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Henry Morton Stanley: statue or no statue?

Phil Carradice

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Most people have heard of Henry Morton Stanley. He was the man who was sent to find David Livingstone and supposedly greeted him with the words: "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"

It is quite possible that Stanley never uttered that immortal phrase but, perhaps more importantly, a row has recently broken out over a decision to erect a statue to the explorer in his hometown of Denbigh.

Stanley was, objectors say, a cruel racist who exploited the African peoples and should, therefore, not be commemorated in this way.

There can be no doubt that he was a hard task master - the explorer Richard Burton commented that "Stanley shoots Africans as if they were monkeys." Even if that horrible and starkly brutal statement was only partly true it sheds a more than unpleasant light on what Stanley and his compatriots were doing in their version of "muscular Christianity."

Born in 1841, the child of a 19-year-old unmarried mother, Stanley's real name was John Rowlands and by the age of five he was living in the workhouse of St Asaph. By determination and drive he educated himself, became a pupil teacher in the local National School and then worked his way on a cargo ship across the Atlantic.

He jumped ship in New Orleans, was befriended by a man called Stanley and duly took his name. After serving on both sides during the American Civil War he became a journalist and was taken up by Gordon Bennett - yes, that Gordon Bennett - then owner of the New York Herald.

It was Bennett who funded Stanley - and a pretty bottomless fund it turned out to be - to go and find Livingstone. The commission set Stanley on a path of writing and exploration that were to make his name. Before too long he was being sought out to organise and run expeditions in several different parts of Africa.

Perhaps his biggest error was failing to get out when he realised that his paymaster in the Congo, King Leopold of Belgium, was not motivated by religious and humanitarian motives but purely by personal greed.

Stanley remained on Leopold's payroll and, as a consequence, spent the last 15 years of his life trying to deflect the accusations of brutality and cruelty that, naturally enough, soon came his way.

Whether or not there should be a statue to the man is another matter. There are statues to people, all over the world, people who later proved to be rather less than perfect examples of humanity. The trouble with statues is that they are permanent, whereas reputations clearly aren't.

I would be the last person to condone some of the things Stanley and his fellow explorers reportedly did in the Congo and other places but they do have to be taken in the context of their times. Yes, he drove his native bearers with a ferocity and a viciousness that, these days, would never be tolerated. We can regret that, abhor it and despise the man's actions, but we cannot pretend it did not happen.

Perhaps a statue to the man would do little more than celebrate a dark moment in our history. But some of Stanley's achievements - marching thousands of miles to map the route of the River Congo to the sea; actually managing to locate Livingstone at Lake Tanganyika and so on - do need to be remembered.

Possibly the suggestion that, instead of a statue, a permanent exhibition should be mounted in Denbigh, giving both sides of the story and, importantly, putting the whole process into context, would be a better way forward.

At the end of the day statues are just bits of metal. They have their place and, obviously, they are still being commissioned and erected.

The dragon memorial by Dave Peterson to the Welsh Division at Mametz Wood on the Somme is a perfect example of an effective and emotive piece of sculpture - I hear of no-one objecting to this, even though it commemorates the deaths of thousands of young men in one of the bloodiest battles of World War One. And, then, even more recently, a statue was put up in Caerphilly to the late, great Tommy Cooper.

The difference with these examples is that they do not commemorate men (or women) who achieved their success on the blood and sweat of other people. And yet, in years to come, we might think differently, other evidence might come to the fore. And then what happens? Do we pull them down?

We have to think carefully about our memorials. I really don't know if Stanley deserves one or not. But what I do know is that his story, like that of the many hundreds who worked and walked with him through some of the hardest terrain in the world, does need to be told.

Read more on the story on the BBC Wales News website.

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