Did Britain’s MI6 have Patrice Lumumba murdered?

Guest Post by Harry Stopes

Africa is a Country readers may not regularly check the London Review of Books, a British literary magazine with a circulation just over 50,000–it’s meant more for Bloomsbury than Bamako or Bloemfontein (though some readers could probably find it in Brooklyn; it’s online too with a subscription)–but the magazine has a pretty good, though not blameless (worst offender RW Johnson) record of writing on Africa. On the good side, frequent contributor Bernard Porter has written about the continent several times, in particular on the Mau Mau insurgency, advancing an interpretation of events that seems increasingly likely to be proven correct. And occasionally the LRB breaks news. Towards the end of March, Porter reviewed Calder Walton’s book on the British security services, the Cold War, and the end of Empire. Porter mentioned in passing that Howard Smith, then an official in the British Foreign Office and later head of MI5, had advocated killing Patrice Lumumba as one of a number of possible “solutions” to the problems he seemed to pose to Western governments and corporations.

Porter seems to share Walton’s feeling that while we may never know whether such suggestions came to anything, British agents–and politicians–were much less ignorant (or innocent) of European colonial and post-colonial crimes than the British public fondly imagine.

Two weeks later, in the next issue of the LRB, a letter from David Lea, a member of the British House of Lords, purported to shed more light on British involvement in Lumumba’s death:

I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park–we were colleagues from opposite sides of the Lords–a few months before she died in March 2010. She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba’s abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. ‘We did,’ she replied, ‘I organised it.’

The LRB reaches a specialist audience but their best stories have the capacity to shape comment and op-ed agendas in the British media. A few days after the letter appeared I was listening to BBC Radio 4 in the early morning and heard their security correspondent discussing Lea’s letter. Did we do it? the presenter asked. The correspondent thought it was unlikely that MI6 played the decisive role but pointed out that Park was close to one of Lumumba’s Congolese rivals. Coverage in the newspapers tended to divide along political lines. The right wing Daily Telegraph thought it was all nonsense because “Britain does not conduct assassinations in peacetime”, while the Guardian was more circumspect. More surprisingly, later that week I was eating breakfast in a ‘greasy spoon’–a workman’s cafe–in south London reading a copy of the tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror. On the inside pages a small news in brief item reported Lea’s letter in passing. Did we do it? Dunno but it’s a funny story eh?

The British government is right now negotiating possible compensation for Kenyan torture victims. Their torture was probably documented in files that were deliberately destroyed. Other files were deliberately hidden away from the main Foreign Office archives. All this has been revealed in just the last couple of years and yet the recent discussion of Lumumba in the mainstream media has been conducted in such a calm, detached, almost aloof tone–as if the question of British involvement in Lumumba’s assassination is only of passing, academic interest. It’s indicative of continuing British amnesia towards its colonial and post-colonial past in Africa and elsewhere. Still though, that story may not be over. As a letter in the latest issue of the LRB points out, Lea may have more to tell us. It’s hard to imagine his conversation with Daphne Park stopped there.

* Harry Stopes is a PhD student and teaching assistant at London’s Global University’s Department of History. Follow him on Twitter.

11 thoughts on “Did Britain’s MI6 have Patrice Lumumba murdered?

    • “London’s global university” is the (sometimes derided) slogan of my university, which you correctly identified as ucl. The reference is tongue in cheek.

  1. Think this is a really interesting story (although credit to the LRB blog I think would be useful, as it is not behind a firewall). I was disappointed to see recent publication by one of the research assistants on the FCO (supposed) uncovering project managed to reduce political involvement in Nigerian independence struggles (over 30 years) to less than a chapter, and no evidence of interviewing key actors. Hope that subsequent publications will be more revealing and less accepting of the British state’s (current) ‘official line’.

  2. Interesting but then it has not been much of a secret that Western security services got rid of Lumumba. There are a number of documentaries and books about this (Larry Devlin’s account of his time as CIA chief in the Congo to name one). His death was probably orchestrated in a joint enterprise linking the French, Belgian, US and UK security services.

    For me most key details of Lumumba’s demise are in the public domain. What is really worth knowing is who got rid of Dag Hammarskjold? Was his death in an air crash in Ndola ( in British ruled colony Zambia) an accident?

    • Oh absolutely, the involvement of Western security services isn’t really up for debate. The Belgians publically apologised for their role, after all. What’s more interesting to me is a) the nature and extent of British involvement b) the way in which the subject has been discussed in Britain.

  3. Thanks Harry.

    It is intriguing why the Brits would want to involve themselves in the Congo, after all the US, the French and Belgians had, in a sense, everything in hand there and the British had other places in Africa to keep their spooks busy (British mercenaries were active in the Congo). Nonetheless, it would be useful to know, as you say, the extent and nature of British involvement. Congo was such a seminal event in 60’s Africa – it drew in Nkrumah’s Ghana and was a testing ground for African soldiers, Angophone and Francophone, who went on to overthrow governments elsewhere in Africa.

  4. Hi Guys

    The British involvement in this may have been driven by their desire to maintain their colonies in southern Africa. They had already formed the ill fated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in an attempt to shore up the white minority’s control of those colonies. Having an independent and potentially extremely wealthy African country run by an upstart like Lumumba right on the borders of the Federation would definitely have been a cause for concern. The support of figures like Sir Roy Welensky for Katangan separatism show that the issue of Congolese independence was an important one for the British colonialists.

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