the name Henry Stanley, after the name of his new employer. 

When the Civil War erupted, Stanley reluctantly joined the Confederate army and fought in the Battle of Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles in American history, where he was taken prisoner. When he was offered the option of joining the Union army in return for his release, Stanley quickly agreed to switch allegiances for his freedom (a month later, however, he was discharged due to injuries sustained).

After recovering his health again, he joined the U.S Navy in 1864. He was the only man known to have served in the Confederate Army, the Union Army, and the Union Navy.

“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”

After serving in the war, Stanley found a job as a journalist with the New York Herald, and was soon sent on the mission to find Dr. Livingston. 

Whether or not Stanley uttered those now famous words or not, he soon became famous across Europe and the United States for his discovery of the man presumed dead (Livingston would die 18 months later without finding the source of the Nile).

As a promise to his new found friend, Stanley continued Livingston’s work and, remarkably was able to discover the source of the Nile. When Stanley returned to his native country, he was hailed a hero and served in Parliament. 

Although he was born into obscurity, he died an extraordinary man. The societal outcast had evolved from rags to riches and literally made his mark on the world. 

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