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I. Le passé colonial, entre oubli et réappropriation / The Colonial Past, between Forgetting and Re-appropriation

Commemorating Colonialism in a Post-Colonial World



Les colonialistes érigèrent des monuments, statues et autres édifices à la mémoire de l’empire. Depuis la fin de la décolonisation, la construction des lieux de mémoire s’est pourtant poursuivie, avec l’apport de la commémoration des nationalismes anti-coloniaux et des mouvements d’indépendance. Cependant, les dernières réalisations en date révèlent les paradoxes et défis à l’oeuvre dans les tentatives de monumentaliser le colonialisme ou l’anti-colonialisme. Les monuments construits à la mémoire de Léopold, le roi des Belges, ou à celles des explorateurs Henry Morton Stanley et Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, sont révélateurs du chantier monumental post-colonial et ses implications pour l’histoire et la mémoire des empires d’outre-mer.

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  • 1  An earlier version of this article appeared in Ex Plus Ultra, vol. 3 (2012), online.
  • 2  On the 1931 exposition, see Lebovics; Hodeir and Pierre; and Morton.

1Eighty years ago, Parisians, other French people and tourists from far beyond flocked to the Bois de Vincennes to ‘see the whole world in a single day’, as the advertisements boasted.1 Their destination was the Exposition Coloniale Internationale, the grandest colonial jamboree ever held in France and, arguably, in all of Europe. Visitors marvelled at a reconstruction of the temple of Angkor Wat (suitably flood-lit in the evening), they queued for the pavilions of Algeria, Tunisia, the Congo, Tahiti and all of the other French colonies, and some of the colonies of other powers as well. They applauded performances of Khmer dancers, saluted African soldiers (the tirailleurs sénégalais) on parade, and gawked at ‘real’ African villages reconstructed on the shores of Lac Daumesnil. They bought souvenirs in a mock North African souk, sampled rum punch at a makeshift West Indian restaurant, and said prayers at a church constructed for the exposition, Notre-Dame des Missions—one of the few surviving buildings from the fair (now standing in Épinay-sur-Seine). Another of the remaining buildings is what was the Musée colonial, boasting a beautifully carved bas-relief (the largest in the world) on the outside showing the products that the colonies gave France—coffee and sugar, nickel and phosphate, rubber and ebony, and all the rest of the treasure trove of commodities. A mural covering the walls of the salle des fêtes portrayed what France gave the colonies—law and order, justice, medicine, education, research. (The building now, somewhat curiously, houses the Cité nationale d’histoire de l’immigration.)2

  • 3  See Geppert ; Swift.
  • 4  See Davison; Vann; Longair.

2The 1931 exposition was one of many, in France and elsewhere—Wembley, near London, in 1924, Lisbon in 1940, for instance—that celebrated colonialism.3 Indeed, a major task colonial lobbies took on was to celebrate the overseas empires, promoting the benefits of colonial expansion, recruiting support for the imperial cause, and showing off the achievements of the civilising mission. Exhibitions, colonial institutes, colonial training academies, journals, museums and monuments all counted among the ways in which pro-colonial propaganda could be disseminated to the public. They were paralleled by actions overseas, such as colonial fairs held in such places as Zanzibar, Hanoi and Melbourne.4 Many traces of these efforts, colonial sites of memory, remain on the European landscape and in the built heritage of colonised countries.  

3Amidst the colonial boosterism, however, fair-goers could also visit the occasional anti-colonial exhibition. At the time of the Paris Exposition Coloniale in 1931, one such exhibition was organised by surrealists and Communists. Much smaller (essentially just a couple of rooms) and far less well attended that the spectacle in the Bois de Vincennes, the anti-colonial exhibition displayed photographs and reports of labour exploitation, mistreatment of colonised people, and poverty in the colonised world. Images and objects revealed the other side of colonialism. Perhaps there were other formal anti-colonial exhibitions as well—there is little research on the subject—and certainly those opposed to colonialism used such forums as newspapers, artwork and political meetings to expose the evils of imperialism, providing a dissident view on the empire.

  • 5  See Aldrich, 2005. The French translation, Les Traces coloniales dans le paysage français (Paris: (...)
  • 6  On colonial monuments and motifs elsewhere, see Stanard, and Silverman; also von Henneberg, Triulz (...)

4With decolonisation, the triumphalist representations of colonialism in Europe and in the colonised world became anachronistic, embarrassing and, especially in the former colonies, offensive. In France, officials in the early 1960s renamed the old colonial museum the Musée des arts d’Asie et d’Océanie and kept its salle des fêtes, with its grandiose mural, closed to visitors for a number of years. (Nothing could be done about the bas-relief outside.) They sandblasted the names of colonial heroes off the side of the old Ecole coloniale set up near the Luxembourg Gardens in the 1980s. Some monuments to colonial worthies were shifted to obscure locations, while others remained in public view, though the deeds and men they celebrated were increasingly unrecalled. Occasionally, there were attacks on colonial monuments; in Paris, unknown persons in the 1970s dynamited away a statue of Captain Marchand from the memorial located outside the colonial museum that commemorated his expedition, a cross-Africa trek that came head-to-head with Kitchener at Fashoda in 1898.5 In other cities, monuments to colonialism were defaced. In Rome marble tablets recounting the Italian conquest of Ethiopia are often covered with graffiti, and someone poured red paint over a statue of King Leopold, master of the Belgian Congo, in Oostende.6 The curators of museums established in the colonial era in Paris, the Africa Museum in Tervuren (a suburb of Brussels) and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam faced the problem of revamping exhibitions for a post-imperial age—of decolonising their museums—a difficult undertaking given the nature of the collections (and buildings) and of the still raw wounds left by the end of empire (Aldrich, ‘Colonial Museums’; Ford). In Germany, in the city of Bremen, a statue of an elephant unveiled in 1932 as a memorial to soldiers killed in war and to the lost German colonies was rebadged in 1990 as an anti-colonial monument. Six years later, Namibian President Sam Nujoma, standing alongside the Bremen mayor, unveiled a plaque in front of the elephant dedicated to the ‘Victims of German Colonial Rule in Namibia 1884-1914’(Van der Heyden and Zeller 173).Monumental revisionism thus takes many forms.

5In the former colonial world, leaders generally wanted to celebrate anti-colonialism: the struggles against imperialists, the heroism and martyrdom of freedom fighters and founders of newly independent countries. In places where decolonisation had been a relatively peaceful process, old monuments and museum collections remained more or less intact; a grand statue of Queen Victoria, for example, still reigns outside the parliament house in Mauritius. In other places, greater attempts were made to efface the proud symbols of colonialism. The Vietnamese, for example, renamed streets honouring French figures and removed colonialist statues—those of Pasteur, honouring his medical work, stand among the few left in place. A similar process took place in Algeria, though the French rescued much of the old colonial statuary in 1962, transporting dozens of war memorials and figures of colonial luminaries back to France (many eventually to be re-erected there). One monument dedicated to the glory of French colonialism they left behind was simply covered in concrete by the Algerians.

  • 7  On monuments and museums in Vietnam, see Hue-Tam Ho Tai; also Sutherland, Schwenkel, and Logan.

6Independent states wanted to mark their landscape with monumental celebrations of their successful campaigns and heroes. In Hanoi, the displays in the national museum of Vietnamese history excoriate French colonialism, hail the work of soldiers and peasants in the wars against the French and Americans, and pay respect to opponents of colonial and neo-colonial intervention. The celebration of resistance is echoed in other museums in the city, and the massive mausoleum built to entomb the remains of Ho Chi Minh is one of the most grandiose structures, and most visited sites, in the capital of the former Indochina.7

7Monuments celebrate anti-colonialism and nationalism throughout the former colonies. On the heights of Algiers rises a ninety-two-metre tall concrete structure in the shape of three palm leaves sheltering an eternal flame, the Martyrs’ Memorial unveiled in 1982, the thirtieth anniversary of Algeria’s independence (Ceylik).Near Independence Square in Accra there is the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and Memorial Park, the burial site of the first president of Ghana. (Overthrown in a 1966 coup, Nkrumah died in Romania and was buried in Guinea, his remains only returned to Ghana twenty years later.) A statue of Nkrumah, dressed in African robes, stands on the site where he proclaimed Ghana’s independence in 1957, and an underground museum preserves his personal possessions. A huge construction apparently represents upturned swords symbolising peace. Leading to the central monument is an avenue of statues portraying kneeling Africans playing flutes.8 In Windhoek, in the former German Southwest Africa, the government dedicated a ‘Heroes Acre’ in 2002. The site of Namibia’s national war memorial covers a huge area, incorporating a graveyard. The tallest element is an obelisk of marble and granite with an eight-metre tall statue of an unknown soldier—designed by a North Korean firm, it is perhaps predictably, in socialist realist style. A bas-relief recounting the history of Namibia’s struggle for independence against South Africa, an eternal flame and a museum complete the installation.9 An Asian example is the National Monument (Monas) in Jakarta, a column towering over Merdeka (Freedom) Square, with an observation deck and gilded flame on top, and a museum underneath. A bas-relief at the base chronicles the history of Indonesia from the fourteenth-century Majapahit empire onwards. The column itself, resembling a lingam and yoni, was inspired by Hindu imagery. A complex numerology based on the date of the declaration of Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945 determined the height, surface area and decoration (such as the number of feathers on a gilded garuda).10

8I will cite just one more example, a variation from these intentionally looming structures: a small, rather stubby and unassuming little monument, a sort of shortened obelisk, located near Bandiagara, Mali, in the former French Soudan. It is inscribed, very simply, ‘aux martyrs et victimes du colonialisme’. Little information on the monument is available, but it remains a powerful commemoration. The language is notable– ‘martyrs’ and ‘victims’ are strong words–but the fact that it does not name names makes it somehow universal in its remembrance. And the modest form, poignant in simplicity and an unassuming but clearly legible style, and its erection on a dusty West African landscape, differentiates it from the grandiose (and, it must be said, pompous) form of the Martyrs’ Memorial in Algiers, the Heroes Acre in Windhoek and the Monas monument in Jakarta.

9Though these provide only a few instances of anti-colonial monuments, several observations suggest themselves. One concerns the adoption of an at least partly Western mode of commemoration and architectural vocabulary, which is not to say that Algerian, Indonesian or other cultures lacked indigenous traditions of built commemoration. But the column and the obelisk are omnipresent in the Western commemorative landscape, as are statues of national heroes and such accompanying devices as eternal flames, historical bas-reliefs, tributes to soldiers and political leaders, and cordoned-off shrines of remembrance. A second point is that these structures show how much monument-building became part of the process of nation-building with the erection of mausoleums, monuments and other sites, an effort to mark the cityscape, popular consciousness and the national heritage with dramatic (indeed often towering) symbols of anti-colonialism and independence. These sites, though perhaps no more so than the colonialist exemplars in Europe, take an orthodox historical approach. The view is definitely of the ‘great man in history’—Ho or Nkrumah—and the greatness of the struggle. Homage is paid to soldiers and martyrs, and the implicit or explicit message underlines the nobility and virtue of the cause. From a historiographical point of view, this represents a rather old-fashioned narrative in stone or bronze, one that accords with a ‘party-line’ position on national liberation (sometimes literally so in the case of one-party states). There persists a certain binary between colonising and colonised, bad and good, the colonial epoch and the period of national independence.

10Perhaps inevitably, colonialist celebration is simply upended to become a celebration of anti-colonialism, each certain of its veracity and, ironically, bearing many of the same tropes: heroic language, central locations, nationalist focus, imposing imagery, and the grandeur of the constructions.

11The cases of Algeria, Vietnam and Indonesia typify a particularly rocky path from the campaign for independence down to the present day. The regimes that have ruled in those countries and that put up the monuments hardly encourage pluralistic interpretations about the national past or a questioning of official political narratives. Examples from other independent countries with a different post-colonial trajectory, such as India or Senegal, would certainly show a different sort of monumentalisation and a perhaps more contested and contexted presentation of national history, and of colonial figures and events.

  • 11  See Ginio; another site of interest in Dakar is presented in Foster.  

12As time passes, the way that colonial history is envisioned changes, both in Europe and in the formerly colonised world. In recent years, as a case in point, authorities in Dakar re-erected in the central part of the city a First World War memorial to French and Senegalese soldiers, a monument which, after Senegalese independence in 1960, had initially been moved to a peripheral area of the capital.11 The relocation of ‘Demba and Dupont’, as the monument is affectionately nicknamed, says something about the ties that have continued to bind Senegal and France—such ties are themselves the subject of scholarly and political debate (Aldrich, ‘When Did Decolonization End?’)—and about the move towards a new perspective on colonial heritage, both in terms of the material vestiges of colonialism and in how the colonial period fits into the longue durée.

  • 12  Mangin. On French heritage policy in the colonies, see also Aldrich,‘France and the Patrimoine of (...)

13Similarly, many old colonial buildings in places such as Hanoi have been lovingly restored over the past twenty years—in the case of the Vietnamese capital, an architectural heritage that had declined into disrepair before the authorities recognised its aesthetic and historical value, and also the commercial value in renovation of the central city as a lure for tourists.12 It would take a dyspeptic critic to see this as just pandering to colonial chic, Raj nostalgia in Indochinese style, because perhaps something more subtle is taking place: an evolving and more complicated view of the national (and colonial) past and its artefacts. Renovating the grand Metropole Hotel or the municipal theatre in Hanoi does not imply a celebration of empire, nor does it symbolise a rejection of the anti-colonialism that tourists see celebrated elsewhere in the city, but maybe it does indicate a greater integration of the colonial heritage into the narrative of a rapidly evolving country now separated by more than half a century from the departure of the French (Ravi; McClellan).

14Commemorating colonialism (and anti-colonialism) decades after the end of empire, and in a political situation and culture where many of the hard-and-fast certainties championed by colonialists and anti-colonialists appear less sure, poses a difficult assignment. We are now at a great chronological remove from the zeniths of colonial and anti-colonial efforts, and yet an urge to monumentalise has not disappeared. Efforts to commemorate anti-colonialism still occur, a recent one offered by the unveiling in 2007 of a statue of a Mau Mau leader in Nairobi. Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, executed for treason in 1957 and buried in an unmarked prison grave, is memorialised in a two-metre tall bronze figure, according to a Reuters report, ‘with his trademark dreadlocks, wearing military fatigues and holding a homemade rifle in his right hand and a dagger in his left’. A number of veteran Mau Mau fighters attended the unveiling, at which Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki said, ‘We are honouring a great man who not only sacrificed his life for the liberation of Kenya but also inspired others to fight against oppression’. The Reuters press report noted, however, that not all Kenyans had supported the Mau Mau rebellion.13 Various aspects of the movement and its repression are subjects of great discord among political figures as well as historians, yet the legacy remains alive. In 2012, the British High Court agreed that several veterans of the rebellion are legally entitled to sue the British government for compensation for the torture suffered at the hands of the colonisers.

  • 14  On these debates, see Vance.  

15If monuments to anti-colonialism rise, there are also some rather surprising—shocking may be a more appropriate word—diehard celebrations of colonialism. This has been particularly the case in France, where small groups of pieds-noirs and their supporters, often allied with far-right-wing political parties, have tried, successfully or not, to put up monuments in memory of the Organisation Armée Secrète, a terrorist group that battled against French withdrawal from Algeria in 1962 with tactics ranging from an attempt to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle to the burning of the Algiers library. Several were convicted and executed by the French state for their terrorism, particularly for the attack on de Gaulle, whom they considered a traitor. Moves in France have been undertaken to put up monuments in memory of the men whom a minority of rapatriés consider martyrs to Algérie Française, and victims of French repression and abandonment oftheir North African homeland. Pieds-noirs and others have also tried to establish a museum dedicated to French Algeria in the city of Perpignan, an initiative that, in some ways, seems a relatively unreconstructed version of colonial cheering. These efforts have interlocked with intense debate in France since the late 1990s about the imperial past, focussing on such historical issues as slavery, the record of the French army in the empire, and torture during the Algerian war. They connect to political debates on multiculturalism, migration, and the controversy surrounding a 2005 law acknowledging the ‘positive’ aspects of colonialism.14

16Debates, emotions, and indeed, the monumental commemorations of empire are all messy and conflicted, perhaps mirroring the uncertainties of a post-colonial (or post-post-colonial) age and mindset. How can and should empire be remembered today? How is it recollected in the public sphere, in monuments and museums, in history texts and novels, on television and in film? How does it get translated into demands for recognition, apology, compensation and the restitution of artefacts? How has it become a question preoccupying political leaders and activists, but also lawyers and judges, as well as historians? At no time since the heyday of decolonisation has the colonial legacy attracted so much attention in academia and in the public forum. But at no time has it been so difficult to work out exactly how to commemorate that heritage.

  • 15  See The Art Newspaper, September 2011.
  • 16  There are a number of works about the Quai Branly museum; a good starting point is Sally Price, Pa (...)

17The questions touch on many issues. One thinks, for instance, about the rise and fall of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol—its inception, the types of exhibits it displayed and the reactions they engendered, its closure, and recent judicial issues related to the disposal of its collection.15 And, if the Empire Museum had a fraught life, and may continue to have a fraught afterlife, then cases elsewhere show the challenges in recollecting colonialism. In France, a plan to establish a colonial commemorative site in Marseilles has been permanently scuppered because of inability to resolve questions about what it was (a museum, a monument or an historial, a French hybrid), about who would determine its character (scholars, municipal or national authorities, pieds-noirs or others personally implicated in colonialism), and what purpose it would serve. Meanwhile, in its first few years of existence, the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, which brought together ethnographic collections from the former Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie and the Musée de l’Homme, was so controversial for scholars and commentators (though it proved an undoubted crowd-pleaser) that it has inspired a minor cottage industry in writing about its history, policies, collections, architecture and very raison d’être.16

18The contemporary challenges and paradoxes of commemorating (or celebrating?) the colonial past—colonialist, anti-colonialist, post-colonialist—can be illustrated through several recent developments concerning memorials to King Leopold of the Belgians, Henry Morton Stanley and the French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza.

19Matthew G. Stanard, a historian of the Belgian colonial empire, has considered colonial aspects of statues of Leopold, the monarch who established the Congo Free State as his personal African fiefdom, then in the face of international condemnation of labour conditions there, made it a Belgium colony (which it remained until 1960). Stanard warns that scholars must exercise caution in ascribing colonialist motives or memories to commemorations of Leopold. He points out, however, how colonialism nevertheless figured explicitly in a monument to Leopold in Oostende, which has a sculpture group of Congolese along with a colonial official. He documents that this memorial was attacked in 2004, and Leopold’s hand was hacked off, though it was soon replaced by former colonials. He also discussed the incident of blood-red blood poured on another statue of the king, as mentioned earlier. Such actions show the conflicted view of colonialism, and the contested nature of surviving monuments that seem to allude, in positive terms, to colonial triumphs and achievements (Stanard).

20Stanard’s article does not evoke, except in passing, statues of Leopold in the Congo itself. In Kinshasa, the Belgians erected a six-metre tall equestrian statue of Leopold, which was removed in 1967 on the orders of President Mobutu Sese Seko. A statue of Laurent Kabila, the Congolese president assassinated in 2001, ultimately occupied the plinth.Curiously, in early 2005, the Congolese Minister of Culture decided to re-erect the statue of King Leopold near Kinshasa’s railway station. Not all of the ministers apparently agreed, and the statue remained in place for only a few hours in the face of a public outcry. The minister stated, somewhat disingenuously, that the statue had, in fact, only been put up as a temporary measure ‘to see if the concrete [base] could support the weight’. But he added that people should be able to see the bad as well as the good side of their past, and implied that the statue would indeed once again be erected, more permanently, though this seems not to have occurred.17

  • 18 The Independent, 30 June 2010.

21Leopold’s great-grandnephew and successor, the present King of the Belgians, Albert II, incidentally, paid a visit to the Congo in 2010 to take part in celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the country’s independence. His desire to attend had provoked a debate in the Belgian parliament during a period when a number of events in Brussels and elsewhere were held to mark the anniversary. ‘There’s even a kind of Congo mania in Belgium’, explained David Van Reybrouck, the author of a book on the Congo quoted in The Independent: ‘There’s an entire generation that wasn’t brought up with the Congo, it wasn’t mentioned in our history classes and that explains the strong urge to rediscover this country …. But still there’s been an unwillingness to open the lid on our colonial past’. Van Reybrouck reminded readers of the violence of Belgian rule and also noted that even by the time of the Congo’s independence, the Belgians had not trained a single local engineer or doctor. The report alluded to the charge that King Baudoin, in 1960, had been indirectly involved in the plot to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister. The British newspaper article concluded with a charge from another Belgian historian, Ludo de Witte: ‘We as Belgians should know that we participated in war crimes against the Congolese’.18 The monument, the king’s visit and other aspects of the Belgian and Congolese recollection of colonialism merit further reflection.

22Anecdotes about the fate on Leopold’s statues in Belgium and the Congo reveal the way in which such sites—old, new and revived material traces of the empire—contribute to a current debate about how to commemorate colonialism, both in the colonising and the colonised countries. Should a statue of the Belgian imperialist king be pulled down in Belgium—Stanard notes that one left-liberal party in the city of Halle asked that the monument to Leopold be taken down in that city ‘because mass murderers do not deserve a monument’ (Stanard)—or should a statue of Leopold be re-erected in the Congo as a reminder of the colonial epoch in that country’s history?

  • 19 Reuters, 11 March 2010.   

23The dilemmas are confirmed with recent memorials to a figure associated with the Belgian king, Henry Morton Stanley, reporter, discoverer of Dr Livingstone, imperial prospector for Leopold, Member of Parliament. Even during his lifetime there was a cult of Stanley, for both supporters and detractors. At some point, a statue of him was raised in the Congolese city then called Stanleyville. In 1971, the twelve-foot heroic statue was toppled, by persons unknown, during the reign of Mobutu Sese Seko. The statue, with its legs broken, still lies abandoned near the city’s museum. There has been talk of restoring it, or possibly shipping it back to Denbigh, Wales, Stanley’s hometown, but nothing much has been done. The Independent in 2010 reported remarks by the director-general of the newly reopened Kinshasa Museum, Joseph Ibongo: ‘People have accepted that Stanley played a big role for the Congo. Now people say he’s a genocidaire [sic]. But our collection should be known to everyone. We have to fight to reduce the scars’. A curator, Henry Bundjoko added,somewhat enigmatically— though perhaps this is the translation—‘For us, Stanley, it’s thanks to him that we have Congo. It’s better not to forget’. The newspaper also quoted Viviane Baeke, a curator at the Africa Museum in Tervuren: ‘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’. According to one Reuters report, the British embassy in the Congo ‘has put out a tender to restore Stanley’s statue drawing criticism from those who have sought to expose the full horrors of colonial rule’. The news agency quoted Adam Hochschild, author of a widely acclaimed book on King Leopold and Belgian atrocities in Africa, commenting that it would be ‘amazing to think of . . . Stanley on high again in Kinshasa’.19 The quotations give evidence of a diversity of views about colonialism and its commemoration.

24Back in Britain, Stanley’s remains lie below a fairly nondescript gravestone in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels in Pirbright, Surrey. (Apparently Stanley wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but the authorities did not think such interment appropriate, so he has this more modest resting place.) The tomb is marked with a rough stone monolith on which are carved Stanley’s name, dates of birth a death, African nickname of ‘Bula Matari’ (‘breaker of stones’) and the word ‘Africa’.

25In St Asaph, Wales, a hospital named for Stanley (formerly the workhouse in which he was interned as a boy) was ornamented with a rather uninspiring plaque; the hospital was slated for closure in 2011, the fate of the plaque unknown.There also exists a new monument in St Asaph, a curious column with scenes from Stanley’s life. Gary and Thomas Thrussell’s work monument, which includes images provided by school pupils, is surmounted by a Congolese figure. According to one web contributor, the whole thing looks like a decorated phallus. More genteelly, the bishop of St Asaph has expressed his disappointment in the monument, which stands in the shadow of the city’s cathedral, adding that he does not understand all the fuss about Stanley. For the current incumbent, his St. Asaph-born predecessor who translated the Bible into Welsh in 1588 would be a more suitable favourite son for a memorial. According to the BBC, the obelisk, which cost £18,000, was commissioned by a private group. One of those responsible remarked, in reply to the bishop’s judgment, that it was unfair to judge Stanley by today’s standards.20

  • 21 The Telegraph, 25 July 2010.

26Another Welsh locality, Denbigh, erected a statue in Stanley’s honour in 2011. This bronze one cost £31,000 and portrays a forthright and rather attractively masculine Stanley extending his hand. Not surprisingly, the statue provoked controversy. Even before it was cast, twenty British and American academics signed a petition against its erection. Selwyn Williams, a lecturer at Bangor University, said that it would have been better to show Stanley as a child to recall his experiences as a foundling, perhaps posed hand in hand with a Congolese child. ‘For Denbigh to make a hero of this man’, Williams added, ‘is totally the wrong decision’. Gwyneth Kensler, chair of the H.M. Stanley Commemorative Group, nevertheless defended the decision to honour Stanley, and The Telegraph reported that 84 per cent of residents in Denbigh supported the gesture. The Labour MP for Denbigh (a former history teacher) criticised those who petitioned against the memorial: ‘If we followed this criticism to the extreme then we wouldn’t have statues of any figures in the past that have both dark and light sides to their legacy, and then most cities wouldn’t have any statues. We shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate our heritage’. Ashley Jackson, Professor of Imperial and Military History at King’s College London, commented: ‘It is easy to understand the point of view of the people of Denbigh celebrating a famous son. On the other hand, Stanley today certainly wouldn’t be held up as an unequivocal hero… Stanley had one of the biggest kill rates of all the great African explorers in terms of the number of people who died during his journeys, and you can’t gloss over the fact’. However, Tim Jeal, author of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, a 2007 biography that portrays Stanley in a relatively favourable light, retorted: ‘He was basically an unsophisticated person who had a hard life. Maybe the stereotype of him as a brute is so ingrained now it can’t be changed, but it isn’t right. It is sad that this sort of postcolonial guilt prevents people from actually trying to understand what happened’.21

  • 22 The Guardian, 27 August 2010.
  • 23 The Guardian, 27 August 2010.

27Meanwhile, Jonathan Jones’ ‘On Art’ blog for The Guardian featured the bannerhead: ‘Henry Morton Stanley’s statue will ensure imperial racism is not forgotten,’ and Jones observed that probably no Welsh child ‘will look up at Stanley’s statue and be turned into a bigot’. He added that it ‘will rather be a talking point and provocation’ to make people think. He suggested only that the statue’s plinth should be inscribed ‘with the last words of [Joseph] Conrad’s imperialist anti-hero in Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”’22 Those who contributed to the blog were divided in their opinion, from a writer who compared a statue of Stanley in Britain to one of Hitler in Germany, to those who implied that the colonialists were the saviours of Africa and that the whole continent had gone to hell in a handbasket because of the Africans’ own faults. Other bloggers basically shrugged, ‘give it a rest’.23

28The statue was unveiled on 18 March 2011, in the presence of the sculptor, Nick Elphick, who remarked that everyone was chuffed with his work. Interestingly, also present at the ceremony, immortalised in fragmentary clips on Youtube, was a group of Congolese.24 An official spoke of the significance of honouring a Denbigh man and hoped that tourists would now flock to the town to shake hands with Stanley. One of the Congolese commented, with perhaps unintended humour, that Stanley came to his African country and so now he, the Congolese, had come to see Stanley’s country of Wales. Tim Jeal, the historian, also spoke and in the part of his speech available on the web talks about Stanley’s awful childhood. The rather modest crowd applauded the unveiling, while an African played a drum in the background.

29My point is not whether Denbigh, St Asaph or Kinshasa should have a memorial to Stanley. Rather what I am talking about are the vagaries of colonial history and the paradoxes of commemoration. In the Congo, in a kind of monumental revisionism, residents of a postcolonial state toppled the colonial hero. In Denbigh, there is a clash between local pride in a very famous native son, on the one hand, and on the other, the controversial international sphere in which that Welsh man moved, a confrontation, if you will, between the local and the global. And in the competing monuments in St Asaph and Denbigh, there occurs a regional clash, two Welsh towns tussling for a bit of Stanley, even if his mortal remains lie, presumably in peace, not in Wales but in Surrey. There also remains the issue of who is being memorialised—the journalist, the man who found Livingstone, the explorer, the colonialist, the writer or someone else? Is it possible to fragment an individual, to remember his good deeds and forget his misdeeds (or to determine, in a consensual view, which is which)? As one of the local movers-and-shakers in Denbigh intimated, how blameless must an individual be before a group or a place builds a statue in his or her honour? And—yet another issue—are statues put up to celebrate, to commemorate, to draw tourists, or to put a locale like Denbigh firmly on the map, in this case a Welsh market-town whose main claim to fame (with respect for the Bible translator) is Stanley?

30A final example of the dilemmas of contemporary colonial commemoration also comes from equatorial Africa: ‘It’s not every day that an African country erects a statue in the busiest part of town to honor a white man’, began a 2006 article in which the New York Times reported on the construction of a mausoleum for the remains of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza in the city named after him, the capital of the (formerly French) Congo. Brazza was an Italian-born explorer who charted much of the Congo basin and laid the groundwork for French colonisation of the region. Hailed as a hero for his work, at the end of his life he wrote a report that was supposedly highly critical of colonialism—the report has been ‘lost’—before his death in Algeria, the victim, according to some rumours, of poisoning.

  • 25 The New York Times, 30 November 2006.

31The New York Times article continued that ‘Brazza was liked by many Africans, who considered him a kinder, gentler Victorian explorer type, someone who charmed his way deep into the African jungle, unlike his rival Stanley, whose shotgun and bullwhip approach earned him the nickname “Breaker of Rocks”’. The newspaper nevertheless quoted several Congolese who argued that their poor country had greater priorities than this commemorative site, which cost between $3 and $10 million (funded by France, Gabon and the Congo). A spokeswoman for the Brazza Foundation retorted: ‘We have to be concerned with all forms of poverty, and that includes cultural poverty.’ She added, ‘We have so little here to remember our history, and Brazza is a huge part of it’. A fellow citizen remarked, more prosaically, that the mausoleum was a beautiful edifice erected on what ‘used to be a garbage dump’.25

32In addition to building a memorial fronted by a twenty-foot statue of Brazza, the Congolese authorities, in collaboration with the French government, decided to entomb the remains of Brazza, his wife and his four children—all of whom had been buried in Algiers—in Brazzaville. Their remains were exhumed, transferred to Brazzaville and solemnly reinterred at a ceremony attended by the presidents of the Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic, the French minister of foreign affairs and a papal nuncio, along with the traditional Téké king of Congo. They pronounced fine words about Brazza’s contributions to central Africa, his humane methods and his interest in the Congo and its culture. The Congolese president of the Brazza Foundation eulogised the Frenchman: ‘de Brazza has been welcomed as a friend, in conformity with African hospitality. He has been adopted and he has become a foster son. This is the reason why we are able to say “Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza is returning home”’.

  • 26  See Bernault, Bazenguissa-Ganga and Martin-Granel.

33Not everyone shared that view, and the Société des historiens du Congo Brazzaville labelled the monument shameful and racist, expressing shock that Africans had inflicted such an insult on themselves. Several scholars who have written on the memorial have connected the building of the monument and the reinterment of Brazza’s remains with various local issues, including power plays by President Denis Sassou Nguesso, succession to the Téké throne, and deals on development aid with the French government. Anthropologists have also made interesting connections between the reburial of Brazza and such themes as the sacralisation of the body in Africa and the treatment of the dead (specifically the bones of the dead).26 The view of most who have written on the memorial-mausoleum, not surprisingly, is negative. For some, the question of what should now be done with the costly site remains at issue. The society of Congolese historians suggested that it be transformed into a site in homage to ‘Brazzaville’, rather than ‘Brazza’, by putting up statues of several historical black figures associated with the city, including the Congolese independence leader Fulbert Youlou and the Guyanese Frenchman Félix Eboué, the black governor of French Equatorial Africa who rallied to the Free French in 1940.

34Initiatives to commemorate King Leopold, Stanley and Brazza—three key figures in the colonial history of the Congo basin—illustrate the difficulties of commemorating (or celebrating) colonialism in a post-colonial world. Who ‘owns’ an individual or incident or part of the colonial record: the colonisers (and which ones) or the colonised? How can colonialism best be commemorated: do the old traditions of erecting monuments and putting up statues and mounting displays still work? Indeed, should colonialism be commemorated? What is the boundary between commemoration and celebration? How can local pride (or outrage) be reconciled (or should it be?) with divergent historical interpretations and political goals? How ‘pure’ must a leader, such as Stanley or Nkrumah, for instance—be before he can be carved in stone or cast in bronze? And what is the ultimate purpose of those statues and mausoleums and arches and obelisks: to imprint history on the landscape, recruit support for a particular version of the history, decorate the streets, or attract tourists? What should be done with old colonial monuments? Should they be left standing, taken down, or ‘revised’ with explanatory panels to contextualise the feats that they record? And what about new memorials: should they be put up at all? Should there be memorials to anti-colonialists, to victims of colonialism, to the liberation heroes of the colonised countries? If there is a monument to French colonisers in Africa (at least to Brazza), will a monument to the ‘victims and martyrs’ of French colonialism ever be erected in France (or should it be)?

35That monument-builders—in Britain, France and Belgium, in the former French and Belgian Congo—wrestle with these issues underscores the importance of colonial memory. It shows the enduring significance of public recollection in museums, monuments and other memorial sites. It demonstrates, too, how those memories and that history can be manipulated or instrumentalised (as the French say), put to different political and partisan uses. They are also a reminder of how large a space is occupied in the history of European countries by colonialism, and of course, how large a role colonialism played in the histories of Africa, Asia and other colonised regions.

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1  An earlier version of this article appeared in Ex Plus Ultra, vol. 3 (2012), online.

2  On the 1931 exposition, see Lebovics; Hodeir and Pierre; and Morton.

3  See Geppert ; Swift.

4  See Davison; Vann; Longair.

5  See Aldrich, 2005. The French translation, Les Traces coloniales dans le paysage français (Paris: Société d’histoire d’Outre-Mer, 2011), includes supplementary and updated material.

6  On colonial monuments and motifs elsewhere, see Stanard, and Silverman; also von Henneberg, Triulzi, Steinmetz, van der Heyden and Zeller, and Sapega.

7  On monuments and museums in Vietnam, see Hue-Tam Ho Tai; also Sutherland, Schwenkel, and Logan.




11  See Ginio; another site of interest in Dakar is presented in Foster.  

12  Mangin. On French heritage policy in the colonies, see also Aldrich,‘France and the Patrimoine of the Empire…’ (2010).


14  On these debates, see Vance.  

15  See The Art Newspaper, September 2011.

16  There are a number of works about the Quai Branly museum; a good starting point is Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly (2008).


18 The Independent, 30 June 2010.

19 Reuters, 11 March 2010.   


21 The Telegraph, 25 July 2010.

22 The Guardian, 27 August 2010.

23 The Guardian, 27 August 2010.


25 The New York Times, 30 November 2006.

26  See Bernault, Bazenguissa-Ganga and Martin-Granel.

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Robert ALDRICH, « Commemorating Colonialism in a Post-Colonial World »e-Rea [En ligne], 10.1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2012, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Professor of European History, University of Sydney.
Robert Aldrich is the author of Vestiges of the Colonial Empire in France and editor of The Age of Empires, among other works.

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