King Leopold’s Ghost – Review

Leopold's Ghost

Adam Hochschild usa.png

Pan Books (2012), 356 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €6

African & European History

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is both horrific and gripping.  After reading this book it is possible to see how the massive colonial abuses perpetrated by Leopold’s colonial underlings could psychologically scar a country for decades to come.

Like many colonial powers Belgium espoused liberty and increasing democracy at home whilst denying even the most basic rights to the people it colonised, “…there was something fox-like in the manner in which this constitutional monarch of a small, increasingly democratic country became the totalitarian ruler of a vast empire on another continent” (p. 34).  The claim of virtually all colonial powers was that they were civilising dark and dangerous parts of the globe.  The real reason was almost always financial.  The tribal leaders in the Congo entered into legalistic contracts they didn’t understand.  For the price of one piece of cloth per month chiefs, “…for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever…give up to the said Association [the International Association of the Congo which ran the country] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories…and to assist by labour or otherwise any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories…All the roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights are to be the absolute property of the said Association” (p. 72). There is no mention of any civilising projects. The veneer of respectability that colonial powers gave to their missions in their home countries quickly evaporated in the colonies.  In an era of poor communications violent abuses could be more easily concealed.


Congolese children and wives whose fathers or husbands failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off.  Source: Wikipedia

King Leopold’s Ghost also tracks the course of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, perhaps the quintessential colonial explorer.  I had heard of Stanley (and his famous “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” line) but knew nothing about him.  The picture painted by Hochschild is not a pretty one.  Livingstone comes across as a narcissistic, petulant, violent psychopath.  He was also a poor leader, more than half of his 389 men died as they scrambled through African forests.  He cut the tail off his dog, cooked it and fed it to the animal.   It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Stanley’s men as they brought terror to the villages they passed through.  One of Stanley’s officers noted that the villagers were singing, building huts, preparing food when he, “…opened the game by shooting one chap through the chest.  He fell like a stone… Immediately a volley was poured into the village” (p. 99).  Stanley was a British imperial hero, knighted for his achievements.  Colonialism, even more so than war, enabled ambitious and violent men to live out their fantasies of committing violent acts with impunity and actually being socially and financially rewarded for their crimes.  As Hochschild points out there were psychological reasons why such men carried out such brutal atrocities.  Deep internal pain and emptiness was transposed onto innocent people in a distant part of the world.

The rubber boom created massive profits for Leopold and insured the continuing survival of the colony.  Collecting rubber was an unpleasant task.  Locals were coerced into it by seizing their wives and children as hostages until they had collected the requisite amount.  Abuses of locals commenced on an industrial scale.  It was only the summary execution of a white man (an Irishman) that led English and German commentators to wonder how the natives were treated if a white man could be so easily killed.  The first real attempt to expose the abuses in the Congo came from the Englishman E.D. Morel who worked for a shipping company that shipped goods to the Congo.  Morel also worked as a freelance journalist.  He noticed that large amounts of weapons were being shipped to the Congo, that a chunk of the profits from the trade with the Congo seemed to be skimmed off the top, and that it appeared the natives weren’t being paid for their labour – the Congo was effectively a slave colony. Deaths were caused by murder, starvation, and disease.  People were murdered for failing to bring in the required rubber quota, massacres were regular occurrences.  Whipping was a common punishment even for children.

The legendary human rights investigator and Irishman Roger Casement was sent to investigate abuses in the Congo by the British government. The abuses Casement reported on were known to the likes of E.D. Morel but caused shock in much of Europe.  Hands were regularly chopped off the living and the dead (to punish the living and as proof of killing the dead).  The British government was not happy with the graphic tone of Casement’s report but the damage to Leopold was done (also because Casement used media interviews to insure that his report couldn’t be watered down too much).  Casement’s report was published in 1904 so Leopold set up his own Commission of Inquiry.  He was certain this inquiry, whose members he hand picked, would exonerate him.  This backfired badly when Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry basically substantiated previous claims of atrocities.  Leopold was also financially suspect, he pocketed funds that arguably should have gone to the Belgian state, and these funds should never have been extorted from the Congo.  Leopold’s profits from the Congo possibly exceeded a billion dollars in today’s money.

The Congo Reform Association, led by Morel, proved a thorn in the side of Leopold.  Morel wrote letters, articles, and books.  He also received letters from people providing information about abuses in the Congo.  The abuses were legion.  In 1919 the Belgian government estimated that since the start of the colonial era that the population of the Congo had been halved.  This means that the population fell by up to 10 million people.  Colonialism was an unmitigated disaster for the Congo.  The Belgian running of the Congo is arguably the nadir of European colonialism.  Colonial systems are designed in such a way as to guarantee abuses, the only matter is the extent of the abuses.


Related Links

Guardian article that qualifies Hochschild’s criticism of Leopold.


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