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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa Paperback – October, 1999

4.5 out of 5 stars 534 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

King Leopold of Belgium, writes historian Adam Hochschild in this grim history, did not much care for his native land or his subjects, all of which he dismissed as "small country, small people." Even so, he searched the globe to find a colony for Belgium, frantic that the scramble of other European powers for overseas dominions in Africa and Asia would leave nothing for himself or his people. When he eventually found a suitable location in what would become the Belgian Congo, later known as Zaire and now simply as Congo, Leopold set about establishing a rule of terror that would culminate in the deaths of 4 to 8 million indigenous people, "a death toll," Hochschild writes, "of Holocaust dimensions." Those who survived went to work mining ore or harvesting rubber, yielding a fortune for the Belgian king, who salted away billions of dollars in hidden bank accounts throughout the world. Hochschild's fine book of historical inquiry, which draws heavily on eyewitness accounts of the colonialists' savagery, brings this little-studied episode in European and African history into new light. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Hochschild's superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885. Until 1909, he used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, burn villages, mete out sadistic punishments, including dismemberment, and committ mass murder. The hero of Hochschild's highly personal, even gossipy narrative is Liverpool shipping agent Edmund Morel, who, having stumbled on evidence of Leopold's atrocities, became an investigative journalist and launched an international Congo reform movement with support from Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Arthur Conan Doyle. Other pivotal figures include Joseph Conrad, whose disgust with Leopold's "civilizing mission" led to Heart of Darkness; and black American journalist George Washington Williams, who wrote the first systematic indictment of Leopold's colonial regime in 1890. Hochschild (The Unquiet Ghost) documents the machinations of Leopold, who won over President Chester A. Arthur and bribed a U.S. senator to derail Congo protest resolutions. He also draws provocative parallels between Leopold's predatory one-man rule and the strongarm tactics of Mobuto Sese Seko, who ruled the successor state of Zaire. But most of all it is a story of the bestiality of one challenged by the heroism of many in an increasingly democratic world. 30 illustrations. Agent: Georges Borchardt. First serial rights to American Scholar. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (October 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618001905
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618001903
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (534 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Adam Hochschild (pronunciation: ''Hoch'' as in "spoke"; ''schild'' as in "build") published his first book, "Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son," in 1986. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called it "an extraordinarily moving portrait of the complexities and confusions of familial love . . . firmly grounded in the specifics of a particular time and place, conjuring them up with Proustian detail and affection." It was followed by "The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey," and "The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin." His 1997 collection, "Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels," won the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay. "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa" was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. It also won a J. Anthony Lukas award in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize in England. Five of his books have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. His "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves" was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History.

"To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918," Hochschild's latest book, was a New York Times bestseller. It was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction and won the 2012 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction.

The American Historical Association gave Hochschild its 2008 Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, a prize given each year to someone outside the academy who has made a significant contribution to the study of history.

"Throughout his writings over the last decades," the Association's citation said, "Adam Hochschild has focused on topics of important moral and political urgency, with a special emphasis on social and political injustices and those who confronted and struggled against them, as in the case of Britain's 18th-century abolitionists in 'Bury the Chains'; 'The Mirror at Midnight', a study of the struggle between the Boers and Zulus for control over South Africa in the 19th-century Battle of Blood River and its contentious commemoration by rival groups 150 years later; the complex confrontation of Russians with the ghost of Stalinist past in 'The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin'; and the cruelties enacted during the course of Western colonial expansion and domination, notably in his widely acclaimed 'King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa', among his many other publications. All his books combine dramatic narratives and meticulous research. . . .

" 'King Leopold's Ghost' had an extraordinary impact, attracting readers the world over, altering the teaching and writing of history and affecting politics and culture at national and international levels. Published in English and translated into 11 additional languages, the book has been incorporated into secondary school curricula and appears as a key text in the historiography of colonial Africa for college and graduate students. But it is within Belgium that Hochschild's work has had the most dramatic impact, demonstrating the active and transformative power of history. The publication of 'King Leopold's Ghost' forced Belgians to come to terms for the first time with their long buried colonial past and generated intense public debate that so troubled Belgian officials that they reportedly instructed diplomats on how to deflect embarrassing questions that the book raised about the past. The book offered welcome support for others in Belgium who sought acknowledgment and accountability for Belgian actions in the Congo. . . . Few works of history have the power to effect such significant change in people's understanding of their past."

Hochschild teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He and his wife, sociologist and author Arlie Russell Hochschild, have two sons and two granddaughters.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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Many of us who have read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" think of it as an allegory tinged with racism--a tale of a European, Kurtz, who has abandoned the restraints of civilization and has surrendered himself to the barbaric despotism and primitive rituals innate to Africa. Yet Hochschild spends a full chapter of his excellent history reminding us of the novel's historical context: the figure of Kurtz is based on at least one real-life colonial administrator, and the barbarity is not one that is indigenous to Africa but imported from Europe. Conrad's contemporary readers understood that his novel was a condemnation more of colonial tyranny rather than of African primitivism.

And the ringleader of these gang of hoodlums who invaded the Congo and massacred its inhabitants was King Leopold II of Belgium. In a tour de force of characterization, Hochschild portrays Leopold as a petulant and greedy monster who decided at a young age that the way to wealth was ownership of an African colony and the subjugation of its inhabitants. Leopold initially made his profits through the exportation of ivory, but his bureaucrats struck gold with the expansion of the international rubber market.

The victims were the natives, who lost not only their land and their freedom, but often their lives. There is no pretty way for Hochschild to tell this story: Leopold's officials used unbelievably harsh methods to force the locals to collect rubber--all in the name of bringing them European civilization, Christian charity, and a Western work ethic. In addition to taking wives and children hostage (in subhuman conditions) until the men made their quotas, soldiers would torture or kill the inhabitants if they faltered.
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By A Customer on September 28, 2000
Format: Paperback
King Leopold's Ghost provides a vivid account of an episode in the modern history of Africa that was the epitome of tragedy. In this book, Adam Hochschild concerns himself with the looting of the Congo and the destruction of its peoples by a cousin of Queen Victoria, King Leopold of the Belgians.
The story is told through a succession of biographical sketches of the principal villains and heroes, the former being Leopold's accomplices and the latter his opponents. Hochschild, though bent on illuminating a great human tragedy, allows himself and the reader several curious and even piquant digressions. The first suspicion that these digressions are only there to spice up the story is belied when the author manages to make them highly relevant, such as the connection between Leopold's unsuccessful wedding night and his all-consuming desire in the Congo.
Hochschild begins this book by reminding us of the figure of Affonso I, the sixteenth-century Christian King of the Kongo, pious son of a ruler converted by the Portuguese. Affonso wrote a series of eloquent letters to the Portuguese king complaining that the slave traders were depopulating his kingdom and even seizing members of the royal family. The Portuguese, however, had meanwhile discovered a traffic more profitable than gold and they were not about to give it up.
Leopold, the figurehead monarch of a small country, successfully acquired a realm larger than France, Italy and Germany combined. For many of the new imperial powers, collecting colonies was not particularly profitable, but Leopold, through a strange mix of luck, cunning, ruthlessness and breathtaking hypocrisy, managed to gain a huge fortune.
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Format: Paperback
This is an extremely readable book, but its title is deceptive. While the full title is King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, the book is not about Africa at all. Instead, the vast majority of this book is about diplomacy and protest movements in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States with regards to Belgian rule in Congo. If you pick this book up looking to find the details of the governance and rule of the Congo Free State or the history of the major rebellions against Belgian rule, you will be sorely disappointed.

This is not a criticism of the author, who likely didn't select his own title anyway. If you look at the book from the standpoint of what Hochschild wanted to write, it is a good but not great work. Hochschild was mostly interested in European/American personalities and focuses on them instead of a chronology of events either in the West or in Africa. At times, this makes the book confusing, as Hochschild does not use a lot of dates to help the reader sort out the order of events. On the other hand, the personalities of the day are vivid and fascinating. Hochschild has mined the vast majority of the available evidence to give us stunningly detailed (and at times salacious) details on King Leopold and his major opponents.

Perhaps the most important feature of Hochschild's writing is that he doesn't shy away from the imperfections of his heros or try to brush away the moral ambiguities of his subject. He is the first to admit that slavery was a problem even before the first major European contact with central Africa even while showing how the European/American system was far more pernicious and devastating than anything the natives had devised.
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