Title: King Leopold's Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: non-fiction, African history, colonialism, racism
**This review is adapted from a reflection essay for my Modern World Civilization class**
Before reading this book, I knew that Africa had been politically “carved up” between various European powers without any input from Africans and I knew that the Belgians had colonized the Congo but I had never read or learned about the details of Belgian colonization until now. After reading this book, I think the Belgian regime can be summed up in two words: greed and brutality. The Belgians were in Africa due to the restlessness and greed of King Leopold II. His ambition and restlessness affected his personal life (his wife and daughters despised him; Leopold disowned his daughters), he constantly defrauded the Belgian government to raise money for his insatiable desire for land and empire, and his race-based, Euro-centric regime killed and maimed millions of Congolese. After thirty-eight years on this Earth I am aware that humans have been cruel to each other since the beginning of recorded history, yet I am always horrified to find out how that cruelty is manifested.
Hochschild uses the phrases “African cake” or “cake of Africa” many times throughout this book, a sentiment first expressed by King Leopold to one of his staff members (Hochschild 1998:58). This phrase confirms the European attitude towards African and its inhabitants: an object or thing to be devoured or consumed instead of a continent that was (and is) home to millions of human beings. After Britain abolished slavery in the early 1800s, the British empire focused on abolishing slavery in other parts of the non-European, non-Christian world as well: “Righteous denunciations poured down on a distant, weak, and safely nonwhite target: the so-called Arab slave-traders raiding Africa from the east” (28). Africa became an object of desire in the Victorian era since “these were the years when, to the distress of many young male Europeans, Europe was at peace. For a young man looking for a battle…the Congo was the place to go. For a white man, the Congo was also a place to get rich and wield power” (136). When it was confirmed that Africa could provide the raw materials needed to fulfill increased manufacturing and consumer demand during the Industrial Revolution, (27) Africa’s fate was doomed. Once Europeans reached Africa they viewed Africans as lazy (68) yet forced them to do hard labor that benefited European interests: “To Europeans, Africans were inferior beings: lazy, uncivilized, little better than animals. In fact, the most common way they were put to work was like animals, as beasts of burden” (121). Thanks to this inhumane treatment and racist mindset, thousands of African men died from the intense physical labor, meager food rations, and disease.
Victorian-era explorers, soldiers, and businessmen cloaked their racism under the banner of guns and glory; unfortunately, some missionaries also hid their racist biases under the guise of humanitarianism or a spiritual call to serve. British Protestant missionaries were originally sent to Africa to help Africans improve their quality of life (according to European quality of life standards) (211). This goodwill eventually morphed into the belief “that improving the lot of downtrodden people everywhere was good for business” (212). Sometimes missionary zeal developed and colluded with something more sinister: Leopold planned for military, religious, and vocational schools to be set up for African children (133). The military schools were filled with children whose orphan status was in doubt- these schools were run by Catholic missionaries loyal to King Leopold who rewarded their loyalty through financial means. Like the male adults, African children often died of disease or starvation on their way to the orphanage or soon after their arrival.
The Belgians maintained control of the Congolese through firepower and the much-feared chicotte which was a “whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide cut into a long, sharp-edge corkscrew strip” (120). Lashes from the chicotte were unleashed on a victim’s bare buttocks while the victim was tied to two poles laying on the ground during the administration of his punishment. To add salt to the wound, “the bulk of the chicotte blows were inflicted by Africans on the bodies of other Africans” (122). This allowed the Belgians to physically and psychologically separate themselves from the dirty work of administration and “created a class of foremen from among the conquered” (122) and probably soured relations between Africans.
Other terror tactics included alliances with certain ethnic groups (which did not protect them from later enslavement by the Belgians), the lack of promotional opportunities for black soldiers (who were mostly conscripted), and state-sanctioned kidnapping. In a cruel twist of irony, Hochschild points out that “white officers who bargained with village chiefs to acquire ‘volunteer’ soldiers and porters were sometimes dealing with the same sources that had supplied the east coast Afro-Arab slave-traders” (130). During the natural rubber boom of the 1890s, male laborers were forced to meet rubber-harvesting quotas. To prevent rebellion and runaways, the Belgians would loot a village of all its foodstuffs and food sources and then kidnap the village women until the required rubber quota was met (161). Rubber-harvesting areas were also controlled through the issuance and denial of travel permits for Africans (similar to the travel permissions in the antebellum South). Males were required to wear a metal disk around their necks that noted the status of their rubber quota (163). Sometimes rebellious Africans were shot on sight by the colonial police force (the Force Publique) but this practice was frowned on by the officers who wanted proof that bullets had been used in military skirmishes, not in recreational hunting (165). The proof soldiers brought back was the right hand of dead Africans (165). Like all unofficial policies, this was not enforced, and soldiers amputated hands from living Africans to cover up personal use of ammunition.
The atrocities in the Congo were finally exposed through the words and evidence provided by three whistleblowers: Edmund Dene Morel, William Sheppard, and George Washington Williams. Williams was an African American Civil War veteran, pastor, journalist, and lawyer. He was no stranger to controversy- while in the States he often spoke out against post-Civil War violence against blacks. The purpose of Williams’ trip to the Congo was to scope out work opportunities for African Americans: “In Africa, surely, there would be the chance for pioneering and advancement then denied blacks in the United States” (105). Williams’ idealistic vision of opportunity was quickly dashed by the horrors he personally witnessed. Williams used his outrage to publish a pamphlet exposing King Leopold’s regime to the world. Williams’ Open Letter “was the first comprehensive, systematic indictment of Leopold’s colonial regime” (109). Williams accused the Belgian regime of fraud, widespread death and destruction, excessive cruelty, starvation, kidnapping, slavery and other “crimes against humanity” (112). The Belgian government issued a rebuttal against these accusations while Belgian newspapers defended Williams. Williams died soon after his exposé which allowed the Belgian government to save face.
Edmund Dene Morel was a clerk for the Elder Dempster shipping company which held a lucrative and exclusive monopoly on all shipping between Antwerp and the Congo. Morel was tasked with supervising the shipping between Liverpool and Antwerp and he soon realized that his reports submitted to the Belgian government did not match up with the trade statistics released to the public. Upon further investigation he discovered that weapons were being secretly shipped to the Congo, someone was making a huge profit (King Leopold), and African workers were not being paid for their labor: “From what he saw at the wharf in Antwerp and from studying his company’s records in Liverpool, he deduced the existence-on another continent, thousands of miles away-of slavery” (180). Morel quit his job at Elder Dempster to focus on exposing Leopold’s lies full time; Morel created and edited the weekly journal, The West African Mail. Thanks to his extensive research and fact checking, documents and photographs were smuggled to him by missionaries and others within the Congo (190). The photographs were the most important pieces of evidence against King Leopold for they “provided evidence that no propaganda could refute” (215).
William Sheppard was an African American, Presbyterian missionary who brought joy to everyone he met in Africa. Hochschild notes that Sheppard grew in self-confidence while in Africa once he was away from the chafing restrictions of American society and the Southern Presbyterian denomination. His outlook as a marginalized American allowed “his writings [to] show an empathetic, respectful curiosity about African customs” (156). His demeanor, curiosity, and language skills allowed him to meet with the Kuba, one of the last African kingdoms, unharmed. Unfortunately, not all of his discoveries and adventures were pleasant- he discovered the policy of severed hands mentioned above and published his findings in numerous missionary magazines upon his return to the United States. His reports along with the photographic evidence submitted to Morel was the beginning of Leopold’s downfall in the public eye.
I think the truth of the Congo was able to stay secret for so long was due to multiple factors: Leopold put a humanitarian spin on his conquest and colonization of the Congo and very few people seemed to question his real motives. After Leopold’s death, his real motives were revealed through his convoluted accounting system which took years to uncover (276). Most Europeans didn’t think anything was wrong with their treatment of the Africans; Europeans believed themselves to be a superior race and civilization. When Leopold did set up investigative committees, these committees were mostly a PR move to maintain his humanitarian image. Committee members were usually appointed by the king and they had personal and financial interests in the activities and future of the Congo. When investigative committees did release reports criticizing the king, the reports were never released to the public or they were rewritten in a more favorable light.
Hochschild also points out that the humanitarians that were outraged at the atrocities found in the Congo often turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by their own countries or political allies, “…it was a safe target. Outrage over the Congo did not involve British or American misdeeds, nor did it entail the diplomatic, trade, or military consequences of taking on a major power” (282). “The Dark Continent” as Africa was called, was not only an allusion to African skin color but was also a euphemism in the eighteenth century about the unexplored portions of the continent. The Dark Continent is also a metaphor for the dark deeds perpetrated by various European regimes over the past four centuries- deeds based on greed and the thirst for land, resources, and power.
During our class discussion of this book, the professor asked us, “How would you describe this book in one sentence?” As you can see from my above review it would be very difficult to describe the events recounted in King Leopold’s Ghost in once sentence. Well, one of my classmates responded with this succinct statement: “King Leopold was a douchebag!” In all seriousness though, the class was shocked that the world (outside of the Congo) knows little to nothing about this “forgotten holocaust.”