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

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  53,061 ratings  ·  3,377 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
Kindle Edition, 442 pages
Published September 3rd 1999 by Mariner Books (first published September 21st 1998)
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Mary Non-fiction.
This is a non-fiction book about King Leopold (of Belgium) and his rule in the Congo.…more
This is a non-fiction book about King Leopold (of Belgium) and his rule in the Congo.(less)
Madeline The book was originally published in 1998, and some of the editions are probably the original text. The version I have contains an introduction and af…moreThe book was originally published in 1998, and some of the editions are probably the original text. The version I have contains an introduction and afterword from 2018 that talk about developments since the first publication. I would suggest ordering the newer edition as the afterword was excellent(less)
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Start your review of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
A few things. First, I have read widely about Mao's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward (40 to 70 million dead), Stalin's purges and programs of collectivization (20 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 (15 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 own ...more
Apr 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The book was written 20 years ago, and yet, it is so eye-opening! The theme has not been covered enough …. My idea of atrocities committed in the Congo in the second half of the 19th century were more than basic and narrowed to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I read (and now should re-read) but didn’t take too much interest in Conrad’s time in the Congo, which was a mistake … Author who undertakes a most difficult task to write about crimes against humanities (term used for the first ti ...more
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, race
This is a remarkably painful book. There are a number of estimates given throughout of the extent of the extermination of people in the Congo under King Leopold – the author says perhaps 8-10 million people, but he also quotes someone who believes it might have been as many as 13 million people. This does not include, obviously enough, the children who were not born because their parents could not face bringing them into such a world. I mention this because at one point the author quotes people ...more
Dec 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
The best non-fiction book I've ever read. The hyphenated title on the book is a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa and that sums it up very well. Such horrific treatment including brutal maiming and killing of workers, including children, who refused to work for King Leopold's rubber plantations is a story untold for centuries and deserves this fine treatment by Adam Hochschild. King Leopold of Belgium was an unrepentant monster. ...more
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
Oct 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a difficult book to review, because I am still thinking about it and probably will for some time. Of course I knew about King Leopold and his cruelty in the Congo, but nothing to this extent. The story Hochschild tells is one that left me consistently shocked, disgusted and deeply saddened and yet this is a book I would recommend to just about anyone. It strikes me again and again how cruel and vicious people can be to those they view as the "other", to those they view as someone less th ...more
‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ – Kurtz

A very readable summary of one of the first real international human rights campaigns, a campaign focussed on that vast slab of central Africa once owned, not by Belgium, but personally by the Belgian King. The Congo Free State was a handy microcosm of colonialism in its most extreme and polarised form: political control subsumed into corporate control, natural resources removed wholesale, local peoples dispossessed of their lands, their freedom, their lives.
Feb 11, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: africa, colonialism
This is a tragic history of the Belgian Congo at the end of the 19th century as the 'Scramble for Africa' began. Adam Hochschild is an American writer and journalist for the New Yorker, NY Times, NY Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. His work has combined history with human rights advocacy. The events in this book are a shameful chapter in an era of colonialism of which there were many. It is portrait of Leopold likely to inspire loathing in anyone who reads it. Beside an account of ...more
Phenomenal book. I can't recommend this enough. Impeccably researched and told in a narrative style that is incredibly accessible. Hochschild focuses on a small cast of characters, follows their stories in such an intimate way that the history and the story come to life in a novelesque way.

I don't know much about colonialism. This book was a great way to get a sense of it and its exploitative evils and how imperialistic capitalism can bring out the absolute worst in human beings. The cool thing
Jul 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

"The Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting. Leopold and the Belgian colonial officials who followed him went to extraordinary lengths to try to erase potentially incriminating evidence from the historical record. One day in August 1908, shortly before the colony was officially turned over to Belgium, the king's young military aide Gustave Stinglhamber walked from the Royal Palace to see a friend in the Congo state offices next door. The midsummer day seemed particularly w
Will Byrnes
A compelling history of the impact of the West on the Congo
Oct 12, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-history
Ten years before the discovery of America, the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão discovered the Congo River. 18 years later another Portuguese ship discovered Brazil. Thus began the lucrative slave trade to supply workers for Brazil’s mines and plantations. Congo ivory was sent to Europe in trade for cheap consumer goods but mostly for guns. The exploitation of the Congo’s resources was underway. By the late 19th century the Europeans were scrambling to dominate Africa and the heretofore impenetrabl ...more
Aug 15, 2022 rated it liked it
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite books, I’ve read it many times and so when I saw this a few years ago I knew that I would one day read it.

This is a book that I will put in the category of William L. Shirer’s 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Iris Chang’s 1997 history The Rape of Nanking. While what went on in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) was not officially a war, what went on “behind the lines” was similar with what went on
Jan 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 05, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Lisa (Harmonybites)
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
Joy D
King Leopold II of Belgium managed to convince the world (for a while) that he was a humanitarian and philanthropist. Meanwhile, he was extracting the riches of the Congo for personal gain and ruthlessly exploiting the Congolese, with the death toll eventually estimated at ten million people. This book provides a history of the Congo from pre-colonial times through Mobutu’s regime. Through the efforts George Washington Williams, Rev. William Sheppard, E.D. Morel, and Roger Casement, the abuses b ...more
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
Jul 24, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 30, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The fault in this book is set out by Hochschild both in the introduction and again in his afterword. Here's what he says -

Looking back on this book after an interval of some years has reminded me of where I wish I could have done more. My greatest frustration lay in how hard it was to portray individual Africans as full-fledged actors in this story. Historians often face such difficulties, since the written record from colonizers, the rich, and the powerful is always more plentiful than it is f
Laura Noggle
Jan 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020, nonfiction, history
You think you know, but you actually don’t.

This book is the most compelling history on colonial Africa I’ve ever read. It’s on par with The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

“Furthermore, unlike many other great predators of history, from Genghis Khan to the Spanish conquistadors, King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilled in anger. He never set foot in the Congo. There is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere, above the clouds, who
Jul 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Lee Prescott
May 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing
A compelling read about what surely must be one of humanity's horrific chapters - the systematic destruction of the Congo and its peoples by one of history's little-mentioned, but most grotesque characters. The author's liberal standpoint may mean it is ultimately an unbalanced book, centring on exploitation and attrocity with no discernable counterpoint, but in chronicling that it is an excellent, if harrowing, account. The image of Nsala's daughter's hand and foot will haunt me for a very long ...more
Jacob Overmark
This is not a book for the faint-hearted.

It reveals the massive abuse of the Congo from the very day the Belgian King Leopold II laid his eyes on it and till the end of colonial days.

You may ask why we cannot let bygone be bygones, why we cannot get out of our mind the pictures of severed hands and heads, flogging, rape and murder.
You may ask why treating other human beings like animals or at best like second-class citizens in the past should not just be buried as something we have dealt with al
Oct 02, 2007 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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Mar 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An incredible story, all the more incredible because it was true--the story of Leopold King of the Belgians acquiring the land in the Congo basin in Central Africa in order to plunder its vast riches for his private purposes. Perhaps as many as ten million Congolese died during the brutal exploitation by one megalomaniac. And, amazingly enough, Leopold conned Europeans and Americans into believing he was building hospitals and missions in the Congo to "civilize" the natives. While the narrative ...more
Tanja Berg
Oct 30, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This is a brilliant achievement: a history book of horrors which turns out to be a riveting read. I did not know much of King Leopold before this book, but I did know that he was responsible for many atrocities in his private colony Congo. This book paints a portrait of a greedy but intelligent man who knew how to use propaganda to achieve what he wanted: a colony and riches. Leopold also had a taste for very young girls - at the age of 65 years his mistress was a 16-year old prositute who event ...more
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
Jan 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, history
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
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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

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“Furthermore, unlike many other great predators of history, from Genghis Khan to the Spanish conquistadors, King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilled in anger. He never set foot in the Congo. There is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere, above the clouds, who never hears screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh.” 29 likes
“And yet the world we live in—its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence—is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget. Leopold's Congo is but one of those silences of history.” 22 likes
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