King Leopold's Ghost

The subtitle of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild reads more like an ad for a current spy movie than a history occurring in the Congo in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Hochschild writes about the conditions in the Belgian Congo, approximately modern day Zaire, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

This is the story of the transformation of a country from a colony greatly abused and used by the policies of King Leopold II of Belgium. Forced labor, stripping of natural resources were common. King Leopold’s Ghost is the story of the terror that occurred because of King Leopold’s greed and of the affects felt many years after his death. It is the story of honorable men such as, Edmund Dene Morel, an English business man from Liverpool and George Washington Williams, an American African American who had served the Union during the Civil war and had fought against Emperor Maximilian (brother-in-law of Leopold II) before beginning work in journalism. It is the story of these men and others and their efforts to mobilize the world against the abuses in the Belgian Congo (Hochschild 1-5, 101-103).

Adam Hochschild has a long distinguished career as a journalist and writer. He has published a wide variety of books and articles, some also dealing with social political history in Africa such as King Leopold’s Ghost and The Mirror at Midnight that deals with apartheid in South Africa in the mid-1800s. In Bury the Chains Hochschild writes of the attempts to bring slavery to an end in eighteenth century throughout Europe and the Americas.

According to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, King Leopold’s Ghost was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Awards. He has written for a variety of magazines Ramparts, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker Magazine among others. Currently he teaches narrative writing at University of California at Berkeley graduate school. Hochschild’s writing style is a combination of journalism, historical, and at times travel writing. It fits nicely into the niche commonly called new journalism or creative non-fiction. His work reads well and, although disturbing, is engaging and important to read.

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Hochschild begins his book with a brief history of the development of the slave trade beginning in the mid to late fifteenth century. Portuguese exploration led to the discovery of the Congo River in 1482. This marked the first sustained contact between Europeans and the African nation the Kingdom of the Kongo.

Hochschild points out that slavery had been practiced within the African Continent before but when the Europeans arrived the “institution” dramatically changed, “. . . when Europeans showed up ready to buy endless shiploads of slaves, they found African chiefs willing to sell” (Hochschild 10). As exploration of the Western Hemisphere grew and more land came under European dominance a need for a large market for laborers in mining, on sugar and coffee plantations. Consequently the slave trade flourished (Hochschild 6-16).

Hochschild presents an interesting account of the relationship between Leopold II and Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was a Welshman, masquerading as an American, journalist working throughout the United States. Stanley had served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil war. On the second day of the Battle of Shiloh Stanley was captured by Union soldiers and sent to what later became known as a notorious Union POW camp just outside of Chicago. Stanley showed his ability to land on his feet and make the best of any situation by enlisting in the Union army to obtain his freedom. His army career was short-lived when he received a medical discharge because he suffered from dysentery (pun enjoyed, but unintended).

After working at sea, Stanley enlisted in the Union Navy where he worked as a clerk on the Minnesota. In early 1865 Stanley deserts the navy and begins writing journalism about the American West. Soon he was hired by the New York Herald and sent to Africa to cover the war in Suez. From there he joined a variety of journalists writing dispatches from Africa. He traveled the Nile, found international fame when he found Dr. Livingstone and came under the influence of Leopold II (Hochschild 21-60). Leopold contracted with Stanley for five years at the rate of 25,000 francs per year for time and 50,000 francs for time spent in Africa (each franc is about $5 in current funds). Stanley was to head expeditionary forces that would look for resources such as ivory that could be sold in Europe.

From this point Hochschild writes about the increase of Belgian influence in the Congo along with increased funneling of Congolese natural resources into Leopold’s treasury and increased violence. At the same time Morel and Williams increased their efforts to inform the world of conditions in the Congo. Their efforts were successful as organizations throughout the western world began to lend their support to the effort. As the story of events in the Congo became better known, people such as Stanley tried to distance themselves from Leopold II and his past.

In chapter 15 “A Reckoning” Hochschild summarizes the horror under Leopold’s reign. Although not technically “genocide” as it was not a deliberate, sanctioned attempt to eliminate a particular ethnic group, the effects were of such proportion. Hochschild attributes the large number of deaths to four sources: murder, starvation, disease, and a “plummeting” birth rate” (226). Force Publique soldiers were known to kill everyone they could find when a district failed to produce its quota of rubber. According to Hochschild “the list of specific massacres on record goes on and on” (226-228).

As the terror increased thousands of people fled from their villages. The French government estimated that at least 30,000 entered French controlled countries. Others fled to the English controlled Northern Rhodesia. Along the way many died due to starvation and exposure. According to one Presbyterian missionary, there were at least 40,000 refugees living in the forests without shelter within a seventy-five mile radius of Luebo (Hochschild 229-230). Hochschild points out the far more people died of disease in the area during this period than by being shot. Smallpox was endemic; sleeping sickness (caused by the bite of the pink-striped tse-tse fly) killed an estimated 500,000 in 1900 alone (Hochschild 230-231).

Due to the forced labor where men were sent to work camps for weeks at a time the number of children born decreased alarmingly. A visitor in 1910 reported a distinct absence of children between the ages of seven and fourteen; this corresponds exactly with the height of the rubber harvesting.  According to estimates Hochschild writes that the population of the Congo had decreased by half between 1880 and 1920. A 1924 estimate of the population was ten million. This indicates ten million people died or fled the country during this period without being replaced by new births or immigration (Hochschild 231-233).

Unfortunately, as history expands its areas of specialization from the traditional all-white, male dominated governmental emphasis into the more marginalized people it becomes apparent that throughout world history genocide has been a much more common phenomenon than previously believed. This is a very good book that should be read by more people. The number of people killed is shocking. It would be nice to think such things only happened in the past; unfortunately events in Somalia, Rwanda and throughout the Middle East indicate this is not the case. It is to be hoped that such events are never forgotten nor repeated.

Works Cited

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, A Mariner Book, 1999.
“Adam Hochschild.” 2007. Houghton Mifflin Company. 27 Feb. 2007 ;http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/catalog/authordetail.cfm?authorID=2188;.

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