Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) was published by Mariner Books. Hochschild, a respected historian, chronicles the horrifying and forgotten crimes of the 1800s in Belgium. As Europe was dividing up the continent of Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized the unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. He looted its rubber and killed nearly ten million people.
King Leopold is a monstrous figure who combined the cruel with the charming. He cleverly manipulated his image and developed a reputation as a great humanitarian amid the violence and bloodshed. The people who went to work in Africa observed first-hand his holocaust. The Africans who died were beaten or whipped to death as they worked on ivory and rubber harvest to meet production goals. They lived in slave-like conditions as rubber gatherers or miners for little or no pay. Some died from overwork.
The Africans also were the victims of the diseases brought over by the Europeans. Famines spread across the Congo basin as Leopold’s army ransacked the countryside, taking crops and food and destroying fields and villages.
Horschild brings this story alive by providing a vast array of characters. Edmund Morel is a young British shipping agent. He leads the effort to ruin Leopold. Roger Casement is an Irish patriot and hero of the tale who ends up executed in the London gallows. George Washington Williams and William Sheppared are two brave black Americans who risk their lives to bring evidence of Leopold’s violence to the rest of the world. Joseph Conrad is a steamboat officer. The efforts of these men help to bring pressure onto Leopold. In 1908, he turned over the Congo to the Belgian government.
The author developed the material from Jules Marchal’s four-volume history of the Congo and from a 1991 study by Thomas Pakenham called The Scramble for Africa. Critics applaud Horchschild’s vivid account as a great piece of history. His storytelling is intense and creates an enthralling narrative.