The good folk of Denbigh, in North Wales, proudly claim their town to be the birthplace of the great explorer, Sir H. M. Stanley. Close by the ruin of its old Castle, they point out the little Welsh cottage where his life began; and thus they tell the story of his childhood before he left his country and changed his name.
He was born in 1841, and baptized in Tremeirchon Church as John Rowlands, which is the English way of writing the Welsh name Rollant. His father, John Rollant, a farmer's son, died when the wee child was only two years old; and his mother, who afterwards became Mrs. Jones, left him to the care of a nurse.
From that time a good and kindly woman, Mrs. Price, was a second mother to the child, and she brought him up with her own children happily enough. Her husband had charge of the Denbigh bowling-green; and while he worked at the well-kept lawn, his sturdy little foster-son ran about all day in the open air. Every one tried as much as possible to be kind to him, and the simple and homely peasant life made him grow up hardy, active, and strong.
When at length he was old enough to leave his new home, he was sent to a boarding-school at St. Asaph. His foster-brother, Richard Price, carried the little fellow there on his shoulders, while a former nurse, Harriet Jones, went part of the way as an escort. St. Asaph was farther than John had ever yet been, and the way there must have seemed a long and strange pilgrimage to his childish mind. No doubt in after years, when he made his own toilsome way through prairie, forest, and desert, he gratefully remembered the kind folk who tried to make his first journey as easy and happy as could be.
On reaching the school, Richard Price handed over his charge and said good-bye, and John Rowlands was left to make his own way in his new surroundings. It was a severe change to come from the special love and care of his cottage home, and then to find himself just one in a crowd of boys who did not mind in the least whether he was happy or not. John, however, soon learnt how to look after himself. He was ready and keen in his work, and his pluck and vigour made him a leader among his schoolfellows. On the whole, his life at St. Asaph seems to have been a happy one, though his quick temper and masterful ways often made trouble for him.
After ten years at St. Asaph John went, at the age of sixteen, to be a pupil teacher under his cousin, who kept the National School at Mold. This arrangement, however, was not a success. The cousin appears to have been ill-natured and spiteful, and he tried in a mean way to put upon John more than his fair share of work. The boy's temper rebelled against such treatment, and there was a quarrel, which John ended by walking out of the house to fight his own way in the world.
To be alone on the highway, without a home, without a friend, and with only a few pence in his pocket, was a grim and serious plight for a lad of sixteen. John Rowlands, however, does not seem to have had any trouble at all in making up his mind what next to do, for he at once took the road to Liverpool. He had heard and read of young emigrants who had gone, poor and unknown, to America, and had come back rich and famous; and he determined to see if he could not do the same.
It was a long and weary tramp; and, at the end of it, there was no hope of a warm welcome, a good meal, and a comfortable bed. The great town of Liverpool, too, was large enough to swallow a hundred Denbighs; and its long streets of large buildings struck a cold and cheerless gloom into the heart of the lonely outcast. He asked his way through the town to the docks; and there he wandered about and watched the shipping at the wharves and in the Mersey tideway, till hunger and fatigue drove him back into the streets. Here a few pence bought him all the food he could afford; and then, when the dead of night made all things quiet, he stole up a side alley and slept in the shadow of a deep doorway.
Next morning he again went down to the docks, and found a trading ship about to start on her return voyage to New Orleans, with a number of emigrants on board. It was, of course, quite out of the question for John to pay his fare as an emigrant, and he wistfully watched the forlorn and homesick exiles troop over the gangway to their cramped and comfortless quarters on the lower deck. One or two of them were carrying in a single bundle all they had in the world, and John felt that even these were better off than himself. Then an idea struck him, and he asked some of the sailors if any more hands were wanted for the ship's crew. They took him to the captain, who liked the look of him, and said he might come on board as a cabin-boy and give work instead of money for his passage to America.
John thought himself in luck's way, though at first he could hardly believe it true. Soon, however, the ship was cast loose and hauled off the quay; then her bows slowly swung round to seaward, and she moved down the tideway, across the Mersey bar, and out to the open sea. In a few hours John saw the blue hills of his native land sink out of sight in the distance, and then he began to feel that he had lost a home.
The ship pitched and rolled as she plunged over the waves; and John, who was ordered here there and everywhere to do all kinds of drudgery, found it hard to keep his feet. But, however he felt, his work had to be done; and, though he often wished himself ashore, he struggled pluckily on. In reality he was better off than the emigrants. His work kept his mind off his own woes; and thus he soon found his "sea-legs," while many of the others lay groaning about the deck.
As the voyage wore on he became more used to the new life, and his work seemed easier. He was a quick and clever lad; and, by the time the ship was off the mouth of the Mississippi, he had become quite a handy sailor. Here they were taken in tow by a steam tug, which hauled them a hundred miles upstream, among the twists and turns and mudbanks of this most dangerous river. Sometimes they would be heading due north, and then in a few minutes they would come round a bend and go straight to the southward. The deep water was now on one side of the stream, now on the other. The mudbanks, too, were always changing and shifting, so that the least mistake of the pilot might run them aground. The river ran through a land of plains and forests so vast that John's little homeland valley might easily be lost in them. It was indeed a new world to him; and among other strange sights, he now for the first time saw negroes at work in the plantations, driven by white men with whips.
At New Orleans, John said good-bye to his shipmates and went ashore to seek his fortune. He was not long in finding work as a clerk in a merchant's office, and he soon showed that he was well worth his place. His employer, whose name was Stanley, had no children of his own; and he took such a fancy to John that he adopted him as his son. John Rowlands now changed his name to Henry Morton Stanley, and was looked upon as heir to his new father's fortune.
But the merchant died without making his will; and his relations, who divided his property among themselves, turned their backs upon his adopted son. Thus young Stanley, as John Rowlands must now be called, was once more left to make his own way.
Just at this time a civil war broke out in America. The Northern States were determined to unite together and to put down slavery in their land. The Southern States wanted to manage their own affairs and to keep their slaves. Young Stanley, who had grown accustomed to see human beings driven to labour like cattle under the whip, fought on the side of the South.
He served in the ranks of General Johnston's army till its defeat at Pittsburg in 1862, when he was taken prisoner with many of his comrades. While the convoy of captives filed past the bend of a river, Stanley suddenly broke away, dashed down the bank and plunged into the water. Shot after shot from the escort splashed the water in his face, but he swam across and escaped into cover unharmed. Then he made his way to the sea and worked for his passage home to North Wales.
After staying awhile with his mother, he went as a clerk under an uncle in Liverpool. But his roving spirit soon grew weary of office work, and once more he worked his passage over to New York. Here, he enlisted as a seaman in the navy of the Northern States, and was soon fighting against his former friends. In one month he was made clerk to the flagship Ticonderoga, and in four months he became the admiral's secretary.
One day he swam under fire to fix a rope to a ship which had been deserted by the enemy, and for this he was made an ensign. Thus when peace was made he returned to Wales as a naval officer, and once more saw his mother and friends. Once more too, but for the last time, he signed his name as "John Rowlands" in the visitors' book at Denbigh Castle, showing that he had not forgotten his old home. He also remembered his schooldays, and gave all the boys at St. Asaph's a generous treat.
Not long after this he left the United States navy, and in a short while became a war correspondent to the New York Herald. He was sent to Abyssinia with the British force under Napier; and he managed to send news of the victory at Magdala to the American papers a whole day before the battle was reported in London.
Stanley was now nearly thirty years old; but though his life had been spent in hard work and plucky adventure, it was still rather changeful and aimless. Soon, however, he was to find a brave and unselfish hero, whose nobler spirit laid hold of Stanley's nature and drew him to the work that brought him honour and greatness.