Book review, “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

Posted: September 27, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Africa, Book Reviews, History, The World-Wide World
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I found this review that I wrote for my own memory after I read King Leopold’s Ghost in the winter of 2007-2008, and I figured that I would post it here.  I edited it a bit today (although it still suffers from my overuse of parentheses).  This is definitely one of my favorite books of all time.

For Hochschild, this is a story about both King Leopold II’s greed and deception and the movement that arose to stop him, centered in Britain.  It also received help from Belgian Socialists, Americans, and others, with Protestant missionaries being a major source of information on the terror inflicted upon the inhabitants.

Leopold hoped to gain colonies and eventually decided that central Africa offered the best chance, sending the famous Henry Morton Stanley to explore the region (with chiefs signing treaties that they did not understand but promised everything for very little) and getting America and then Europe to recognize his claim.  He built support for it by offering free access to trade with the colony (which it ran as a monopoly), speaking the benefits of civilization (there is little evidence in the book that this was ever taken seriously, except for making the “lazy” natives work in ivory- and rubber-gathering), portraying himself as a crusader against the Afro-Arab slave trade (they did fight Afro-Arabs like Tippu Tip, but also instituted forced labor practices), and opening the Congo to missionaries (Protestant missionaries were some of the main opponents of the brutality).  He also led the Americans to think that it would be something like an association of free states like the US.  It was eventually called the Congo Free State, the property of Leopold alone and run by a bureaucracy centered in Belgium.  The portrait of Leopold that emerges is one of a greedy, power-hungry monarch in a Europe that is passing him by (with his wealth from the Congo he built up great monuments and his chateaus and palaces) and a very effective tyrant who could manipulate people for his own ends and understood public relations.

On the first day of the Congo Free State, Leopold claimed all “vacant land” for the state (117).  The first resource gathered was ivory, and then the focus shifted to rubber from wild vines.  Porterage and railroads also used much forced labor.  State officials had the incentive to extract as many resources as they could and conscript as many “volunteers” for the Force Publique or labor.  Naturally, this rewarded swindling and brutality.

The state ruled through stations around the country and was supported by the brutal Force Publique with its white officers and African soldiers.  It forced people to do the bidding of the state or the various concessionary companies.  It acted ruthlessly to secure obedience, resorting to hostage-taking, burning villages, and murder.  A motif in this book is the comparisons to totalitarian systems like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.  The absolute power granted to the Belgians and other Europeans who made up the Congo state resulted not just in measured brutality to secure obedience but also unimaginable cruelty that proceeded from this power.  The symbol of Leopold’s Congo became the severed hands that were cut off by the soldiers to show that they had not wasted their bullets.  Of course, this meant that when bullets were wasted, living people’s (including children’s) hands were cut off.

Several people challenged the status quo.  George Washington Williams’ reports fell on deaf ears.  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hochschild argues, was a response to the cruelties of the Congo state that Conrad witnessed.  William Sheppard, a black Southern Presbyterian missionary, got to know the people intimately and was also a witness to cruelty.

The greatest publicists of the Congo state’s crimes were Roger Casement and E.D. Morel.  Morel, working for a shipping company, deduced that only slave labor could explain the fact that mostly guns were shipped to the Congo in return for very valuable raw materials.  Roger Casement, British consul in the Congo, embarked on his own trips (not relying on the transportation of the Congo state that allowed the state to control information) and confirmed the atrocities.  The two men formed the Congo Reform Association, which had many influential people in Britain behind it and fit in with the British humanitarian tradition.  Hochschild points out that this tradition often assumed that British Empire was good, but humanitarians did criticize British abuses as well.

Publicity combined with Leopold’s unfaithfulness and nonexistent father-daughter relations caused the collapse of support for his state, so he sold it to Belgium and profited immensely.  

I really appreciated that he asked the pertinent question of whether the activism really did any good.  Belgian rule of the colony still relied on forced labor, and while Leopold controlled the greatest rubber region, French Equatorial Africa and the German Cameroons also used brutal tactics that resulted in rebellions (the population was halved in rubber areas of the French colony died, just like in Leopold’s Congo).

This is a great book not only for history but for human rights advocates.  It contains some interesting lessons for them.

  1. Back up your reports with information that cannot be denied.
  2. Keep trying and be resourceful.  Perpetrators will do anything to bury and counter your information.
  3. Look out for your own blind spots.  Many of those who advocated for the Congo supported British imperialism or turned a blind eye to other abuses.  (On the other hand, the fact that Morel bought into British imperialism made him palatable to those who might not have listened to someone railing against all empire).

Finally, I appreciate the way that he did not get taken in by British humanitarian sensibility but at the same time recognized it, even recognizing the positive side of “evangelical imperialism.”  Some of the pop psychology about the characters might have been a stretch.

Overall, tremendous!

One side note that was interesting: Congolese art helped to inspire the modern artists Braque, Matisse, and Picasso (73).

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