Henry Morton Stanley’s popular fame is based on the words which he claims to have uttered on finding the long-lost explorer: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”. As with much of what Stanley wrote, the veracity of this claim is questionable.
For five years Stanley was king Leopold II of Belgium’s main man in the Congo. The colonisation, pillaging of ivory and rubber, atrocities and genocide under Leopold amount to Africa’s “hidden holocaust” (see King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild).
The town council in Denbigh is now proposing to erect a bronze statue to Stanley in a central place at the top of the town. Those of us arguing against the statue see it as an unequivocal endorsement of Stanley and all he stood for.
Instead, an interpretive centre, along the lines of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, would be able to present and debate different viewpoints on Stanley and the whole wider question of European involvement in Africa.
The controversy about the statue is a microcosm of a number of fundamental political debates. Concentration on Stanley the individual misses the wider structural questions about colonisation and can distract from the issue of how we perceive European imperialism.
Who’s the barbarian?
Here Stanley’s own words are indicative of a more general attitude. On trying out the Maxim gun, which fired 600 rounds a minute, Stanley said the new gun would be “of valuable service in helping civilisation to overcome barbarism”.
Stanley saw Africa as “unpeopled country” and believed explicitly in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. Native cultures, including Welsh, he regarded as inherently inferior.
From the standpoint of the colonised there is little to celebrate about imperialism, especially in the Congo. Throughout Europe attitudes to racism and imperialism have changed since Victorian times. Today’s evolving Welsh consciousness engenders a critical perspective on imperialism, more in tune with that of the colonised peoples.
In contrast, Denbigh Town Council intends taking the retrograde step of making an unequivocal hero out of a racist figure from an inglorious imperial past.
The council should treat cautiously the advice of metropolitan academics who can’t see the wood for the trees. Beware of whitewashing imperialism. Needless to say, justifying the imperialism of the past provides today’s imperialists with their “justification”.