"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


stanley, interrupted

I don't have the slightest idea what to say about this:
As traditional dancers shake their bodies beside the Congo River in celebration of a 40-year-old museum opening to its public for the first time, one brooding man does not budge at all. A larger-than-life bronze statue of Henry Morton Stanley – the British explorer of "Dr Livingstone, I presume" fame, who carved out the country in 1885 with such scant regard for human life he earned himself the name "Breaker of Rocks" – lies uncomfortably on his back, a raised hand clutching a broken baton. His two feet are severed from him as if in ghastly tribute to the severed hands of the labourers punished during the unflinching horrors of Belgian rule over the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Under colonial rule, children's limbs were cut off, and one Belgian captain cherished a collection of severed African heads. Some military units were devoted solely to smoking the hands they'd amputated to preserve them as proof of action. In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad described the country's Belgian experience as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience".

Which is why it might seem strange that as DRC approaches the 50th anniversary of its independence from Belgium in June, the British have launched a tender to restore Stanley.

"I think the money could be better spent elsewhere than on restoring Stanley's statue," said Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost, a history of the country which argued 10 million Congolese died under Belgian rule as the king plundered the country's ivory, rubber and people for what would amount to $1.1bn in today's money.

...Now that Kinshasa's Institute of National Museums of Congo has opened to the public for the first time, Congolese wander the mango tree-filled grounds of Mobutu's former presidential park, passing the eye-catching, albeit discarded, bronze.

...For those at the museum, restoring Stanley is part of their duty to the relics of the past, however, and represents a fervent hope to move forwards. "People have accepted that Stanley played a big role for the Congo," said Professor Joseph Ibongo, director general of the museum. "Now people say he's a genocidaire. But our collection should be known to everyone. We have to fight to reduce the scars."

For the British and Belgian money backing the opening of the museum, restoring Stanley alongside other artefacts makes sense. "Clearly it wouldn't be right to restore Stanley and put him in the streets of Kinshasa, but he belongs here in a museum of Congo's history where people can have a scientific regard for him," said Viviane Baeke, curator at the Tervuren Museum in Belgium, who has helped curate the Kinshasa show.


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