The Public Domain Review

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Henry Morton Stanley and the Pygmies of “Darkest Africa”

Thursday 29 November 2012 at 19:46

After returning from his disastrous mission to central Africa to rescue a German colonial governor, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley was eager to distract from accusations of brutality with his ‘discovery’ of African pygmies. Brian Murray explores how after Stanley’s trip the African pygmy, in the form of stereotype and allegory, made its way into late Victorian society. On 28 October 1888 the Welsh-American explorer Henry Morton Stanley was entrenched deep in the unexplored Ituri rainforest of the Congo. He had been hacking his way back and forth through the jungle for months in his attempt to relieve the colonial governor Emin Pasha, whose province in the southern Sudan was under siege by a coalition of Sudanese and Arab insurgents under the command of the messianic cleric Muhammad Ahmad. Famished and exhausted, Stanley sent his East-African porters out to pillage what they could from native farms. On this occasion they brought back an unusual prize: a “couple of pygmies”. These “pygmies” were most likely one of several diminutive ethnic groups (including the Aka, Twa, Mbuti and Efé) that still inhabit the forests in the upper Congo Basin. But for Stanley these Africans did not merely represent intriguing ethnographic specimens; they [...]