Laurent'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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Apr 23, 12

bookshelves: favorites, 2012-books
Read in February, 2012

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 affecting all at once, I wish more historical novels were like this and would say it was one of the most interesting such books I've read. Mr Hochschild has evidently poured his heart and soul into the book to produce a novel of real depth, passion and benevolence.

Yes, it is fairly one-sided and heavily criticise Leopold, Belgium and less directly European countries with colonial pasts - this didn't bother me given the impact they've had on Africa's destiny, some of which is still being played out today. The numbers of persons that were affected by colonisation and slavery, while by Hochschild's own admission being hard to put an exact number on, still speak for themselves and are sobering.

Obviously the subject-matter is grim and many of Africa's problems are still occurring today, as pointed out by Hochschild. Having said this, I found the author's 2005 afterword (written at the book's tenth year of publication) was very interesting to see because it has had on people - I would count myself as one, as you'll see below.

So in summary, I found King Leopold's Ghost to be an excellent read.

2. The Book's Effect on Me

This book's affect on me was particularly personal and poignancy given I'm a Belgian by birth (although I've spent most of my life elsewhere) and am very familiar with many of the Brussels landmarks mentioned in the books, such as the chateau de Laeken and Tervuren. More importantly, my mum, uncles and aunties were all born in what was in the 1950s Stanleyville of the then Belgian Congo. Most significantly of all, we have many artifacts in the family that were bought back to Belgium on their return - including a table which has legs made of three whole elephant tusks and a piano of pure ivory keys. While I had always had some knowledge that colonial power was an evil it took Mr Hochschild's book to make me realise how likely it is such artifacts where extracted through slavery.

In a way reading Adam Hochschild's book makes us face our own ghost's, especially if we have a European background. While I can only hope that my family and ancestors did not have a direct role or impact in this horrendous and brutal part of history, which is still being played out because of colonial 'divide and conquor' strategies - it is, to say the least, quite confronting to realise that your country and what I would think are generally mild-mannered and gracious people could have contributed to such misery and destruction.

Interestingly, when I tried to broach the book with my family, they were quick to downplay any negative talk about Belgium's colonial past - reverting to saying that Africa has always been tribal and that Belgium wasn't the only colonial power - all true but still interesting for me to see how dismissive we can be given that our generation is still somewhat profiting from a colony that only ceased about 60 years ago.

As a final thought, I'd be interested in getting other reviewer's comments/thoughts about whether we (Europeans) need to, should do or if we have any responsibility to countries such as Congo and Rwanda. Of course it's easy to say that they must take responsibility for themselves but given what I have read in this book, I am not satisfied with such a response - after all most of the wealth that flowed out of Africa was never returned when colonial powers left. What are your thoughts?

For my part, I am actively looking for a charity that specifically targets the Congo and hope to make regular donations to them. So in my own way, one Belgian is trying to make a tiny reparation for their forefather's sins.
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