Apology for a colonial brute
Posted Saturday, January 10 2009 at 16:12
Particularly troubling in Stanley is Jeal’s failure to situate Stanley, Livingstone and other early European explorers as the pathways to the colonisation and exploitation of Africa by Europe.
In Stanley’s case, apart from his connivance with Arab and European enslavers of Africans, it is impossible to separate him from the brutal fate of the Congo.
It was his work that led King Leopold II of Belgium to the Congo and the utter devastation of the region and its people. It was Stanley who set the example, stage and tone for the brutalities and pogroms of the Belgians in the Congo.
Any attempt that sidesteps or apologises for this inescapable connection between Stanley and colonialism is an inexcusable nod at crimes against humanity.
Jeal makes passing references to what he calls the predicament of Stanley and other early colonialists in Africa. He fails to situate the Stanley expeditions in their right historical context.
Here were hordes of uninvited and invading Europeans on the African continent.
If anything, Jeal proceeds as though the Europeans have a more superior moral claim to Africa than Africans themselves. That is why he tells the story of Stanley from the colonialist’s viewpoint, and treats Africans as fodder in the larger European mission of civilisation of the native.
There is surprisingly little reflection in Jeal’s Stanley about the fate of Africa and the role that the early European adventurists played in its construction.
At the very least, this is either an attempt at amnesia or simply bad scholarship on the part of a supposedly respected author. Since Stanley represents the point of cultural contact – and civilisational clash – between Africa and the West, it behoves the author to deliberate on the meaning of that encounter and its historical meaning.
Rather than lament that some writers now unfairly demonise Stanley – whom Jeal would have us believe was a saintly explorer – the author should have set aside any personal agendas and let history speak for itself. Instead, Jeal writes a political book in defence of a historical monster.
I do not deny that there is a place in scholarship for the reinterpretation of history, particularly of notable figures and their roles. But authors have to be careful that they are not so possessed with the desire to defend their icons that they lose sight of the moral purpose of scholarship.
The evidence of history, including in Stanley’s own words, is so overwhelming that a complete rewrite of the narrative – which is what Jeal attempts – is not convincing. Nothing is served – except the agenda of European exceptionalism – when a writer of repute resorts to such an untenable project.
Nor can racists, particularly of the harsh imperial hue of the brutal 19th century, be easily humanised. If Jeal’s attempt was the resurrection of a humane Stanley, then I must judge him a complete failure.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission