Letter from Kinshasa: on the trail of Henry Morton Stanley

Welsh-born explorer and journalist Stanley was employed in 1879 by the crown prince of Belgium, Leopold II, to annex Congo on his behalf.

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I held on tight in my seat on the road from Kinshasa International Airport as beaten-up cars and minibuses wove around pedestrians, goats and Kalashnikov-waving militiamen. I work as a biomedical researcher, seeking new cures for human African trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, a disease transmitted by the tsetse fly. Most of the world’s cases of sleeping sickness are found here, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was the Victorian explorer David Livingstone who, over 150 years ago, recognised the importance of tsetse flies in carrying disease. Livingstone and his fellow travellers left a lasting legacy, not least because their explorations helped define the map of Africa today.

One of Livingstone’s travel companions was Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-born explorer and journalist who in 1879 was employed by the crown prince of Belgium, Leopold II, to annex Congo on his behalf. Stanley made his way up the River Congo, negotiating with local chiefs the rights to their lands, people and resources – often in exchange for little more than a bottle of gin and a yard of cloth. Whole populations of villages were killed when they objected. Perhaps, some have suggested, Stanley exaggerated his cruelty to sell more books. In any case, Leopold then imposed a brutal system of forced labour in the Congo, attracting international condemnation.

Even after independence in 1960 the violence continued. The first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. In 1965 Mobutu Sese Seko seized control and sought to re-Africanise the state. Both the country and the river were renamed Zaire. Leopoldville, the capital, became Kinshasa, and Stanleyville, on the river bend, Kisangani.

A statue of Stanley, erected in Leopoldville in 1956 on the spot where he built his first post, was taken down in 1971. Mobutu plundered the country for 32 years and his successors have done much the same.

So when I arrived at the national museum, built on that same hill where Stanley placed his post, I had a surprise: there was a statue of that old bastard, Leopold, sitting proudly on a horse.

I asked my guide, Marie-Ange, about Stanley. “Il est là!” she replied. Tucked away behind the building was the giant bronze statue of the explorer, lying face up, having been cut off at the feet. How symbolic, I thought, seeing Congo’s slayer slain.“Non!” Marie-Ange exclaimed. “We must restore this statue. Stanley did bad things to Congo’s people. But we must preserve history and learn from its lessons.”

Museum staff are desperate to find the cash needed to get Stanley back on his plinth; they estimate they need as much as $28,000 to do so. In 2010, when the museum first opened to the public, the British embassy in Kinshasa sought funds to restore the statue, but a number of people, including Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold’s Ghost, a book that brought the horrors of the Belgian Congo to a new readership, vociferously opposed the resurrection and the opportunity was lost. The Congolese are stuck trying to find other funders.

Desecration of statues easily becomes symbolic of regime change – just consider the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003 in Baghdad. Some statues remain, however. Livingstone, for one, continues to look out over the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Statues of Hitler and Stalin are unlikely to be erected in Warsaw despite the role these tyrants played in the building of the Polish state. But what about Auschwitz? It has been retained as a memorial to the horrors of genocide.

Which is, I think, Marie-Ange’s point. Don’t hide from history; there is much that we must learn. 

This article appears in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?