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Review: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

May 18, 2012

King Leopold's Ghost coverTitle: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Hochschild, Adam
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: Mariner Books / 1999
Source: Amazon Kindle store
Rating: 4/5
Why I Read It: Sounded amazing.
Date Read: 07/04/12

Upon learning of the true scale of the atrocities in colonial Congo, perpetrated by King Leopold of Belgium, Hochschild wanted to learn more about the history and about why it is so little known today. This book is the result of his research. In the book he covers the “discover” of the Congo, King Leopold’s quest for a colony and eventual acquisition of the Congo region, his actions there, and the eventual public outcry about it. It is, as Hochschild says, a true example of the power of the media and propaganda in supporting a cause, or in activating against a cause.

The book covers so many topics that it would interest almost any reader. At the heart of it, we have a great story of politics and intrigue and cunning. We also have a story about discovery and expeditions in the early days of exploration. In addition, the story is one of capitalism and it’s growth, of colonialism and nationalist pride, of mass social movements for change, and more. Hochschild has written a truly inclusive book that covers all topics available about the early Congo and Belgium at that time. In addition, he has done his best to include the voices of local Congolese when at all possible, and discussed the importance of these voices.

To see Africa instead as a continent of coherent societies, each with its own culture and history, took a leap of empathy, a leap that few, if any, of the early European or American visitors to the Congo were able to make. To do so would have meant seeing Leopold’s regime not as progress, not as civilization, but as a theft of land and freedom. (location 2179)

For me one of the most interesting parts of the book was the discussion on Joseph Conrad, who of course went on to write Heart of Darkness, which can actually be seen as historically accurate look at how things worked in the Congo. In fact, the main characters are based on real people, or a combination of real people.

European and American readers, not comfortable acknowledging the genocidal scale of the killing in Africa at the turn of the century, have cast Heart of Darkness loose from its historical moorings. We read it as a parable for all time and places, not as a book about one time and place. (location 2568)

It was interesting, knowing so much about the racism he exhibited, to read about how the experience in the Congo changed him and how horrified he was. It makes one shudder to think about the opinions of those who were not horrified and who spent years working and living in the Congo. Hochschild does mention this as well, including a quote by Achebe from his criticism of the book, but mentions as well that “However laden it is with Victorian racism, Heart of Darkness remains the greatest portrait in fiction of Europeans in the Scramble for Africa.” (location 2647). I think I’m actually looking forward to reading it now.

In the end, the author closes by discussing the ways in which Belgium and the Congo were not exceptions, but rather the rule. Similar levels of murder and forced labor existed in colonies held by various powers, but the outrage against them was more muted for various reasons. He also discusses the ways in which we have ignored all of this history of brutalization and mistreatment. We say ‘never again’, but have ignored our own complicity through history in these mass murder situations. History is truly written by the victors, and when the school text books are written by the colonizers, it’s not too surprising that no mention was made of the real facts.

At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, the idea of full human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today. (location 5454)

Definitely a book very worth reading, both to learn more about the history and to learn about how the world works still today, and what we view as important.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2012 1:03 pm

    Oh, wow — this does sound good. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness but this book with that could be a great companion read. Am adding to my TBR!

  2. May 18, 2012 1:30 pm

    Oh thanks Amy I ve read heart of darkness and the recent Atxaga novel was also set in Belgian congo ,so some non fiction in info would be great thanks for sharing ,all the best stu

    • May 20, 2012 8:36 pm

      Glad to hear about the Atxaga novel Stu, I will have to check it out.

  3. zibilee permalink
    May 18, 2012 2:18 pm

    It’s crazy to think that this kind of stuff went on not so long ago. I have never read Heart of Darkness, but after reading your review, I DO want to read it, and I think having this background information in my head will make it all the more haunting for me. Thanks for the excellent and very thought-provoking review today. It was very informative and interesting.

    • May 20, 2012 8:37 pm

      I am both excited and terrified to read Heart of Darkness zibilee, because it seems to be a very controversial book!

  4. May 18, 2012 6:43 pm

    I really liked this book, but I found Hochschild’s near-worshiping view of Conrad to be problematic. The brief quote from Achebe doesn’t do much to counteract the praise heaped on Conrad throughout the book.

    Achebe’s entire criticism is certainly worth reading: An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

    It’s interesting to read “Heart of Darkness” alongside “Things Fall Apart,” as two radically different takes on the European colonization of Africa.

    • May 20, 2012 8:38 pm

      Yes, he really does love Conrad doesn’t he? I suppose he doesn’t have many people who he can praise at all… but I definitely agree more with Achebe’s criticisms then Hochschild’s praises. I’m still scared to read Heart of Darkness, MJ, but more interested to know what it is based on too. Then again, I absolutely love Achebe!

  5. accrabooksandthings permalink
    May 19, 2012 3:40 am

    Even though I was somewhat aware of some of the disasters which happened in the Congo, it was really illuminating to read more deeply. And of course it does help to explain the post-independence history of that country.

    • May 20, 2012 8:39 pm

      Always interesting to know more isn’t it accrabooksandthings? It is disappointing really how little we learn here in Canada.

  6. May 20, 2012 11:47 am

    I learned about Leopold and his Congo state during class, and while he may have created some stunning buildings from the revenue, his ideas, motives, and what went on there was awful. I find it so hard to understand how people who had only put an end to slavery not many years before could basically do exactly the same thing in Africa itself, especially as it was only a short time afterwards.

    • May 20, 2012 8:39 pm

      You had a great class Charlie, I wish I had learned more. It really is mind-boggling to think of how recently it happened isn’t it?

  7. Brian Joseph permalink
    May 20, 2012 9:31 pm

    This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year but I have not gotten to it yet. Your informative review is a remainder that I should read this soon. It sounds like a great but disturbing read.

    The point about the Congo being the rule and not the exception is so sadly true. Though as a student of history I have always been aware of the atrocities committed by Europeans in the America, Africa and elswhere, a visit to the Island of St. John’s and some of it’s historical sites a few ago really drove the point home. This tiny island was turned into a giant slave labor camp where the native populations of nearby islands were systematically worked to death and eventually exterminated in what sounds like similar circumstances as those that occurred in the Congo.

    • May 21, 2012 9:36 am

      It was on my shelf for almost a year as well Brian, but a great read. I hope that you enjoy it when you do pick it up. Sadly, you are right – I do wish that we learned more about these things in school while growing up. It seems so much of our atrocities are covered up unless you specifically go on to learn more on your own or in higher education doesn’t it?

  8. May 21, 2012 8:30 am

    This DOES sound good and hits a few of my interest-buttons. In fact, it is one of those books that if I had found it before you, I would have thought of you to tell you about it. :D

    • May 21, 2012 9:34 am

      I appreciate that you’d let me know about it Care :D It would have been a good recommendation, really interesting read! I think you would also enjoy it.

  9. May 21, 2012 10:31 am

    This was one of first books I read with my book club when I first came to live in Belgium. It was a great introduction to that part of the country’s history and all the controversy around Leopold II, which still today seems to be a national hero, with statutes of him all over the place.

    What I found more interesting about the book was the description of the slow international awareness of the problem and what became (according to Hochschild) the first global human rights campaign. Was also surprised with the awful stories about Stanley.

    • May 24, 2012 8:23 am

      What a great time to read it Alex, I’m sure it would give you a lot of background on some of the country’s history. And yes, I found that really interesting too- both the mass movement / global human rights campaign as well as all the lobbying that was going on.

  10. May 21, 2012 9:19 pm

    As I’m typing this I’m staring at my copy of King Leopold’s Ghost and saying to myself, “darn it, I NEED to finally read it!” Maybe your great review will at last get me to do so.
    And heck, while I’m at it, isn’t that a copy of Heart of Darkness I see on my other bookshelf? Maybe this will get me off my butt to read that too!
    Thanks! Keep up the good work!!!!

    • May 24, 2012 8:23 am

      Hopefully that you do give it a read and really enjoy it Mark! I still have to pick Heart of Darkness off my shelf too ;)

  11. May 23, 2012 12:58 pm

    This sounds really interesting! I am going to check it out!

  12. May 23, 2012 1:29 pm

    A fine informative reveiw, Amy. Arguably, the legacy of Leopold’s rule in the Congo still lives on, sadly.

    • May 24, 2012 8:24 am

      Yes, I would definitely believe that it does readinpleasure. It’s unfortunate but how could it not, it was such a pervasive evil. Of course, it isn’t just his legacy in the one country but rather many countries deal with similar legacies.

  13. May 27, 2012 8:28 pm

    I’m reading The Scramble for Africa right now, which covers some of the same ground. I’d like to read this too though — The Scramble for Africa is good, but it’s sometimes hard for me to follow ongoing (for lack of a better word) storylines. It would be good to have a book with the lens focused on Leopold and the Congo.

    • May 31, 2012 2:23 pm

      That one sounds really interesting Jenny, look forward to reading your thoughts on it. I can imagine that it would be a lot to take in though in only one book!

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