Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Review: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild (1998)

Paperback cover of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild, 1998.

Author and historian Adam Hochschild.
Belgium! Just the name conjures up so many vivid images! Chocolate! Waffles! Beer! Wooden shoes! Wait, that last one is the Netherlands…cuckoo clocks? No, that’s definitely Switzerland…um, you know, all those other famous Belgian things…okay, so maybe Belgium is a bit of a blank spot on your mental map of Europe, but Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, will teach you a lot about the massive colony that Belgium used to own.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a superb examination of the Congo Free State as it existed under the rule of King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885 to 1908. Leopold had been aching for Belgium to have a colony, and thus transcend its status as just a place known for great waffles. Slowly and deliberately, Leopold acquired lots of land in central Africa, which eventually became the Congo Free State. The unique thing about the Congo Free State was that the land wasn’t owned by the Belgian government-it was owned by King Leopold himself. The Congo was his personal colony, and it was the site of terrible atrocities. Forced labor and slavery were common, as was the gruesome practice of cutting off hands of dead or living Congolese people. 

Leopold craftily set up a humanitarian pretext for his involvement in the Congo-supposedly the Belgians were driving out “Arab slavers.” This was enough to not arouse anyone’s suspicion as to what was really happening in the Congo. However, as Hochschild details, stories of atrocities eventually leaked out, and led to an international effort for reform of the Congo Free State, which ultimately culminated in Leopold selling the colony to the Belgian government. 

The Congo brought Leopold untold riches, as the territory had an abundance of many natural resources, including rubber, which was in high demand in the 1890’s. Leopold went out and squandered many of his riches on extravagant palaces for his teenage mistress. Many of the worst human rights abuses occurred because of the demand for rubber-Congolese men were often forced to extract a certain amount of rubber during a period of time otherwise their wives would be killed. Oh, and of course the Congolese weren’t paid for their labor. It’s brutal to read about the total disregard for human life during this period in history. Because there was no accurate census of the Congo until 1920, we will never know for certain how many Congolese died during the reign of the Congo Free State, but Hochschild puts the estimate at around 10 million people, or roughly half the population of the Congo Free State. 

Hochschild vividly brings his cast of characters to life, and his story is filled with fascinating people, including the odious King Leopold II, the egotistical explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who charted much of the Congo area for Leopold, the crusading shipping official E.D. Morel, who became one of the most vocal advocates for reform of the Congo, Polish shipping captain Joseph Conrad, whose 1890 voyage up the Congo River provided inspiration for his novella Heart of Darkness, and the mercurial Sir Roger Casement, who led an investigation for the British government into the abuses occurring in the Congo.

Although the Congo reform movement gathered many headlines in England and the United States more than a century ago, the atrocities committed during Leopold’s reign had not been the subject of much scholarship before King Leopold’s Ghost. Part of the reason for this was the Belgian government itself. Towards the end of the book, Hochschild details the struggles of Jules Marchal, a Belgian diplomat, to get access to government files relating to the Congo Free State. Marchal was blocked at nearly every turn as he attempted to research the Congo Free State in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Eventually the government made papers accessible to scholars and historians, and Marchal wrote a four volume history of the Congo Free State in French. Hochschild has done an important service by reminding the world of what happened in the Congo Free State. But he had a difficult time getting the book off the ground, as his proposal for the book was rejected by the first nine publishers he took it to.

King Leopold’s Ghost connects to the next two books that Hochschild wrote, 2005’s Bury the Chains, about the British anti-slavery movement, and 2011’s To End All Wars, which details the anti-war movements during World War I. All three of these books are concerned with crusades for social justice, and show the impact that protests can have, which is an important lesson for 2017.

1 comment:

PNT said...

Wow. What a wild story. Thank you for sharing your review!