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

by Adam Hochschild

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

Synopsis

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.

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

Adam Hochschild's King Leopold’s Ghost is a historical account of colonial exploitation of the Congo region of Africa. The book details the genocide—an estimated ten million lives were lost—that resulted from virtual slavery and monetary greed. Hochschild presents the reader with factual accounts, diary entries, newspaper articles, and documents that together piece together a picture of horror and holocaust. Much of the story is told, however, through various historical figures—their lives, their observations, and their experiences in and connections to the Congo. As the title of the book suggests, most of the developments center on King Leopold II (1835–1909) of Belgium, who through a series of political maneuverings, including propaganda and bribery, comes to solely possess the territory of Central Africa. Throughout the book, there is tension between reformers who seek justice for the Congo and exploiters who seek to benefit through the brutal repression of native Congolese.

The region of Africa’s Congo was first exploited during the Atlantic slave trade. The mouth of the Congo river, which flows into the Atlantic, became known to Europeans when the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cao claimed he “discovered” it in 1482. The region was the territory of the Kingdom of the Kongo with approximately two to three million inhabitants. By the 1530s, more than five thousand slaves a year (many from inland regions) were being transported from the Congo, mostly to the Americas. This number eventually dwindled when the trading of slaves became outlawed in much of the world. However, a new form of thinly veiled slavery was about to be developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, under the workings of King Leopold II of Belgium.

Belgium was a small country, and Leopold thirsted for a colony. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of the Kongo was controlled by the Portuguese. However, eighty percent of the continent was still under indigenous rule and largely unknown to Europeans. Leopold began courting explorers of the time, hosting conferences and following their stories closely. In June of 1878, he met the American (Welsch-born) explorer Henry Morton Stanley, promising funding for Stanley's explorations with the ulterior motive of surveying the Congo for colonization.

While this exploration was underway, Leopold was also promoting potential business in the area, mostly the shipping of ivory, an important commodity in Europe at the time. Leopold explored the possibility of having various private companies operating in the Congo; the companies would work as sovereign entities answerable only to him. As his plans became reality, he sought legal recognition from other...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear