Scandal at Congo House

Many years ago, my partner and I rented an ancient farmhouse in the hills above Hebden Bridge as a base for a Christmas walking holiday. As the weather closed in we were reduced to reading books from a motley collection of discarded titles that adorned a dusty bookshelf. That’s where it all began, with Anna’s first selection, the intriguingly entitled “Dark Africa and the Way Out”.

Her eye was first drawn to the book because of its characteristically Victorian, gilt-decorated cover, but she was entrapped, not only by the title, but also the audacious scheme the author, Reverend William Hughes, outlined inside. Apparently, Hughes went to Africa in 1882 as a missionary, but rapidly became disenchanted with the western way of civilising the natives. He was convinced it would be better to educate Africans in Britain, who could then return to Africa to share their skills and knowledge with their compatriots. He planned to start an African college in Britain and declared, “The hope of Africa is not in Europeans, Americans or any other foreigners, but in the natives of the country themselves”, but was this merely a pious hope or did his scheme ever become reality?

Frustratingly, every time I uncovered references to Hughes and his ‘Congo House’ scheme, the trail rapidly ran cold. Lots of historians had apparently stumbled across this ambitious initiative over the years, but nobody had uncovered the whole story and no book had ever been published on the subject, apart from Hughes’ own “Dark Africa …”, which was really only an extended prospectus. What on earth had become of Hughes and his pioneering venture? If successful, he would surely have encouraged African radicals against Britain, then at its Imperial height. He would have faced powerful opposition, but might also have inspired emergent pan-Africanism. In 1997 I began systematic research on the subject and at every turn the story proved more fascinating and bizarre.

When Hughes returned to Britain in 1885 after spending three years in the Congo, he brought two African boys with him, Kinkasa and Nkanza. Together they toured Britain to raise money for his African College, which finally opened in Colwyn Bay, north Wales, in 1890. Black radicals applauded the venture and, for more than two decades, Hughes’ college was not only an educational institute for young Africans, it was also a hub where black activists from the Americas could meet and exchange ideas with original thinkers from all over the ‘Dark Continent’.

Inevitably, the ‘African Institute’ was not universally welcomed. Racism was rife and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911 Edition) authoritatively declared that, “the Negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man … the mental inferiority of the Negro to the white or yellow races is a fact … after puberty, sexual matters take first place in the Negro’s life and thoughts …”

The Baptist establishment was determined to undermine Hughes, as they regarded his venture as an ideological and financial threat to their traditional model of mission work, but Hughes was eventually undone by the great British tabloid press and its then pre-eminent scandal-monger, Horatio Bottomley. Bottomley was a ruthless populist who employed his prodigious talent to develop a spectacular career that combined the roles of press baron, Member of Parliament and fraudster. Before his eventual imprisonment, Bottomley, in 1912, destroyed the African Institute, by publishing a scurrilous account in his John Bull news magazine headed, “A Baptist Mission Scandal”. Bottomley’s sensationalist ‘exposé’ played on the popular sexual and racial prejudices of John Bull’s semi-educated readership. The College was closed down, Hughes became a national laughing-stock and died in poverty and ignominy in Conwy Workhouse. Celebrating his ‘victory’ in the columns of John Bull, Bottomley triumphantly crowed, “At last the game is up … Colwyn Bay is delighted to be rid of the pest of Hughes and his niggers … a sensuous, barbarous and cunning lot.”

On paper it appears to have been a disaster. Seven of almost a hundred students that attended Congo House got no further than Colwyn Bay, where they lie buried amidst the more usual names: Evans, Roberts and Jones. Yet, for more than two decades, Congo House shone as a beacon of comparative enlightenment. Numerous students achieved honourable and radical careers, including a profound influence on the foundation of the African National Congress. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela recognises his personal debt to the educational influence of one of Hughes’ students, Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu.

I can only outline the barest details here, but I’ve written up the full story in a book that’s about to be published under the title, ‘Scandal at Congo House’. The text will be accompanied by almost a hundred illustrations and the book will be available from July 2012, through the usual commercial channels. The life story of William Hughes is not only fascinating, but of international significance, yet it could so easily have been lost if it wasn’t for that chance encounter in Hebden Bridge.

So, as researchers into local history, by unearthing how big abstract ideas and plans impact on the lives of real people, we are not engaged in an inferior branch of history, as many academic historians imply. We mustn’t settle into merely chronicling the everyday and mundane, but push forward our analyses to identify the universal in the particular. In attempting this, I constantly draw inspiration from the words of William Blake: “To see a World in a grain of sand, And a Heaven in a wild flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.”

Peace and Love

Chris Draper, NRHN

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2 comments

  1. I met Jean (great granddaughter of William Hughes) today and happened to mention I was doing research into H.M.Stanley and his wife, Dorothy. She told me about the book you were publishing and I found this webpage giving details of it. I look forward to seeing it when it comes out. If, by any chance, there’s information you gathered about his relationship with Stanley that isn’t in the book I’d be very interested. I hope to discover more about Stanley’s better deeds as he’s had a bad press. I understand he gave lectures in support of the institute and King Leopold was a patron for a while.

    1. Hazel King · · Reply

      Hi, Yes I met Jean too in Colwyn Bay at Easter when Chris was presenting his book to the local group. I looked at the Institute in early 1980’s but don’t have anything to add that Chris wouldn’t be able to much more ably present in his forthcoming book,

      I found Tim Jeal’s biography very good – would you think this was the true measure of the man?

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