The disfigured statue of Henry Morton Stanley, we presume

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A campaign to restore a memorial to the explorer has reopened the scars left by colonial rule in the Congo. Katrina Manson reports from Kinshasa

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.

Stanley's statue owes its disfigured form to the anti-colonials who pulled him down from his vantage point over the city in 1971, after Africa's most renowned dictator Mobutu Seso Seko demanded all relics of empire should be removed.

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.

"Stanley was somebody who by any standards was a great explorer, but his exploration was undertaken in the service of colonisation of Africa. He advocated a British Congo at first but the British weren't interested; then he sold his soul to King Leopold," said Mr Hochschild. "He used the whip freely, and was quite a slave driver. I don't find any redeeming feature in Stanley myself."

Stanley led a peculiar life, filled with name changes and hopes to make it big. Born in Denbigh, a small Welsh market town, his birth certificate designated him a "bastard". He travelled to America and by several accounts never consummated his marriage because of a great fear of women. Later a Daily Telegraph journalist with a moustache he blackened daily, he was spurred into colonial adventure with a sadistic twist. He once cut off his dog's tail, cooked it and fed it back to the dog. By the time he took on the Congo, he had already lain waste to dozens of towns on the exotic island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania.

Throughout his travels in Congo, Stanley convinced 450 chiefs to mark an X on legal documents that he then named treaties. One such document offered "one piece of cloth per month" and the odd bottle of gin, in return for "all sovereign and governing rights" to the chiefs' territories, throwing their people's free labour and their never-before-collected taxes into the bargain.

As the story of Belgian brutality came out, the British Foreign Office commissioned a report that was so ghastly, the order came down to sanitise it. For that cleaning up of reality, Sir Roger Casement, the consul who charted the abuses, called the British diplomats "a wretched set of incompetent noodles".

Today's bid to restore Stanley is certainly a daring move by British diplomats, who, given the UK's complicated relationship with its former colonies, has no need to create a new colonial problem in a land it never ruled. "Several ideas have been put to a committee in the UK embassy of how best to support celebrations of DRC's 50th anniversary of independence. Restoring the Stanley statue is one idea among many, but no decision has yet been taken," was the response from the British embassy in Kinshasa. Its tender – seen by The Independent – was dated 16 February and asked for bids by 5 March.

Perhaps the British were mindful of the $3bn statue of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the Frenchman who gave his name to Brazzaville, the capital of Congo, the former French colony that neighbours DRC and whose capitals eyeball each other on either side of the river that cuts through the heart of the continent. Although Mr de Brazza divides opinion, many think of him fondly as a kindly gentleman explorer, still worthy of giving his name to Congo's main city.

Not so across the river. Stanleyville, a town in the north, has long since been renamed Kisangani, and when Kinshasa authorities erected a statue of Leopold II atop a horse in full beard – which had lain discarded in an open dump for four decades – in the midst of the city in 2005, he was removed within hours as residents seemed ready to riot. Today he looks out from the new museum's ground over the river to the high rises of the capital that once bore his name, Leopoldville – now Kinshasa.

"If statues of someone, why not of some of the Congolese patriots who resisted their regime, or of some of the whistle-blowers against it, both Congolese and foreign?" suggested Mr Hochschild.

The suggested colonial homage certainly seems far from top of the country's priorities. Today DRC is emerging from a 1998-2003 war that drew in more than six African countries and led to the death of perhaps more than five million Congolese. It remains rich in resources but debt-laden, corrupt and poor. Fighting continues in the east, home to the world's largest UN peacekeeping force as the army tries to rid the country of Rwandan Hutu fighters drawn from those who prosecuted Rwanda's 1994 genocide and subsequently fled west.

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.

Tervuren Museum – the Royal Museum of Central Africa, started by King Leopold as a colonial treasure store and criticised for failing to reveal the brutalities of his regime – today houses more than 140,000 objects from central Africa, and has to date returned only 200 in three waves, to help fill in gaps in Congo's own collection of 40,000 artefacts.

Most of the objects in Belgium were collected during the colonial period, when Europe's self-proclaimed "civilisers" thought African objects should be maintained for posterity before European culture overtook the continent. Now the value of African art has shot up, and for the first time Kinshasa's residents can view ceremonial masks, once-powerful totems, ancestral statues, musical instruments and hair combs in the grounds of Mobutu's former palace that was once home to a presidential zoo of lions, leopards, crocodiles and monkeys.

Students attending this month's grand opening said it was the first time they had ever seen things they had been taught about themselves at school.

"The museum is very important because now children will know the history of our ancestors and our culture," says Congolese curator Henry Bundjoko. "For us, Stanley, it's thanks to him that we have Congo. It's better not to forget."

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