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

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
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May 18, 11

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Read in May, 2011

** spoiler alert ** Like most readers, I'd no idea of the horrors that took place in the Belgian Congo under the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II. (Other reviewers have mentioned coping with nightmares during the time it took them to read this book.) I have been ruminating on this most remarkable book for a bit, thus delaying my review. The book's complexity, its imagery, its brutal honesty, and its fairness have all taken their respective turns in my conscious consideration, and I want to give each of them their due in my written response to this book. It is each of these things, in fact, that makes this review so difficult for me to write.

Hochschild writes history in a way that reads like a novel. He tells the story of Leopold and the Congo in facts, statistics, logic, and analysis, and somehow weaves these together with narrative flair. Yes, there is pathos - how could there not be, given the atrocities that were carried out by human beings against other human beings? - and Hochschild makes clear his grief and anger for the suffering of the native Congolese, but the book is written overall with something akin to detachment. Hochschild, despite his grief and despite his anger, wanted to tell this story of the 20th century's first holocaust as clearly and as factually as he could, for two reasons: 1. The truth deserves to be told as it is and as it was, without romanticising it or distorting it in any way. 2. Hochschild has so many detractors, most prominently Belgian authorities and Belgian citizens, that the only way for him to convince them of the accuracy of what happened is to stick to the facts. People still refuse to believe that Leopold's regime led to such a prolonged waking nightmare for the Congo, despite ample evidence of this nightmare staring directly into their cowardly eyes.

Hochschild's words draw a minutely detailed picture of Leopold himself, starting with Leopold's emotionally starved childhood, whence began his burning dream of besting his overbearing, cruel father by garnering a colony for himself. (Remember this was the "Golden Age" [I say that with deep scorn] of European imperialism. I also have to look to Freud to wonder if Leopold had a sense of masculine inferiority.) Leopold's scheming, manipulative, utterly cold-hearted persona is revealed through a series of actions he undertook during his early years on the throne - attempting without success to buy other European colonies, treating his daughters appallingly and as objects rather than people (a portent of what was to come, I suppose), heaping cruelty on staff and family alike, and many other vicious things. It is unclear whether his craftiness drove his desire for a colony per se, or vice-versa - perhaps both - but it soon became clear to Leopold that his only choice for a colony lay in the as yet mostly unexplored continent of Africa, and he manipulated the Belgian parliament into loaning him tens of millions of francs in order to finance a colony in Africa. His choice: the Congo, as Henry Morton Stanley (a brief biography of whom is also included in this book) had explored much of the Congo already. Leopold financed another, more detailed exploration of the Congo by Stanley, and Stanley inadvertently made possible the holocaust to come by his traversal of the entire Congo River - the first by any European. An ominous foreshadowing of what is going to transpire in the Congo is revealed in the brutal way Stanley treats his Congolese porters - he ordered them to move, move, move! for days without end, without food or water, viewing them all the while with contempt and calling them lazy and manipulative.

Hochschild breaks his narrative of Leopold's schemes in the Congo to describe to us the little that is known of native Congolese societies before the arrival of the Europeans. There was no writing or other evidence of scholarship, but oral tradition was strong and people generally lived and ate well. They allowed fields to lie fallow after harvesting a crop so that the soil could recuperate; women practised birth control in order to avoid overpopulation, which, the Congolese wisely understood, would lead to the depletion of natural resources; surprisingly modernistic systems of justice existed in Congolese tribes. Hochschild is careful and fair enough to point out that African societies were not all sunshine and roses; he does describe intertribal warfare that could be quite brutal, as well as a deep-seated misogyny that seemed to permeate all of the Congo. Nonetheless, these societies lived more peacefully and healthfully than they ever would following waves of European invasions.

Once Leopold had the nuts and bolts in place for running the colony (the land for which he literally stole from local chiefs), he eagerly searched for a product to - and this is the only honest word for it - steal from the Congo for profit. His first chosen product was ivory. At this stage in history, ivory (and, by extension, elephants) was so prevalent that it was used as doorposts in villages. Elephants were thus slaughtered en masse and ivory was shipped to Europe, with healthy profits for Leopold. Scarcely a dime of these profits ever found its way back to the Congo. Native Congolese men were forced to help gather and guard ivory, and methods of ensuring they do so included holding wives and children captive to force men to aid the Belgians. Congolese women held in captivity were raped, beaten, and murdered. The men were also beaten and murdered. It even became a sport for Belgian officers to shoot Congolese people for no reason whatsoever other than vile cruelty (and boredom). At some point, to account for each bullet used by soldiers (which had come to include native Congolese amongst their ranks), a right hand was required to be cut off of each victim. And here we have the infamous widespread collection of hands, which did happen occasionally during intertribal warfare before the arrival of the Europeans but which had never before happened on such a monstrous scale. Some of the victims were still alive when their hands were cut off by soldiers who needed a hand to account for a bullet that went to procuring food for the soldiers rather than to murdering a Congolese person.

If things were bad during the ivory period, they got infinitely worse when it was discovered that rubber vines grew rampantly in the Congo. Men were required to present so many kilos of rubber per day to Belgian officials; if they ran short, they were either beaten severely, mutilated, or murdered. One man was murdered because only one of his fifty baskets of rubber was slightly short of the requisite amount. Men were murdered for cutting a rubber vine in two (which kills the vine), because they were desperate to meet the required kilos of rubber.

Profits were unbelievable. Leopold made over USD1 billion in today's dollars from the Congo. He was so crafty with his investments that historians today still can't quite put an exact number on how much he made from the Congo. After over 10 years of looking through his financial records following his death (and before he died, he ordered that all Belgian records pertaining to the Congo be burned; this took over 7 days, and miraculously some documents survived due to having been stored away from the hands of these early 20th century "eraser-men"), it was discovered that Leopold was a major investor in the financial excursions by the French in the neighbouring French Congo. Not even the French knew this at the time of Leopold's involvement with the Belgian Congo.

At some point, people like George Washington Williams, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and E. D. Morel realised that things in the Congo were not as they were trumpeted to be in Europe. Europeans thought that Leopold's efforts in the Congo were humanitarian in nature. The individuals mentioned above mounted an aggressive campaign to expose the truth behind Leopold's motivations for his involvement in the Congo. Williams wrote several treatises on what was happening in the Congo, but was primarily ignored because he was black and because his claims seemed so outrageous. Conrad wrote his famous short novel, Heart of Darkness, not as a work of fiction but as an expose of the Belgian Congo as it really was at that time; his infamous villain, Kurtz, who collected Congolese heads in his garden, was based primarily on Leon Rom (and a few other notorious Belgians), a Belgian officer who really did collect Congolese heads in his garden. Casement and Morel, with the help of both Catholic and Protestant missionaries who had seen the truth behind Leopold's "humanitarian" Congo, mounted a worldwide human rights campaign against the horrors being inflicted on natives there - the first worldwide human rights campaign in history to gain such strength and prominence. Leopold responded to these attacks on his humanitarian intentions by commissioning an Official Belgian Investigation (I write these three words with great sarcasm) into what was happening in the Congo. In a great irony, his own officials broke down and wept at the testimony of native Congolese, and submitted a report that supported rather than refuted the claims of Williams, Conrad, Casement, and Morel. (This naturally infuriated Leopold.) The testimonies collected from native Congolese were kept hidden from public view for almost 100 years after Leopold's Congolese colony was begun; it was only at the insistence of a Belgian historian who himself didn't find out about Leopold's Congolese Chamber of Horrors until the late 1970s that these documents were finally released. Hochschild quotes a few of the testimonies; they are beyond heartbreaking and, aside from other things described in miserable detail in this book, help explain why so many reviewers reported nightmares and emotional disturbance while reading this book.

Conservative estimates, based on contemporary records and the study of today's anthropologists, indicate that at least 10 million native Congolese died - from disease, from overwork, and from blatant mass murder - as a result of Leopold's desire to establish a colony that would inflate his ego and his bank accounts. Some modern-day anthropologists have estimated that as many as 13 million native Congolese died during Leopold's Congolese exploits. Either way, this would make what happened in the Congo during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the world's first known holocaust.

Hochschild sensibly points out that much of what we know of the Congo comes from European eyes and ears and lips, and that the voice of the Congo itself is mostly silent when it comes to this historical epoch. He also dryly explains that after Leopold's death, his second wife and his daughters squabbled over who should get the overwhelming wealth accumulated by Leopold from the Congo and its people. No one, says Hochschild, thought to argue that the money should go to the Congolese.
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