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

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In King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, how does modernization, with regard to politics and royal power and media, affect empires?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I love how your question ties nicely into the legacy hinted at in the title: King Leopold's Ghost.  As will be evidence here, King Leopold's doings will certainly last beyond his life span!  King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the territory around the Congo river during the time Africa was being divided among European empires. This territory was unexplored and King Leopold looted the rubber supply and killed approximately ten million people. 

The African people were used largely as near-slaves to harvest the rubber and ivory available in that area. The production goals were so large that many of the workers were beaten to meet the goals and many died from the difficult conditions and being over-worked.

King Leopold II was trying to contain and rule the entirety of Central Africa. Why?  To cement his legacy!  In truth, he utilized propaganda and bribery in order to gain favor in Belgium and began trying to sell the idea of private companies working in this area.

However, these private companies would be expected to answer to him and only him.  However, there was great tension between King Leopold II and those who were trying to gain justice for the disenfranchised Congolese.  King Leopold began to try and gain legitimization from other countries for his rights to this area. For example, in 1884, the US Secretary of State was convinced to legally recognize his claim on the Congo.  However, there were those who called Leopold out on his claims.

When Leopold wrote that the precise frontiers of the new state or states would be defined later, [German Chancellor] Bismarck said to an aide, "His Majesty displays the pretensions and naive selfishness of an Italian who considers that his charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything.”

While touting himself a humanitarian and kind leader, he was able to gain European recognition as a free state by Royal Decree. However, because of the cruel conditions the population of the Congo decreased by almost 50%.  If I were King Leopold, this is certainly not the legacy I would have liked to create. Thus, in this regard, King Leopold lives up to the second part of the title, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.

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