The famous things they never said

The mystery of a famous quotation that cannot actually be found

I recently received a message from a radio reporter researching a piece on Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of the Congo. Could I help her track down a famous quote? The occasion was Independence Day, 30 June 1960, when an irate Lumumba informed Belgium's visiting monarch: "Nous ne sommes plus vos singes" - "We are no longer your monkeys." This public rebuke signalled the end of an era of colonial deference. It also probably helped sign the death warrant of the troublesome Lumumba, later assassinated by a breakaway Congolese regime that enjoyed Belgium's support.

The trouble was that my reporter friend could find no trace of the remark in the text of Lumumba's speech - a real Martin Luther King flight of passionate rhetoric, now available on the internet. Not in the French version, nor in the English version. Was it possible Lumumba had never actually said it? I checked. She was right: there was no trace of the "monkeys" quotation.

It isn't the first time I've encountered this baffling phenomenon. Question marks hang over many of Africa's best-known, oft-cited quotations, although Kenyan writers tell me there is no doubt that the nation's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, told white settlers after the horrors of the Mau Mau emergency that his countrymen would "forgive, but not forget", demonstrating a pragmatism that has been Kenya's hallmark ever since. However, an Eritrean academic says he has never been able to track down the origins of an infamous remark, universally attributed to the US secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who supposedly admitted in 1952 that while the Eritrean people had every right to decide their own future, his country's "strategic interests" made it necessary for the former Italian colony to be amalgamated with Ethiopia. Such cynical real politik doomed both nations to decades of bitter separatist struggle.

Similarly, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, labelled an Aids denier by activists, never actually said: "HIV doesn't cause Aids." He was making instead a more complicated argument - if not a particularly helpful one, given the rates of infection in his country - about the difference between a virus and a syndrome.

To the journalist or historian, this kind of uncertainty is as exasperating as it is unnerving. What can be said with any confidence about the past? Can any of it be trusted?

The truth is we are probably being over-literal. For what the most iconic quotations share is the extent to which they encapsulate feelings and ideas ingrained in the national psyche - mostly, in Africa's case, feelings of betrayal and disappointment at the continent's treatment by the outside world. They have become part of foundation myths, integral to the way communities see themselves. And how people perceive their own history is far more important, when it comes to engaging with their governments, than the endlessly nuanced reality of what actually happened.

The Olympics provided an example of this. The fact that Chinese fans sitting in the stands saw the event as their chance to vindicate centuries of humiliation by the west came as a revelation to many viewers. What, China feels humiliated? The superpower whose economic heft and unstoppable momentum reduce western governments to a state of terror? The explanation provided - that this national sensitivity could be traced all the way back to the Opium Wars - does not, to my mind, make this scenario any more comprehensible. But it doesn't matter. Western policymakers and chief executives will in future clearly have to engage with this superpower they so fear on the premise that it has the mother of all inferiority complexes. They will ignore the sentiment at their peril.

Maybe Lumumba never actually said to King Baudouin: "We are no longer your monkeys." (I'd be very happy, by the way, if a reader could settle this one.) Or perhaps he let fly after delivering his formal speech. Maybe the "monkey" formulation was actually coined by the Congolese delegates present that day, summarising what their fiery prime minister had in effect told a resented former colonial master. The quotation, whether embroidered, edited, or entirely invented, has now taken on a life of its own, more concrete and authentic than the event itself.