King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa Themes

Adam Hochschild


King Leopold’s Ghost is a historical narrative, but it is also largely a human rights document. Although Hochschild reveals the story mainly through the eyes of historical witnesses, he carefully pieces together a history of slaughter and abuses in the colonial Congo. Numerous comparisons are made between the Congo and the holocaust of World War II, such as the Elder Dempster company, that Hochschild likens to the railway systems of Nazi Germany. He highlights certain historical personages as champions of human rights, such as with George Washington Williams who wrote about “crimes against humanity” in his "Open Letter to the King."

Hochschild also continually exposes the propaganda of the time, informing us historically of how such a large-scale human tragedy was allowed to occur. In addition, he refers t o how the ruling elite conscripted mercenaries in the Force Publique to actually execute the most brutal and repressive crimes, dissecting the psychology colonial military repression.

In a sense, Hochschild also seeks to give voice to the voiceless. In quoting diary entries, stories, reports, and articles, he painstakingly looks for African perspectives on genocide and colonial rule. He is quick to contrast this with the European take on reality that was developing during this time. For example, he explores how native Africans viewed the colonizers as cannibals as a curious inversion of a common European perception of the time. He also contextualizes European voices, historically and culturally, revealing racial bias in many of the more widely circulated accounts of this time in the Congo, such as in the Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He explores a general sense of European attitudes toward the colonizing mission in the dark continent. These ideals, Hochschild informs us, were driven largely by Victorian principles, racial bias, religious fervor, perception of “the other,” and human greed. Nineteenth-century European colonialism in Africa was, he informs us, justified in various ways, “claiming that it Christianized the heathen or civilized the savage races or brought everyone miraculous benefits of free trade.”

Lastly, Hochschild fully analyzes the “enlightened despotism” picture that King Leopold wished to portray in his colonization of the Congo. The King, claims Hochschild, saw the Congo as his “stage” where he could play the part of humanitarian missionary while satisfying his power-hungry nature. Leopold is proud, subtle, manipulative, and hypocritical. His many projects and political interactions portray a man with a huge ego and immoral consciousness. Indeed, the reader is presented with a ghostly figure who, through various campaigns, was ultimately responsible for the slaughter of ten million Africans.