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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa

4.13 of 5 stars 4.13  ·  rating details  ·  16,686 ratings  ·  1,246 reviews
In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million--all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation ...more
Paperback, 376 pages
Published September 3rd 1999 by Mariner Books (first published 1998)
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Community Reviews

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William1
A few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collectivization (20 to 50 million dead,) and Hitler's genocide (11 million dead). I am largely unshockable. However, the avarice and deceit of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo (10 million dead) has been something of a revelation. I hereby enter his name in my Rogues Gallery roster. It is important that we remember what he perpetrated for his ow ...more
Michael
Sep 04, 2013 Michael rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Michael by: chrissie
This work of popular history does a great job of bringing to life the story of King Leopold of Belgium’s orchestration of a private empire in the Congo near the end of the 19th century. His greed driven campaign presaged the 20th century shenanigans with its use of political intrigue, bribery, media manipulation, and lies. The popular explorer Henry Morton Stanley was wooed and appropriated to make his dream become a reality. Its economic success was founded on the institutionalization of slave ...more
Eric_W
The Belgian Congo, as Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were formerly called was the creation of King Leopold of Belgium who desperately wanted a colony. By the late 19th century there was little land left for the taking except in Africa and it had become obvious that taking over independent lands was neither wise nor practical. King Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was a man of enormous appetites both for land and food—he once ate two whole pheasants at a restaurant in Paris, ...more
David
Aug 17, 2007 David rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 5q
Horrifying story, rivetingly told. Regrettably, much of my reading of history has been centered primarily on the history of Europe and of the U.S. Hochschild's account of Belgium's exploitation of the Congo left me appalled. Despite the accounts of some truly savage atrocities, I ended up reading it in a couple of marathon sittings. A disturbing book, but one so well-written, I highly recommend it.
Trish
This book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing to grant King Leopold’s side another instant of attention after realizing that the facts had been obscured for a century or more by repression of documents relating to the case in Belgian state archives. Better that we finally uncover the ugly truth and take its lesson: unbridled greed may be the ugliest, most unforgivable, most unnecessary sin of al ...more
Rashmi
Sep 03, 2007 Rashmi rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone, especially Belgians
This book took me several months to read because it was so disturbing. After reading a chapter and having nightmares, I'd put it away for something else, and then return to it once I'd finished with the other book.

The atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo were nothing short of diabolical. And yet, shockingly, one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century remains relatively unheard of.

I am a big fan of Adam Hochschild; he makes you feel like you're reading a novel rather than a historic
...more
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Jan 04, 2012 Lisa (Harmonybites) rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Ultimate Reading List
If you ask an educated American to name the worst despots and atrocities of the twentieth century, you'll immediately hear such names as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Very few would name Leopold II, King of the Belgians and absolute master of the Belgian Congo. I wouldn't have before reading this book, yet a man thousands of miles from a land he never visited is charged with instituting policies responsible for 10 million deaths in the course of a couple of decades, sparking the "first great ...more
AC
A very troubling look at the Belgian involvement in the Congo -- a chapter in the European 'Scramble for Africa' -- that I had not known much about. Leopold, in particular, comes out looking very bad.

The book (which I listened to as an audio) is still a bit too long and spends too much time on narrow topics -- and engages in a bit of hagiography of E.D. Morel and Roger Casement. In other words, the author is trying to appeal to the pathos in the reader, where more detachment would have made for
...more
George Bradford
Apr 13, 2008 George Bradford rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to George Bradford by: John
Shelves: villains
The century that gave us Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot was ushered in by the worst criminal of them all: King Leopold II of Belgium. That's right, BELGIUM!!! For all the evil perpetrated by the 'A-List A-holes of the 20th Century', none of them outdid King Leopold II.

Between 1885 and 1908, under King Leopold II's rule, an estimated 10 to 13 Million human beings were killed in the African Congo. Those Congolese who survived were tortured, maimed, raped, forced into slavery
...more
Jim
Before Pol Pot's Kampuchea, Hitler's Auschwitz, and Stalin's Gulag, there was Belgian monarch Leopold II's Congo. For over twenty years, Leopold literally owned the Belgian Congo as a personal fief, free of interference from his own people. While in charge, he ruthlessly exploited the native population in collecting rubber. With his Force Publique enforcers, men were sent out to collect rubber from wild trees while their wives and children were held hostage. If they failed to meet their quotas, ...more
Chance Maree
King Leopold II of Belgium exploited and ruined the Congo between 1885 and 1908--just over 100 years ago. Eleven million people were killed, not for ideology of any kind, but for pursuit of one man's personal greed. Leopold would not have been able to accomplish this heinous crime alone. He required explorers, government and military personnel, and multitudes of other men and women to silently witness and/or participate in atrocities that reeked with brutality and racism. I, and many others, kne ...more
Alex
It's gratifying to get the chance to read a book as powerful and influential as this. King Leopold's Ghost is the book that re-exposed the atrocities Leopold committed against the Congo between 1880 and 1910 - atrocities that sank out of sight after they were finally stopped. An estimated ten million Congolese died during that time.

It's even more gratifying to find that Hochschild's book is well-written, too; it's fast, gripping and clearly laid out. Rarely, I read a book that's so important and
...more
Karen
I had 2 interesting experiences relating to this book while I was reading it. First, I recieved a call from an Airmiles rep who spoke with a thick African accent, he had no difficulty spelling my last name. He told me he came from the Congo, previously a Belgian colony where many names start with "van", hence his ease with my name. After telling him I was reading "King Leopold's Ghost", we talked for quite some time about the state of his homeland. He remarked that the people of the Congo are in ...more
GT
Nov 16, 2014 GT rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: history
After reading this book, I wonder how many times this has been played out in Africa and around the world. In this story a king becomes a billionaire at the expense of ten million African lives and no one remembers. Unfortunately the book did not have a deep emotional impact I anticipated. Since I have read similar books, I was able imagine the pain and suffering these people experienced but they are mostly silent in this book. The reader gets a shadow here-and-there, like Leon Rom’s flower bed o ...more
Chris
A profoundly disturbing account of one of the modern era's forgotten atrocities. The book is written with great empathy yet manages to eschew pity or melodrama, a balance that highlights the horrific, tragic tale of King Leopold's colonization and rape of the Congo. An unnerving reminder of man's inhumanity to man, and how the 20th century was built upon the corpses of tens of millions of African natives.
Renee
Mar 31, 2008 Renee rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everybody
Recommended to Renee by: Chris LaMonica
Shelves: africa, history
King Leopold's Ghost is much more than a historical account of the forgotten atrocities perpetuated on the Congolese people. It is nothing less than an epic tale centred around a colonial monster and the brave men and women who fought against him.

Far from being a dry scholarly examination of African history Hochschild brings to life the complex characters who supported and opposed Leopold's Congo.

Hochschild follows the story of the Congo from pre-European contact to its devastated current state.
...more
Guy Portman
The Belgian King, Leopold II, had grown envious of his European neighbours’ portfolio of colonies, and longed for a colony that he could call his own. After much deliberation Leopold set his heart on a vast tract of land in central Africa. British explorer Henry Morton Stanley was contracted to explore the interior, and to stake the King’s claim there.

Leopold cunningly alleviated concerns over the forthcoming land grab by claiming that the territory would be a free trade zone, and insisting that
...more
Hadrian
A stunning and fearsome book, bristling with focused rage at one of the great ignored evils of the 19th century.

This is not merely a catalog of horror, but also a history of the precursor to the modern human-rights movement, revealing the sacrifices and valiant efforts of those who refused to let the atrocities continue.

Highly recommended - for those who want to see humanity at its most evil and also at its highest peak.
Chris
A very disturbing book that puts light on colonialism. Hochschild writers very well; at no point is the book boring nor does it read like a list. Hochschild is also even headed. He doesn't whitewash - good guys have flaws, and he mentions them. Hochschild does make the reader think about how the West sees Africa not only during the colonial period but even today. It is a book everyone in Europe and the United States should read. What I really enjoyed was the fact that Hochschild doesn't just foc ...more
orsodimondo
CRIMINI CONTRO L’UMANITÀ
“Cuore di tenebra” è spesso considerato un’allegoria, o una parabola, freudiana – e Kurtz, il suo protagonista assassino, un folle che ha letto troppo e digerito male Nietzsche.

In realtà, come il libro di Hochschild dimostra, Kurtz fu basato su un collage di figure storiche e l’orrore descritto era realistico quanto mai: il romanzo di Conrad è un ritratto preciso dettagliato e profondo di quello che era il Congo sotto la dominazione del re del Belgio, Leopoldo II, negli
...more
Tinea
Brutal. Come to know this story. Hochschild is an American from UCBerkeley who wrote the kind of self-conscious history you would expect from a social justice activist, focusing in on the standpoints of the people whose words he has access to in the archives and the people whose voices are absent from written record. Unlike most colonial history which is in itself an artifact of colonial literature, this is an accessible entry-point for a student of colonialism who doesn't want to or isn't prepa ...more
Leslie
This book is a thorough, brutal, historical account of the Congo State as formed by the King of Belgium in the nineteenth century. The author is clear about where historical knowledge of the time is lacking, whose voices are noticeably missing from the account, and where his own commentary and speculation begins and ends. It's not only your "historical vegetables," or a "should read" book, it's an enjoyable read, as long as the reader does not mind being immersed in horrific accounts of humiliat ...more
GWC
A colonial morality play. The story in "King Leopold's Ghost" is a powerful one -- colonization taken to its extreme -- but the book is rendered mediocre by the author's trite moralizing, lack of historical rigor, and tiresome reliance on depicting every actor with either a halo or horns. Leopold, here an antagonist of extraordinary guile, is only weakly connected to the governmental and business interests with which he worked; the reader is given pages of anecdote concerning the king's depravit ...more
lyell bark
fun little book about leopold scheming to build big houses and buy hats for his 16 year old prostitute girlfriend, and stanley bumbling through the jungle mowing down everything in sight with those proto-mahcine guns, i forgot what they were called. sorry. extracting and moving vast quantities of material wealth from its ite of production and extraction to far distant metropoles "for the win" as cory doctorow would say.

also i understand that all anglo-american pop histories need to compare pre-a
...more
Fraser
A fantastic piece of work, threading together the various narratives of the systematic colonial exploitation of the Belgian Congo.

This book at barely 300 odd pages packs a lot of detailed analysis and reads like a well paced detective thriller. Clearly passionate like the heroes who uncover enslavement and greedy exploitation, Hochschild takes great care with his narration. He discusses the weaknesses of the sources of information (lacking the Congolese voices for example), and takes into accoun
...more
Lady
May 18, 2011 Lady rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: own
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sofia Samatar
Subtitled "A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa," this is the history book you need to read now. Hochschild tells the story of the so-called "Congo Free State," the private fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium, as a series of mini-biographies. You'll meet the self-mythologizing explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and the insatiable King Leopold, with his massive PR machine, passion for architecture, and cavalier attitude toward the atrocities being committed for his profit ("Cut ...more
Laurent
An amazing accomplishment

I have written my review in two parts the first being to actually review the book itself and provide my thoughts on it. Since this is such an emotive and affecting book, I also wrote about how it affected me personally, from a Belgian's perspective who's family lived in the Congo - thought this might be of interest to some readers.

1. My Review of Leopold's Ghost

Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is an exquisite book - gripping, absorbing, well written and profoundly
...more
Matt
Favorite passages:

The white men who passed through the territory as military officers, steamboat captains, or state or concession company officials generally accepted the use of the chicotte as unthinkingly as hundreds of thousands of other men in uniform would accept their assignments, a half-century later, to staff the Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. "Monsters exist," wrote Primo Levi of his experience at Auschwitz. "But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are
...more
Elizabeth
Jul 22, 2008 Elizabeth rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Shelves: africa
Appalling and fascinating. I had no idea that the people of Congo were treated this AFTER the Civil War and well into the 1900s. What was most interesting to me was to learn how King Leopold conducted his power-grab in Africa and sufficiently distanced himself from the actual goings on the county. (His methods for wealth extraction required forced slavery and mass killings.) That in itself says a lot about the psychology of blame. He certainly appeared to have a clear conscience. I probably neve ...more
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Great African Reads: Mar/Apr: DRC | "King Leopold's Ghost" 127 112 Nov 01, 2010 02:58AM  
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Hochschild was born in New York City. As a college student, he spent a summer working on an anti-government newspaper in South Africa and subsequently worked briefly as a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964. Both were politically pivotal experiences about which he would later write in his book Finding the Trapdoor. He later was part of the movement against the Vietnam War, and, after severa ...more
More about Adam Hochschild...
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey

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“Most striking about the traditional societies of the Congo was their remarkable artwork: baskets, mats, pottery, copper and ironwork, and, above all, woodcarving. It would be two decades before Europeans really noticed this art. Its discovery then had a strong influence on Braque, Matisse, and Picasso -- who subsequently kept African art objects in his studio until his death. Cubism was new only for Europeans, for it was partly inspired by specific pieces of African art, some of them from the Pende and Songye peoples, who live in the basin of the Kasai River, one of the Congo's major tributaries.

It was easy to see the distinctive brilliance that so entranced Picasso and his colleagues at their first encounter with this art at an exhibit in Paris in 1907. In these central African sculptures some body parts are exaggerated, some shrunken; eyes project, cheeks sink, mouths disappear, torsos become elongated; eye sockets expand to cover almost the entire face; the human face and figure are broken apart and formed again in new ways and proportions that had previously lain beyond sight of traditional European realism.

The art sprang from cultures that had, among other things, a looser sense than Islam or Christianity of the boundaries between our world and the next, as well as those between the world of humans and the world of beasts. Among the Bolia people of the Congo, for example, a king was chosen by a council of elders; by ancestors, who appeared to him in a dream; and finally by wild animals, who signaled their assent by roaring during a night when the royal candidate was left at a particular spot in the rain forest. Perhaps it was the fluidity of these boundaries that granted central Africa's artists a freedom those in Europe had not yet discovered. ”
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“When Leopold wrote that the precise frontiers of the new state or states would be defined later, [German Chancellor] Bismarck said to an aide, "His Majesty displays the pretensions and naive selfishness of an Italian who considers that his charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything.” 3 likes
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