King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa Questions and Answers
by Adam Hochschild

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Hochschild quotes Roger Casement as insisting to Edmund Morel, “I do not agree with you that England and America are the two great humanitarian powers. . . . [They are] materialistic first and humanitarian only a century after (pg 269).” What evidence supports or refutes Casement’s judgment? Would Casement be justified in making the same statement today?

Casement was an Irishman, and had firsthand experience with British colonialism. He also heavily investigated the treatment of the Congo at the hands of the Belgian crown. His firsthand experience of the colonization process supports his judgement. Casement would likely be justified in using the same statement today, although the process of colonization has changed to military intervention.

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Roger Casement had a great deal of experience in the Congo region, and actually chaired an investigation into the horrific abuses perpetrated by King Leopold's colonizers in the Belgian Congo. His report exposed these horrors, outlined in King Leopold's Ghost, to the world.

But Casement, despite being a British imperial official, was Irish. As Hochschild writes, "[h]is letters are filled with discomfort at working for the biggest colonizer [Great Britain] of them all." So his statement to fellow Edmund Morel, another opponent of imperialism, is understandable, especially given Casement's affinity for Irish nationalism.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Great Britain was indeed the biggest colonizer of them all, in control of vast swaths of Africa and the Indian subcontinent. These colonies were an important source of British power. America, too, was an imperial power. Not only had the nation expanded its borders through war with Mexico, it had expropriated the lands of Native peoples throughout the nineteenth century. At the end of that century, the United States seized Spanish territories, including the Philippines, by force. When the Filipino people rebelled against American rule, the US government waged a brutal war to bring them under control. The United States repeatedly invaded its Central American and Caribbean neighbors during the twentieth century.

So, by the time Casement wrote Morel in the early nineteenth century, it is difficult to claim that the United States and Great Britain were motivated by "humanitarian" concerns. The empires they built served primarily to provide them with wealth and strategic advantage. Whether this is true today is a matter of debate, but certainly the relationship between American corporate interests and its foreign policy is well-documented. Many Americans question whether the rhetoric of freedom and liberty that has been used to justify intervention in conflicts around the world is in fact an ideological cover for more "materialistic" concerns.

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