What insight does the rule of Leopold II provide into motivations and means of European Imperialism? Should Leopold be considered representative of European imperialism or exceptional from it?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that Hochschild's account reflects how Leopold II was a uniquely savage imperialistic force, but reflective of a general attitude that Europeans had towards "the other."  Hochschild's account makes Leopold II the example of the destructive nature of European imperialism.  Leopold II is depicted as anxious to find a colony as a means to establish his own rule and prestige. This is reflective of the European imperialistic attitude of the time. Hochschild does not hesitate to depict how Leopold II's duplicity and intensity towards his goal differentiated him from other European leaders.  The fact that he would display himself as the "serene" leader who was simply interested in increasing free trade is a testament to how distinctive he was in the political landscape of the time.  Leopold II's desire for rubber and profits from the Congo defined his identity.  It is what made him embrace savagery and cruelty:

A village which refused to provide rubber would be completely swept clean. As a young man, I saw [Fiévez's] soldier Molili, then guarding the village of Boyeka, take a big net, put ten arrested natives in it, attach big stones to the net, and make it tumble into the river.... Rubber caused these torments;... Soldiers made young men kill or rape their own mothers and sisters.

Hochschild suggests that it is Leopold II's desires and his own unique personality that facilitated such a condition.  Such a depiction of European imperialism reflects that Leopold II was distinctive from other leaders who viewed other nations as "the other," capable of doing whatever to extract items from it.

However, I tend to think that it might be a mistake to view Leopold II as exceptional from the dominant cultural and political practices of imperialism. The accounts of what he presided over and authorized render him uniquely brutal.  However, I think that Hochschild's portrait is one where imperialism enabled Europeans to take such action in the name of a representative trend or dominant attitude.  Hochschild makes it clear that European nations embraced imperialism as a part of national practices, “claiming that it Christianized the heathen or civilized the savage races or brought everyone miraculous benefits of free trade.”  The attitude that led European nations to commit atrocities to people of nations seen as "the other" was not something intrinsic to only Leopold II:  "One British missionary was asked repeatedly by Africans, 'Has the Savior you tell us of any power to save us from the rubber trouble?'"  In this light, the "trouble" that Africans and others who were seen as "the other" experienced becomes a sad legacy of European imperialism, something of which Leopold II was a pronounced, but fitting part.

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