You never know what might happen when you write for the LRB. A recent piece of mine has caused a bit of a stir – unwittingly, so far as I am concerned. I was reviewing Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets, which is about the part played by the British secret services in decolonisation. One of the questions is whether they got up to any dirty tricks. One that is sometimes attributed to them is the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, in 1961. Walton doesn’t rule this out, but has found no evidence for it; so ‘at present we do not know.’ Then came the surprise: a letter from David Lea, who said that Daphne Park, the head of MI6 in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) at the time, told him a few months before she died in March 2010 that she had organised Lumumba’s assassination.
Well! From the horse’s mouth, no less; albeit a dead horse. The story went viral, in the press and on the internet. Surprise was expressed that the story should first surface in an arty journal like the LRB. Lord Lea was asked about it, but wouldn’t elaborate. MI6 refused to comment. Walton claimed it was up to them to settle the matter, by releasing their secret files. Several of Park’s old chums chipped in to say how unlike her it sounded. I have no idea, and no means of finding out, where the truth of this lies. I wouldn’t be surprised if MI6 were involved in Lumumba’s death – the CIA and Belgian security services certainly were – but I’ll leave that for others to determine, if they can.
All the more reason to open up the archives, as Walton urges. For those of us who always suspected things like this were going on, only to be smeared by the authorities – i.e. the conspirators themselves – as conspiracy ‘theorists’, lumping us in with the likes of David Icke (Prince Philip as a reptilian shapeshifter and so on), it might afford some tardy comfort, or ‘closure’ at least. On the other hand perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much. Another of the revelations in Walton’s book was that colonial officials sometimes destroyed incriminating documents and then replaced them with forgeries, to fool the historian. You can never know where you are with secret history. Which only encourages the conspiracy theorists.