on August 27, 2005
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. One of the most grisly aspects of this calculatingly orchestrated version of modern slavery was the severing of hands--and their collection into baskets as proof of killings--as a means of terrorizing the population. The wonder of it all is that Leopold and his agents managed to keep most of these deeds secret and even disguised his colony as a charity for the benefit of "pagan" African natives.
Yet Hochschild's narrative is not simply a gruesome account of the horrors of Leopold's personal fiefdom--which the king himself never once visited. The most fascinating part of this tale is the creation of what might reasonably be called the world's first human rights movement. George Washington Williams, the first and perhaps bravest campaigner, initially sounded the alarm, but he was ignored largely because he was African American. Later rabble-rousers had better success: E. D. Morel, whose suspicions were aroused when he noticed the imbalance of trade to the colony while working at the docks; William Sheppard, a Presbyterian missionary who provided first-hand accounts; and Roger Casement, a British consul who became an important anti-Leopold activist (and who later became an significant figure in the Irish independence movement whose closeted homosexuality provides a sad coda to his life's story).
One of Hochschild's themes is astonishment, only a century later, at the world's amnesia (including his own) regarding these atrocities. Even the thousands of annual visitors to Laeken's Royal Greenhouses and Winter Palace, Leopold's extravagant and luxurious monument, do not realize that this park was literally built with the lives of millions of Africans. Fortunately, thanks to Hochschild's best-selling book, as well as similar reassessments published by European historians during the last twenty years, even the briefest biographical accounts about King Leopold II now portray him as he was: a brutal and gluttonous colonial thug.
on September 28, 2000
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.
Leopold favored a quick killing in the Congo because it was clear that the boom in wild rubber would eventually be overtaken by the planting of commercial rubber plantations. He joined forces with others to suppress forces within the Congo and bleed it dry. Leopold's Force Publique had an officer corps of well-paid desperadoes recruited from all over Europe, characters resembling Kurtz in Conrad's chilling Heart of Darkness.
Leopold's vicious experiment combined some of the latest techniques of European industry steamboats, machine guns and railways with a sure understanding of traditional African bondage and brigandage, and of the ways they could be bent to his purpose. The slave-traders became the best recruiters both for the Force Publique and for the porters who carried the rubber to the river or to the railhead.
Sadly, Leopold's enterprise enjoyed the blessing of the United States despite the fact that it flew in the face of its supposed anti-slavery, anti-colonial and republican principles. The indulgence of Europe's colonial powers was less surprising given the rampant racism and imperialism of the time.
There were a few anti-slavery zealots who objected to the "magnificent work of exploration" with which Leopold was credited. (Interestingly, Leopold maintained tight personal control without ever going near the Congo.) The journalist George W. Williams wrote an angry pamphlet denouncing Leopold's brutal regime but died shortly afterwards.
Hochschild does not end this book on a comfortable note. Conditions in the Congo barely improved, and the harsh but effective methods pioneered by Leopold were taken up by yet other colonial powers. The outbreak of war in Europe soon furnished its own lessons in industrial slaughter, making Leopold's war on the people of the Congo seem like little more than a dress rehearsal.
Although tragic, King Leopold's Ghost is an exemplary piece of history writing: urgent, vivid and most compelling.
on February 19, 2005
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. He acknowledges that some of his protagonists are conceited and provides the background to show why they became so; this makes the ultimate sacrifices of some of his heroes that much more significant.
Hochschild is a journalist by training, and this explains many of the strengths and weaknesses of King Leopold's Ghost. The two main strengths are this books readability and accessibility. I am not normally a fast reader but I flew through this book thanks to its clear prose and Hochschild's highly developed sense of irony. I also read this book as someone who knows relatively little about African history, but I never felt as though Hochschild was either condescending or assuming a level of knowledge that the average reader would not have.
However, there are some weaknesses that result from the journalistic style as well. Most significant of these is the relative paucity of bibliographic information, as Hochschild only provides specific sourcing to direct quotations. Hochschild is the first to admit that it is nearly impossible to find African sources for his material, but that makes the identities of those sources that much more interesting, especially for readers who want to learn more about the subject at hand. Finally, this is likely a book that will not interest experts on African history, both because of its superficial treatment of what actually happened in Africa and because of the lack of analysis of the causes of events other than psychological sketches of Leopold, his supporters, and his opponents.
That said, this is a superior work overall. If, like me, you read Heart of Darkness in a high school English class without getting any of the background on Conrad's time, you will find this work to be revelatory. Even if you have only a passing interest in Africa, you will find yourself more intrigued by its history when you finish than when you started.
on May 27, 2000
One of the best indictments of colonialism that I have ever read, King Leopold's Ghost is obsensively a book about power and greed.
Leopold, a King of a small country and a man with very limited powers, decides that he desperately needs to find a colony where he can reign supreme. He finally discovers Central Africa, a place that hasn't been gobbled up by the other colonizing powers, and claims it for his own. What ensues is one of the most brutal subjegations in recorded history. King Leopold's reign in the Congo was so vicious that even the other colonial powers of the day had to condemn him.This book is the story of a man that was so greedy- even the pretext of humanitarian aims were summarily ignored during his rule.
One of the things I liked most about this book is that it deflates the hero status of people like Henry Morton Stanley- an insecure man who shot Africans for sport. In his place, Hochschild has given us people like E.D.Morel, William Sheppard, Roger Casement and Hezekiah Shanu to look up to. People who tried to make a difference when it wasn't popular to do so.
This book is the very sad story of how the ego of one puny despot lead to the deaths of millions.
Informative, honest and well written- I highly recommend this book.
on January 3, 2000
I have read 3 books on the subject of Leopold and the Congo: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; Neal Ascherson's The King Incorporated; A. Hochshild's King Leopold's Ghost. All 3 are well worth reading. I find Hochschild's to be the easiest one to read and the most entertaining and thought-provoking; also the latest; and well documented. Ascherson's goes into more detail and is very thorough and equally well documented, but probably harder work. I didn't particularly enjoy Heart of Darkness; granted it's the classical work on the subject, but I didn't find it particularly enjoyable. All 3 works refer to how King Leopold of Belgium managed to carve out for himself a personal, yes, personal colony in the 1880's against all odds in the heart of black Africa, which had made him a colossal fortune by the time that, bowing to international pressure,he handed it over to the Belgian Government shortly before he died in 1909, after having destroyed the majority of the colony's records. The King is shown to be a man of exceptional intelligence and cunning, hypocritical and deceitful and totally deprived of morality. These works suggest that the enormous profits he got out of the Congo were based on his ruthlessly forcing the natives to work for him in shipping to the international markets huge quantities of ivory and later of rubber. His brutal tactics resulted in the population literally being halved in the Congo during the 24 years that he was in charge. I would recommend that you begin with Hochschild and then go to Ascherson for more detail and a somewhat different perspective.
on April 10, 2011
Kindle readers: This book does not translate well to the Kindle platform. Footnotes have all been replaced by (/), and they appear in an incoherent mass at the end. In addition there are numerous errors of insertion in the text, floating phrases which make no sense and have obviously wandered in from previous or later chapters.
Worse: No photographs or maps whatsoever, although the "photo credits" at the end of the book indicate that there were many.
I'm very sorry I spent my Kindle money on this one.
For the book's quality itself, it is a mixed experience. As other reviewers have noted, the breathless journalistic style makes for readability but lacks depth. The speculation about motives, psychological problems, possible meetings, etc. becomes unsettling and makes the book read, not like history, but like a National Inquirer expose'. I feel that Casement's privacy was violated in that the journal entries about his sex life far outnumbered those about his other ideas and activities. Stanley is vilified and his courage downplayed while his bad temper and shyness with women become his signature traits. Leopold himself remains a curiously flat caricature. The reader is left with a somewhat disturbing impression that a tragic subject approached with laudable aims has turned into a kind of cartoonish violence pornography.
on February 22, 2002
These dying words of Mr Kurtz were first read in 1899 when HEART OF DARKNESS was published. Twain's KING LEOPOLD'S SOLILOQUY came out in 1905 and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote THE CRIME OF THE CONGO in 1909. Additionally, the Congo Reform Association (in support of which both Twain and Conan-Doyle wrote their books) began operating in 1904 with the sole purpose of bringing to public attention the terrible situation in the Congo Free State under the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II. It's obvious then that the horrific treatment of the Congolese as described in KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST was known about and well documented. The issue here is not one of a lack of awareness. In fact Hochschild says there was "a storm of righteous protest" and moral outrage in England and America when the facts became known. No, the issue is more to do with why this genocide of 100 years ago remains such a relatively unknown story and is rarely ever mentioned when the topic of discussion is man's cruelty to man. It's not because the carnage was insignificant. In terms of numbers the death toll stacks up well with other holocausts. Hochschild estimates the number of Congolese that died between 1885 - 1920 from between 5 to 10 million.
In attempting to come to terms with this and explain why there seems to be so little present-day consciousness of what took place, the author admits to his own lack of knowledge prior to his research. A partial answer is that in the Congo today, there is very little information available on this period. More significantly though it is because of the special nature of the Congo and its colonial history. But it seems to me the book shows that most importantly, in a country that has known only paroxysms, death is a constant and numbers are merely matters of scale on a continuum. The special characteristic of the Congo is that it is incredibly blessed with natural mineral wealth - coal, cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, manganese, offshiore petroleum, silver, tin, uranium and zinc. Not even mentioned yet are the products that this book talks about and what King Leopold was greedily ravaging the country for - rubber, ivory and timber. Against this background, and with interests in Belgium, France, Germany, and England eyeing this and other African wealth, who really is surprised to learn that economic considerations and international political deliberations have in the past swept human-interest issues under the carpet.
Hochschild does an admirable job of highlighting the human rights context of his story. For him the heroes are the two founders of the Congo Reform Association - Edmund Dene Morel and Roger Casement and the villains are of course King Leopold and the man whom the King initially depended upon to organize the Congo Free State - Henry Morton Stanley. Morel's "flash of moral recognition" that something was terribly wrong in the Congo is how we begin this book. While we can see some of the colonials as illustrative of the heart of darkness, and Hochschild's description of some of the massacres is indeed gruesome, this book is far more than a simple, sensationalist, expose on the evils of the white-man and colonialism. There are some interesting sub-texts here. While white missionaries were instrumental in bringing much of the attrocities to light they were also not above dark deeds. Initially the Belgian church in the Congo portrayed criticisms as an attack on Roman Catholicism by protestant missionaries. This may have also been due to the fact that some were American, and black - George Washington Williams and William Sheppard for instance. Both catholics and protestants were also initially fooled by Leopold's pious pronouncements and believed that he was unaware of what was being done in his name.
The Congo is a huge country. It has an ancient history and culture and it is populated with various different ethnic groups including pygmies. It was visited by Arab traders and slavers long before Europeans arrived and now, decades after independence, still struggles with issues related to political, economic, and social cohesion. KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST only covers a part of this history and therefore only offers a limited answer to the puzzle that is today's sorry state known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However even as a partial answer, it is well worth reading.
on October 5, 2000
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild is a must-read for anyone who has ever questioned the myth versus the reality of any subject. In the style of a who-dunnit, the intrigue and hypocrisy of King Leopold of Belgium is detailed in a fascinating, page-turning way. From the discovery of who the famous explorer Stanley really was, to what the colony of the Congo was really set up to be, Hochschild spins a tale of (as he so succinctly puts it) "...Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa." Anyone who ever thought that globalization was invented in this century would find the book well worth reading, if only to learn how globalized our world has been for centuries. Hochschild has sought out and gathered under one cover historical documents from those who were there, including the usually forgotten Africans who were disenfranchised of their land and all too often, their freedom and lives. If more history was written in this enthralling manner, reminiscent of Daniel Yergen's monumental opus The Prize (The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power), perhaps there would be more interest in history as a good read, rather than something you study in school.
on June 26, 2002
Every so often, a book comes along that opens your eyes. This is such a book. Before reading King Leopold's Ghost, I was ignorant of the genocide of colonial Congo, but after reading a few hundred pages, not only did I learn of the key players involved, the crimes committed and actions taken to combat the situation, but I also wanted to know more about imperialism in general.
Writing a book on a little researched topic such as this, Hochschild rises to the occassion and writes an easily read yet amazingly complete rendition of the situation. He introduces us to numerous charcters: Stanley,the egocentric mentally unbalanced explorer; Williams,the American missionary who brings back tales of the horror; Conrad, the author whose voyage to "The Heart of Darkness" prompted his novel, Morel and Casement, the men who made righting the wrongs of the Congo their crusade; and King Leopold, who..... well, you'll see. Tracing the story of the Congo from exploration through the selling of the Congo by King Leopold to Belgium and then on to an investigation of the world-wide forgetting of the entire episode, Hochschild has created an amazingly complete history. This story of the struggles between good and evil is so packed with incredible characters, adventure and murder that you'll never want to turn on the television again!
on February 1, 2000
I just finished a wonderful book called "Empires Of The Monsoon" by Richard Hall, which dealt with an earlier period of colonialism and covered a broader canvas. It was so interesting that I took this book down from my bookshelves and decided to read it right after the Hall book. Hochschild has a rather radical pedigree (Mother Jones magazine) so I was concerned about getting an unsubtle diatribe but for the most part the author manages to restrain himself. He very cleverly eases you into this horror story with some beautifully written early chapters which give wonderful character studies of King Leopold and Henry Morton Stanley, among others. Only then do you get hammered with the awful things that the Belgians did to the Congolese. Mr. Hochschild can't resist a few potshots at the free traders and unbridled capitalists but for the most part he wisely sticks to personalities. Sections of this book are pretty gruesome. Be forewarned that there are some photographs that may leave you kind of queasy. Leopold's henchmen were quite enthusiastic about their work and you start to get emotionally numbed by all the decapitations and severed hands (and other lopped off body parts) but Mr. Hochschild throws in the occasional change of pace by giving you a chapter on a specific personality. (Did I forget to mention Joseph Conrad, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain? They are here also, along with many other interesting people I had never heard of before.) One of the things that bothered me after finishing this book was that I never was taught anything in school about what happened in the Congo. Possibly 10 million natives died under this brutal regime. It kind of makes me think that if you want a true education you are on your own...