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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