The Way to Ilala: David Livingstone’s Pilgrimage by Frank Debenham; The Man Who Presumed by Byron Farwell

Saturday I got my Christmas decorations up. “One of these things is not like the other ones….” Can you find the “living ornament”?

I’m posting my reviews of Dr. Livingstone and Stanley back to back because I read the books concurrently, finished them on the same day and their biographies, even though written by different men, closely resemble each other.

The History Press | The man who found Dr Livingstone

the way to ilala by Frank Debenham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This was an incredible story. No fiction action\adventure story could compare to the real life adventures of Dr. Livingston and his explorations into the heart of Africa.

Dr. David Livingston was a British explorer and missionary who developed a strong heart for the tribes of Africa and made it his life’s work to bring them to the Gospel and end the deplorable slave trade that was still continuing throughout Africa at the hands of Arab slave traders and competing African tribes.

This sharply contrasts with the biographies of Sir Richard Burton who sided with the Arab slavers and embraced a “might makes right” philosophy and no record exists that he explored anything except for the magnifying of his own ego

Livingston outdid Burton and other explorers with his discoveries and maps of interior Africa. He was fascinated with the interior and spent his life creating maps of the unexplored parts of the Congo and Central Africa. He wanted to create highways and outposts for European civilization to permeate and end the barbaric practices of these isolated tribes who spent their lives warring, enslaving and eating each other.

Yes, eating each other. These tribes knew nothing but to fight each other. The winners enslaved the losing tribe. They sold men, women, and children to Arab slavers and kept the rest for themselves to use as slaves and also to eat.

There are frightening descriptions of Livingston and companions, walking through tribal villages and seeing human arms and legs lying about with gnaw marks made by human teeth.

Today it is fashionable to pour on the White Guilt, i.e. “white supremacist imperialist, exploiting and oppressing the poor African Tribal people.”

And there is no argument that England and Germany at the time were vying with each other to stake their claims in Africa because of the rich resources by which they hoped to enrich their countries.

But to pretend that the tribes of Africa were living sweet, peaceable lives until the Big Bad Europeans came is ignorant. If anything, the warring and cannibalism greatly diminished due to European influence, altruistic or not.

Frank Debenham wrote his biography and record of Livingston’s travels shortly after the missionary’s death, so he was able to record interviews with many European and tribal people who personally knew Livingston.

His book reads like an exciting adventure account and I found his book both informative and enjoyable.



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The Man Who Presumed: A Biography of Henry M. Stanley by Byron Farwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Henry M. Stanley is primarily famous for discovering Dr. Livingston. Yet this biography shows that Stanley was a great explorer in his own right.

Born out of wedlock to a Welsh woman, Stanley (originally John Rowlands) was handed over to a school for unwanted children at the age of four. There he suffered physical abuse, deprivation and emotional neglect.

When his mother came to the school, when Rowlands was nine, someone pointed her out as his mother. 9 year old John asked, “What’s a mother?” He didn’t know people had them. His mother approached him with a little boy and girl in each hand. These were his brother and sister. His mother kept the brother and left the sister. He never saw his mother again.

At the age of fifteen after a severe beating, Rowlands lost it and beat up the school master who was whipping him. He then ran away from the school, joined a ship and sailed for America.

On the ship he found he was little more than a slave, so at New Orleans, he jumped ship and looked for work.

Walking through the streets he came upon a man sitting in front of his shop reading the paper. This was Henry Hope Stanley, a man who longed for children and a son of his own, but was never able to have any. Rowlands approached him and asked if he was “wanting a boy”, meaning someone to work in his shop.

Stanley was startled by the request and fulfilled it, both by hiring young John and adopting him as the son he always wanted. John Rowlands became Henry Morton Stanley.

Life was good and secure with his adopted father and mother, but then the Civil War broke out and he found himself fighting with the Confederate Army. At first he really didn’t know what any of it was about, but he soon did. He was then captured and imprisoned by the Union Army, but his heart came to side with the Union, so soon he was fighting on the Union side.

But he fled fighting and after work on Merchant ships took off for New York City. After the war, he became a reporter for the New York Herald. He traveled extensively across Europe and Asia, reporting on various current events, such as the Ottoman Empire and various political transitions and events.

Finally, the editor of the Herald sent Stanley to Africa to discover whether the great explorer, David Livingston was still alive. This Stanley did and eventually found him, leading to the famous, “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

Stanley stayed with Livingston for three months and assisted him in mapping out parts of Africa. Afterward, Stanley left for England where he was feted and championed. He embarked on tours throughout Europe and North America, but meeting Livingston had altered him.

He believed in Livingston’s mission to “civilize” Africa and soon embarked on his own expeditions. His goal was to open up the interior of Africa with highways and townships in order to thwart the Arab slave trade, which he abhorred. He also wanted to civilize the African tribes and put an end to their constant warring, inter-tribal enslavement and, last but not least, cannibalism. He believed that the European culture based on Christian morals was the way to achieve this goal.

There are appalling descriptions in this book of the utter lack of human compassion or value of human life by the Central African tribes. I would describe it, but it isn’t for the faint of heart. I hope such atrocities no longer exist, although the Arab slave trade still exists today. Where’s the outrage over that, Social Justice Warriors?

He cooperated with both English and German governments, although he later regretted the German involvement after the atrocities committed by King Leopold to African natives.

He spent his life devoted to taking up Livingston’s cause and only returned to England when he became too ill to continue.

Stanley spent his final days, happily married (he met and married a wonderful woman when he was 49) and lived the next seventeen years with his wife on a house he and his wife built, adopted orphans and, even though chronically ill, lived happily until finally succumbing to the sicknesses he acquired in Africa, at the age of 66.

This, along with the Livingston biography are worthwhile reads for all history buffs and vicarious adventure seekers.



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10 thoughts on “The Way to Ilala: David Livingstone’s Pilgrimage by Frank Debenham; The Man Who Presumed by Byron Farwell

  1. Stanley’s account of crossing the African continent is a reading experience not to be missed… truly an epic endeavour… i read a bio of Livingstone some years ago and don’t recall it very well. it was by another fellow who tracked him down and interviewed him; not much in it re cannibalism, tho…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Two very excellent reviews! I wrote both books down bc I’m sold. It is my opinion that biographies are the best stories, especially of this caliber given the degree of “adventure.” You can’t write better fiction. The best thing about these books is the truth revealed; it sure does correct what we think we know about native populations and slavery and many other topics. What the 21st C wants us to think about the past compared to what truly took place or is taking place, in many ways. We think we know everything. These kind of books are convicting and help us to better discern when we are having the wool pulled over our eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ruth

      I have read another biography about Livingstone, but it was not as well written as The Way To Ilala. Some people write non fiction in an uninspiring, dry sort of style, but these biographies were written so well and were so engaging.

      I got the one on Stanley because I had just finished reading the author’s biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton.

      That one is also well written, but Burton was not a nice man and his character disgusted me. It’s almost worth it to read both of Farwell’s biographies, just to fully appreciate the honorableness and character of Stanley and Livingstone better, compared to Burton.

      Like

  3. Sharon I recall a little bit about David Livingston but never read about Stanley. Both of these books sound like wonderful historical reads. I think I may have spotted the real ornament…now who could have ever guessed He would be hanging from a tree. I am more used to spying him on someone’s head :)!! Have a lovely weekend. Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

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