King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa Characters
Characters are essential in Hochschild’s work, as most of the story is told through the eyes of various historical personages. The arch-villain of the book is King Leopold, who is duplicitous, obsessed, greedy, and conniving. We are first introduced to King Leopold as a 37-year-old monarch of a small European county who is anxious to find a colony. In a sense, he is obsessed with claiming for Belgium (and himself,) a territory similar to the possession of other European countries, particularly his cousin Queen Victoria in England. Publicly, Leopold justified his mission in the Congo under the auspices of a humanitarian crusade, mainly to end Arab slave-trading and to promote free trade. He secures the interests of various contacts throughout his rule in Congo—explorers, diplomats, geographers, businessmen—through pay-offs, backroom deals, and promoting various conferences and associations. In his personal life, Hochschild portrays a tale of dysfunction—a mad sister, an estranged wife and daughters, and eventually a spoiled mistress. Leopold is also seen as power-hungry and obsessed with making his mark on the world. Much of his personal profits from the Congo went into building monuments, avenues, and other projects in Belgium. Upon his death in 1909, his illusion of the humanitarian mission in the Congo is all but exposed and he has been portrayed in the international press as the tyrant he was.
The beginnings of colonial exploitation in the Congo is seen largely through the eyes of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was born an illegitimate child in Wales, and after enduring a veritable Dickensonian childhood, emigrates to the United States. Throughout his life, Stanley skillfully covers up his origins and is forever insecure and frightened of people discovering the truth of his past. Leopold uses Stanley to map out the Congo region under the guise of patronizing his explorations, starting when Stanley becomes famous for finding the British explorer Livingston deep in the heart of Africa in 1872. Stanley is the first European recorded to find the origins of the Congo river and in the process provides Leopold with valuable information-- the region of the Congo is not a military threat and there is no unified rule to be subdued. Stanley becomes internationally famous largely through his sensationalist and racist writing, including his book Through the Dark Continent. Hochschild often exposes Stanley's contradictions and insecurities through dissecting press reports and journal entries, and reveals the portrait of a man largely shaped by the culture of his times and forever loyal to King Leopold.
In his book, Hochschild laments that his research is largely absent of African voices, yet two prominent African Americans bear witness to the horrors of Leopold's rule in the Congo—George Washington Williams and Reverend William H. Sheppard. Williams published numerous books on African American history after serving in the Union army during the Civil War and being educated as a minister. He became interested in the campaign of his time to send African Americans back to their home continent and received funding to visit the Congo, which had been hailed internationally as a humanitarian project. However, when Williams arrived in the Congo, he was horrified by the atrocities he witnessed and soon wrote and published "An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of the Congo." Citing “crimes against humanity,” "An Open Letter" became one of the first international human rights documents of its...
(The entire section is 882 words.)