Review: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Title: 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
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.