Review: King Leopold's Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Adam Hochschild
Boston: Mariner Books, 1998

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — December 12, 2000 7:14 p.m.

Certain elements of history somehow make their way to a common knowledge that will undoubtedly live for some time. One example would be the understanding that around 100 year ago, a great atrocity happened during World War II in which a European leader caused the deaths of millions. Other shared concepts are more vague, but most would have at least an idea that the African continent is filled with poverty and and wars, and that richer countries from time to time try their best to help out, but there's only so much that can be done in such situations. Some snapshots of the world, however, seem to fade from view and become invisible to interest. The story of Congo might be one of these. If Adam Hochschild has his way, the Congo's chapter in history may yet live.

Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is the story of another European ruler, Belgium's King Leopold II, and his ownership of the Congo from the late 1800's until after the turn of the 20th century. It was, in fact, King Leopold's country, not Belgium's; the reason for this makes clear his foresightfulness as well as the wiles. Through lies, tricks, crafty political manipulations, and simple ignored activities, the monarch who wanted to rule more than small Belgium found himself in control of one of the largest colonies in Africa.

The history of European contact with the Congo extends back before Leopold found it anything of interest. In such historical works, the "early history" section is usually monotonous and only slightly relevant — not so here. Hochschild starts at the beginning, and every bit of his well-referenced story ties together. His story includes a young king who always wanted more, and a well-known explorer named Stanley who was to become an instrumental part of that king's rape of the so-called "dark continent."

Leopold's first grabs for land in Africa soon resulted in a town (Leopoldville) named after him, after Stanley worked for Leopold to create paths above the rapids on the Congo River so steamboats could be brought in (67). (Leopoldville eventually merged with the nearby village of Kinshasa (145).) Some of these early land acquisitions were ludicrous, having village chiefs sign (or rather, "X") complicated, legalese-filled contracts, such as the following:

In return for "one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand," they promised to "freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever... give up to the said Association the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories... and to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements, or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories.... All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association" (72).

The "Association" was one of Leopold's many early "anti-slavery" and "anti-'Arab'-slave-traders" organizations which he used to rally public support while using slavery for his own purposes in Africa. Germany's Bismark was one of the few critics, who, in response to Leopold's early claims in the region, included in his remarks such things as, "Swindle," "Fantasies," and "...naive selfishness" (83). It was the public in general who continued in naivety, praising the new the new machine gun invented by Hiram Maxim. The machine gun would, according to Stanley, be "of valuable service in helping civilisation to overcome barbarism" (97). (In one of Stanley's treks through the Congo, his party would use the gun to sometimes attack and burn surrounding villages when it was feared they might be attacked (99).

Leopold's conniving acquisition of Congo land soon proved its economic worth. After killing a multitude of elephants for ivory, as well as stealing it from villages, rubber became needed around the world. The white authorities in the Congo soon forced entire villages into the jungle to gather rubber from the rubber vines. Armies were created which would enslave the natives to gather rubber, with the pain of severe whippings or death for less-than-satisfactory results. It is at this time that soldiers, who would need a native's hand to either prove a bullet was used in battle or to simply exchange for reward money, would simply cut off the hands of the living. Wives in villages were kept in chains until their husbands would bring back the required amounts of rubber.

The world outside Leopold's palace were not immune from the evil. Leopold, through his unmatched political maneuverings, succeeded in having the United States recognize his Congo with little investigation. The Congo continued to be exploited in the West while its people continued to be slaughtered back home. As recent as September 1902, "Ota Benga, a Pygmy from the Congo, ...was displayed in the monkey house of New York's Bronx Zoo" (176) as a sort of specimen from Africa.

The brave efforts of those like E. D. Morel, George Washington Williams, William Sheppard, and Roger Casement (277-288) helped to bring the actual facts of the Congo occurrences to the public. Morel was even able to leverage those like Senator John Tyler Morgan, who wanted to send all blacks back to Africa, to help speak out against the abuses in the Congo. "Otherwise, how could black Americans be persuaded to move there" (242)?

As public sentiment finally turned against Leopold, he tried to duplicate an earlier public relations effort by starting a sham investigation. This fake investigation, attempting to appease the public "slipped out of his control and became a real one." News came back that one of the judges had even broken down and wept while listening to witnesses (251). Unfortunately, the reports from these judges were never directly quoted and were placed "in the closed section of a state archive in Brussels. Not until the 1980s were people at last permitted to read and copy them freely" (255).

Eventually Leopold had to give up his Congo — so he sold it to Belgium, the country he ruled. It wasn't until 1960 that the Congo was granted its "independence." This land which had been pillaged and robbed was suddenly expected to implement self-governance, when at that time "in the entire territory there were fewer than thirty African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists, or physicians" (301).

It was no further help that, after the country's first democratic national election raised Patrice Lumumba to coalition-government prime minister (301), he was assassinated, apparently with the support of the CIA because of his communist tendencies (302). The US supported the installation of a new ruler, Mobutu, who continued the extortion from the Congo's people until he was overthrown in 1997, having at one point had wealth estimated at $4 billion. What seemed important to the US, though, is that he served US interests — even "George Bush greeted him as 'one of our most valued friends'" (303).

The story of the Congo, which has seemed to slip away into the space that separates centuries, ranks as bloody as the other atrocities that are more well-known. Its setting is far from isolated; its plot was written by not only by Europe but by the United States as well. King Leopold's Ghost is one of the most well-written, accessible, researched histories that one could find. May Adam Hochschild succeed in allowing everyone to see the ghost that still haunts the the continent.

Other Notes