King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa Literary Criticism and Significance - Essay

Adam Hochschild

Literary Criticism and Significance

King Leopold’s Ghost was published in 1998 and became an unexpected best-seller. The book was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist and won the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for Literary Style. Hochschild has been praised as an historian by numerous critics, including South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. However, he has also been criticized, namely by Belgian historians, for historical inaccuracies in his works, particularly in comparing Leopold with Hitler and Stalin. For example, the Belgian historian Jean Stengers claimed that some of his conclusions were based on incomplete statistics and also made the accusation that he was trying to appeal to a certain audience, particularly an “African American audience.”

Others have also claimed that Hochschild's portrayal of “genocide” is not accurate. However, Hochschild is careful not to make the outright, technical equation himself. Instead, he makes loose comparisons. His outright conclusion is that colonial rule of the Congo resulted in ten million deaths and a reduction of the population by one half. Other contemporary historians have estimated even higher numbers.

Perhaps most significantly in Hochschild's book is his aim to provide a historical narrative in a human rights context. As mentioned earlier, he finds historical accounts of the “crimes against humanity” and puts them in a new light. Hochschild mentions that many historical documents used for findings in the book were not released for public scrutiny until the 1980s. Indeed, the story of the Congo seems to have been for years repressed and mired in confusing propaganda that justified the colonial regime. For these reasons, Hochschild's is a body of work particularly notable in the literature of post-colonialism and contemporary human rights.