We find it easy in Wales to blame others for any harm done through colonisation of other countries by the British or other European Empires. We can paint a picture that is very black and white, charging the English or the Spanish say with imperialistic crimes while absolving ourselves of any culpability. The truth, however, can often be more subtle and when we begin to scratch the surface of history we find that we too, at times, had a share in the atrocities of the 18th and 19th centuries in places like Africa.

I was this week reminded of one period where a Welshman played an important role in colonising the Congo under the leadership of the Belgian King, Leopold II. ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume,’ is a phrase well known and represents a heroic picture of Christian missionaries on the African continent, but the man who uttered these words has a dark history attached to his name. H. M. Stanley played a central role in Leopold’s plans of making Congo a Belgian colony and used startling cruelty in the process. He was born in the north Wales town of Denbigh to a single mother. He ended up in the workhouse and then left his native Wales for the US. There he was adopted by an American and took on his name – Stanley.

He eventually became a journalist and was a correspondent covering the exploits of many expeditions to Africa. It was there that he was recruited by King Leopold and became a key component in the King’s plans of taking land off the tribal chiefs of the Congo. In defending his brutal way with the indigenous people Stanley said that ‘the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision’. One of his contemporaries said about him that he ‘shoots Africans as if they were monkeys’.

Today Denbighshire Council wish to erect a statue in honour of their son, H. M. Stanley. According to the local paper there is overwhelming support in the town for this. And we should remember what he did – but surely not celebrate it. For Stanley is no hero but rather a stain on our Welsh soul.


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