Richard Dennett (1857-1921)
Richard Edward Dennett was born in Valparaiso, Chile in 1857. He was the son of Reverend R. Dennett MA DCL (1829 to 1908), who was a rector and private patron of Ashton Church near Chudleigh, Devon, for sixteen years from 1881 to 1897.
Dennett worked for Thomas Wilson, Sons & Co., a shipping company based in Kingston-upon-Hull, from 1875 until 1879. He left the UK for Africa in the employment of Hatton & Cookson in 1879. This trading company was responsible for bringing resources such as ivory into the country.
However, he began to notice the harsh treatment given to the people of the Congo and in 1886 he drew attention to these irregularities through his letters to the Manchester Guardian. However, he also edited a manuscript newspaper called “Congo Mirror” and accused the Congo officials of the murders and atrocities being committed. He was to become an active member of the Congo Reform Association.
Dennett traded in ivory, but was also involved in the Congo reform movement to improve conditions for indigenous workers. Through his writings he met and frequently communicated with a number of influential people such as Roger Casement, Consul for the British government and journalist Edward Dene Morel, who produced the famous 1903 Congo Report. Dennett was a strong opponent of the injustices of the colonial system in West Africa.
Dennett left the Congo when he joined the Nigerian Forest Service in 1902, but felt that he did not understand the Nigerian people as he had understood the Congolese.
Between 1886 and 1906, Dennett wrote and published three books and numerous articles in Britain about life in the Congo. Much of this material is ethnographic but other articles discuss trade. Between 1903 and 1916 he published a number of ethnographic articles on Nigerian language and ethnography. During this time he became friends with Mary Kingsley, a writer, explorer and advocate of African culture.
Dennett retired to Britain on a pension 1918 and died in 1921. Letters addressed to his publisher, George Macmillan, demonstrate that he was still writing and planning further publications at the time of his death.
In 1889 Dennett donated over 70 items to RAMM’s World Cultures collection. Dennett and his collection was the focus of research by Dr. Sally Ayres. Her thesis is called ‘Hidden Histories and Multiple Meanings: The Richard Dennett Collection at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter’ and is free to read online at the University of Plymouth website.