‘Visions and Revisions’: Wales, Empire, and the Fate of Henry Morton Stanley’s Statue
Despite the defeat of their cause in a public vote held in Denbigh the other day,(1) campaigners for the removal of the African explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s statue will take some grains of comfort. First, the vote was effectively forced by the vandalism of statues as part of the Black Lives Matter movement,(2) by the decision taken by Cardiff Council to remove the statue of Thomas Picton from the city hall,(3) by a petition of seven thousand signatures and more started by Simon Jenkins, which called for its removal from Denbigh town centre,(4) and by a longer campaign led by the artist Wanda Zyborska, who has repeatedly ‘re-veiled’ the statue in a rubber sheath.(5) Second, its fate was seen as being of such seriousness that Denbigh councillors preferred to defer to a public vote than to decide the matter themselves; and third, the counter-campaign for its preservation did not present itself as an endorsement of racism or imperialism as such, but as a refutation of false accusations concerning Stanley’s involvement in them. A noticeably superficial article in the Express finds Stanley innocent of the violence which occurred in the Belgian Congo after he had left, without considering the greater part of the evidence against him.(6) As Francis Fukuyama says, those who defend non-democratic forms of government against the moral claims made in favour of liberal democracy have been reduced to special pleading,(7) but Fukuyama’s prediction of the global victory of democracy fails to foresee the rise of populism in the West.
In the comments section which follows a news article about the vote in Nation Cymru,(8) the spirit of populism seems alive and well. The charge of ‘revisionism’ is repeatedly and vociferously brought against those who favour the statue’s removal, even though it is easily dismissed because the statue was only erected in 2011 and because Stanley’s cruelty and rapacity appalled even his own contemporaries.(9) The claim that campaigners for an acknowledgement of the evils of imperialism or its heritage of racism should be seeking to bury unsavoury facts or to whitewash their own nation’s history seems as morally ill-intentioned as it is factually absurd, and such revisionism is more easily imputed to imperialism’s defenders. The Colonial and Foreign Office destroyed records of imperial atrocities rather than allowing them into the hands of its newly-independent colonies, effectively destroying the right of those nations to study their own history,(10) and the article in the Express which I refer to above seems to foment misunderstanding, speaking of ‘tearing down’ a statue which Simon Jenkins merely wants ‘removed’ from its ‘pride of place’ in ‘the centre of town.’ One suspects that Stanley’s critics ‘rewrite history’ to the same extent that Remainers ‘betray Britain’ by referring to the mendacity and corruption that enabled the Brexit vote,(11) and as Hannah Arendt points out, populism screeches the sanctity of the plebiscite even as it strangles democratic debate.(12)
If the charge of revisionism is dismissed as malicious, the moral imperative to remove his statue remains, for Stanley was a rapist, a murderer, a barbarian, and a thug.(13) To celebrate him is to celebrate slavery and mass slaughter, and it is worth bearing in mind Arendt’s definition of fascism, the open practice in Europe of what other empires practiced more discreetly against the supposedly inferior races overseas.(14) To deny all this is to knowingly turn away from a recognition of Welsh participation in injustice, injuring our ability to understand and see, and conniving in our own deception.(15)
But if it is a duplicitous and cowardly act, it is also a deeply foolish one, for if we celebrate our participation in a brutal and reprehensible empire, we authorise our own oppression by the English crown and the British state also, both in the past and whenever we are subjected to it in the future. It is the novelist and playwright, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who made me aware of the beating of Kikuyu speakers in colonial Kenyan schools, who explicitly compared that violence with the violence perpetrated against the speakers of the Celtic languages under the bata scoir and the Welsh Not,(16) and who convinced me that Wales remained a colony of England after their so-called union.(17) In Denbigh we voted for the right of the strong to exploit the weak, and as a small and impoverished nation we will surely suffer for it.
- 26th October 2021.
- Claire Selvin and Tessa Solomon, ‘Toppled and Removed Monuments: A Continually Updated Guide to Statues and the Black Lives Matter Protests.’ ArtNews, 11th June 2020.
- Emily Goddard, ‘Sir Thomas Picton: Statue of “sadistic slave owner” to be removed in Cardiff.’ Independent, 24th July 2020.
- Simon Jenkins, ‘Remove the statue of Stanley from Denbigh town centre.’ Petition on change.org, dated more than one year ago.
- Wanda Zyborska, ‘“Re-veiling” commemorates the truth of statues.’ ArtsProfessional, 10th June 2021.
- See Isabella Marsans, ‘Culture wars: Stanley statue faces removal amid slave trade claims.’ Express, 28th July 2021.
- See the opening pages of Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.
- ‘Denbigh votes to keep controversial H.M Stanley statue after 7,000 signature petition to remove it.’ Nation Cymru, 27th October 2021.
- see Daniel Waweru, ‘Stanley doesn’t merit a statue.’ The Guardian, 31st August 2010.
- Ian Cobain, Owen Bowcott and Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes.’ The Guardian, 18th April 2012.
- Chloe Farand, ‘Quarter of Brexit voters say they were misled, poll finds.’ Independent, 22nd August 2017. Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘Vote Leave broke electoral law and British democracy is shaken.’ The Guardian, 17th June 2018. Richard Porritt, ‘Leave.EU comms chief praises Nazi’s propaganda.’ The New European, 16th April 2018. Patrick Wintour, ‘Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate report.’ The Guardian, 10th January 2018. Rob Merrick, Brexit: ‘Leave “very likely” won EU referendum due to illegal overspending, says Oxford professor’s evidence to High Court.’ Independent, 5th December 2018. Martin Fletcher, ‘Dominic Cummings has admitted the Leave campaign won by lying – we should never forgive him.’ The New Statesman, 23rd July 2021.
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2017. p. 138.
- Ciaran Conliffe, ‘Henry Stanley, The Man Who Stole The Congo.’ HeadStuff, 25th August 2018. Marcus Rutherford, ‘Should Henry Morton Stanley’s statue be pulled down?’ The Spectator, 7th August 2021.
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2017. pp. 163, 206, 209, 504.
- Such national self-deception is discussed in Kate Connolly, ‘Britain’s view of its history “dangerous”, says former museum director.’ The Guardian, 7th October 2016. Matt Broomfield, ‘Britons suffer “historical amnesia” over atrocities of their former empire, says author.’ The Independent, 6th March 2017. Shashi Tharoor, ‘“But what about the railways...?” The myth of Britain’s gifts to India.’ The Guardian, 8th March 2017. Gideon Rachman, ‘Brexit reinforces Britain’s imperial amnesia.’ Financial Times, 27th March 2017.
- See, for example, Wanjiku Maina, ‘Ngugi wa Thiong’o: We have normalised negativity towards African languages.’ Nation, 8th February 2019.
- The case that England annexed the Celtic nations for their natural resources, destroyed their industries, and subjected their cultures and peoples to racism, is also made in Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. For John Davies also, the British state’s policy of seeking the deliberate extinction of the Welsh language was motivated by a desire to control the Welsh nation’s natural resources, and was justified by the supposed inferiority of the people of Wales as a race. See John Davies, A History of Wales. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993. pp. 387, 455-456.