A Literary Analysis of the Epic Book, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

Categories: Literature

King Leopold’s Ghost

King Leopold’s ghost is an award winning, and best selling book written by Adam Hochschild. Hochschild, while reading another book, stumbles upon a footnote that awakens him to a deceiving chain of events that lead to the death of millions, and the conquering of Africa. This book brings to light many crimes that the Europeans committed in African colonies, but Hochschild was not the only one. With the help of George Washington Williams, a black American journalist, and a black American missionary William Sheppard, the terrors of King Leopold were uncovered.

Hochschild follows the efforts of King Leopold II’s journey of secret conquest throughout Africa.

In Hochschild’s intro chapter, he revels the main character that lays the groundwork for King Leopold, Sir Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was a bastard child of John Rowlands and Betsy Parry, who would eventually put him in an illegitimate workhouse. Here he would work until he found work on an American merchant ship.

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Stanley would later jump ship, and fight on both sides the American civil war. As a reoccurring theme, he would again dissert. He would find his calling as a freelance writer, documenting the Indian wars. Eventually he was picked up by the New York herald and sent to cover foreign news. His exploration through Africa would captivate the American audiences. His writings made him seem like a heroic cowboy spreading Christianity, and killing whoever got in his way. Stanley’s writings would soon awaken King Leopold to the vast land waiting in Africa, and give him the king pin in his game.

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Now Hochschild moves in to the background of King Leopold II. King Leopold II was the ruler of Belgium, which was divided by French and Flemish speakers. Throughout Leopolds life, he was not studious, except in business. His focus remained entirely on profit, and how to colonies, to accumulate money and establish power. Due to the small portion of land he owned, and the lack of a standing army, Leopold had to figure out a way to secretly colonize Africa. He found this through the public eye; he would use exploration and reduction of slave trade to hide his plans and map out the interior of Africa.

Beginning his second chapter, Hochschild paints the picture of Leopold as a devious king who has been plotting all his life. While the rest of Europe full heartily believed that he was bringing the indigenous people of Africa into Christianity, Leopold was actually using them as a large forced labor force. These laborers were pumping tons of ivory and other raw materials back to Europe, and accumulating wealth for Belgium.

The third chapter sets the stage of the book. Here, Leopold finds his key pawn and a launching point for his campaign. Stanley had just been the first white man to cross Africa’s entirety, east to west. Along the way he had violent encounters with the native people, but with his superior rifles, they were no match. Along his journey he noticed an abnormality about the Congo River; it never ran low. Later on he will find out that this key feature of the Congo River is due to a huge 180-degree bend that lies above the equator. This bend means that at all times one part of the river is in a rainy season, and the other a dry. Stanley’s travels were not all free an easy, he lost a lot of his men through a treacherous 220 mile river fall into the mountains.

Even though there were many tough times for Stanley on his adventure, Leopold was determined to set up bases throughout the Congo, seeing as its vast tributaries would be perfect for merchant trading.

In the fourth chapter, Leopold begins to take land and set up bases in the Congo. He does this, once again, through sneaky tactics. He wanted at all costs to avoid conflict over land, as it would draw notice to his plan by other countries, so he would need to peacefully acquire the land. Leopold told Stanley to barging with the native peoples and draw short treaties that signed away everything, and everyone, in the chief’s land. The treaties were appealing to the natives because they were given “large” incentives (which had no real value to the Europeans) and a greater notion of a united empire. As for the Europeans settling there, they were given the false hope of a new start, and moving up in the social-economic ladder. The treaties Stanley would create would ultimately; divide an otherwise peaceful collective society, give all rights to everything in the land, and make all of their inhabitants slaves.

Hochschild continues to unfold Leopold’s plot in the fifth chapter, where Leopold must now convince the world to get on board with him. Leopold used Stanford to lobby in America to congress and the president, Chester A. Aurther, that he had created an area of free trade, and free from forced labor. Americans were free to, and later encouraged, to buy land in the Congo. In 1884, congress passed a law that recognized Leopold’s Congo as a state. As his state grew, it was no longer a part of Belgium, rather his own “Congo Free State.” Leopold is now tasked with the development of this vast land. He has a few things on his side: technology and geography. The natural tributary system, and expansion of the Congo River, allows for easy transportation of all materials. With the invention and mass production of the breech-loading rifle, conquest of the natives was not a problem; Leopold needed money. He would use Stanley once again as a lobbyist to parliament, asking for a loan to help end slavery in Africa. He was granted the loan on philanthropic merit. Along with loans from private investors, he planned to build a railroad around the 220-mile stretch of rapids, to make the passage from east to west accessible to all.

Hochschild’s seventh chapter breaks the first light onto Leopold’s true plan. A man by the name of George Washington Williams realizes what Leopold is actually trying to do and tries to bring it into public view. Williams was a Black American journalist who would venture into the Congo to observe. What he found there appalled and disgusted him. During his six-month stay in Stanley falls he would write an open letter to Leopold and to the President of the United States demanding that action take place. His letter was openly printed and circulated throughout Europe and America.

With this news of the actual things going on in the Congo, Leopold had to contain it.

Leopold launches a campaign to discredit Williams. Williams being black, was easily discredited and thought to make up most of his work. Furthermore, Leopold kept others from speaking out. Due to the lack of transport, and the harsh environment of the Congo, word did not spread and Leopold’s secret remained hidden.

In chapter eight, Leopold begins to build his central city in the Congo, Boma. Here he would run his government, who would report directly back to him. Seeing as Leopold did not have the money to support Boma on his own, he would begin to set up a monopoly. Leopold allowed private investors to buy up land, build business, and railways, but only on the condition that he received a large portion in their stock. As other countries tried to invade on his resources, he would place a siege on it and would not lift it till he had collected all of the valuable resources. In order to do this he must keep a strong labor force. Men, women, and children were all parts of his force. To keep them under his power he would have to inflict fear and pain into their hearts by lashing and flogging. No matter what you did, who you were, sex, or age the minimum punishment was 25 lashes. Meanwhile he would appease the world by writing more anti-slave trade, and anti-forced labor laws.

In chapter nine, ten, and eleven Hochschild dives into the unraveling of Leopold’s Congo, beginning with the story of Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz was an eager captain looking for work under what he believed to be a noble cause. He enlisted with Leopold, and would spend six months in the Congo developing the 220-mile stretch of railways around the rapids. Over his stay there he would find the same brutality that Williams had written about. Mr. Kurtz then writes a novel depicting these horrors entitled Heart of Darkness.

He continues with William Sheppard, a black missionary who had been living in Africa for twenty years. Sheppard lived with the Kuba people in peace until Leopold discovered rubber in their village. Like many other places in the Congo, they were taken over by brute forced and forced to harvest the rubber for Leopold. Sheppard would write articles back to Europe where they would be published and seen by many Europeans.

Missionaries would prove to be a powerful force against Leopold.

With the opening of the railway, millions of pounds of rubber were now being shipped out of the Congo and to boats on the coast. While checking over the records a man noticed the numbers not adding up. The amount of rubber coming out of the Congo did not match up with the paid amount of workers there were. There was no other explanation than forced labor.

Chapter twelve marks the Turning point. Edmond dene Morel had a foothold on Leopold.

He had documented proof of Leopold using forced labor in the Congo. Morel would bring compile documents and testimonies against Leopold then present them to parliament. Leopold’s charade was over.

In chapter thirteen, Morel meets Roger Casement who was a councilman sent to observe the rubber manufacturing in the Congo. Casement had first hand experience in the Congo and would be able to tell the personal stories of the trials of the rubber industry, and Morel had the records to prove it. These two would begin to bring down Leopold.

Morel and Casement continue their efforts to stop Leopold. They form an association where they would push the images of the Congo into the media and pull on the heartstrings of the public. Leopold tried his hardest to keep a tight hold on the information coming out of the Congo, but when his own men start feeding information to the association things go down hill.

Furthermore, Leopold perpetuates his bad image by taking a young wife and having a son with her. Their son was born with a deformed hand and many believed that this was God’s way of punishing Leopold for his wrongdoings in Africa.

In chapter fifteen and sixteen, Leopold begins to justify his actions and plea to the world that he did not committee genocide. His workers in the Congo were only looking for laborers, and many of the deaths were due to natural causes. Furthermore he argued that cutting off of limbs was necessary to prevent further infection. Hochschild compares his actions to that of Stalin, and many other mass murderers. These murders would get out of control, and continue until and outside force stopped them.

He continues to fight off the attacks, and forms a committee to go to the Congo and report what was really going on. Leopold meant for the Commission of Inquiry to create a bogus report and deny all of the claims that Morel and Casement had made; instead they agreed. The committee confirmed all the charges that had been put against him.

Finally in chapter seventeen, Leopold realizes that it is time to get rid of his hold on the Congo, and sell it back to Belgium to pay off the loans he took out while building the Congo.

Leopold was getting old, but remained crafty. He sold the Congo Free State back to Belgium for a huge profit, and while the world hoped for a reform in the Congo, it did not come immediately.

After Leopold’s death, Morel claimed victory and Leopold crimes were recognized.

Leopold’s death did not mark the end of his reign. Leopold’s “ghost” still remained in Belgium, via the massive $1.1 billion dollar profit and forced labor still remained in the coal, copper, and tin industries. Hochschild concludes by saying that all of Europe contributed to the colonization of the Congo, and that colonization was a founder of all great societies. Hochshcild compares Leopold to all the other great colonial powers, and says that he was no worse, but the criticism was focused on him.

Hochschild sums up his book by analyzing how we have forgotten about this great injustice. One main reason was that it was never referred to in any teaching history book afterwards. This story managed to stay out of the spotlight, out of textbooks and museums.

Even the martyrs were forgotten. Furthermore, in the last weeks of Leopold’s life, he burned all of his papers referring to his actions in the Congo. This made it very difficult for historians to follow the trail and uncover the real story. Finally, the real story behind the Congo is a lasting tradition of revolution for human rights. Hochshchild writes that the Congo serves as “a vital link in that chain, and there is no tradition more honorable.” (pg. 306) Hochschild frames his argument by first giving the background of the key players in the Congo, spending extra time explaining their personal stories and how they became who they are.

He then sets up the stage of greed in King Leopold. Leopold will do anything to obtain a colony.

Leopold’s desire for power would cause him to ignore basic human rights and turn the Congo into a slave state. The rest of the world would not tolerate this injustice and soon Europe and America realize their responsibility to stop Leopold. In the end everything blows over, the mass murder is put on the back burner and over time it moves out of the spotlight. Hochschild concludes his argument that we should pay attention to our past and be aware of what great atrocities and accomplishments that happen over time.

Hochschild uses a wide array of sources in his book. Many are from the writings of his main characters such as E. D. Morel’s History of the Congo reform movement, which was written in 1968, Henry Morton Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent published in 1872, or from magazines such as E. J. Glave’s “Cruelty in the Congo Free State”, published in The Century Magazine (1897). The writings of Stanley and Morel emphasize Hochschild’s point of capitalism no matter the cost, and show the cruelty that happened in the Congo. Hochschild compiles the writings and ideas of many, into a well-told story of the Congo.

Overall, this book was an excellent read. Hochschild does a wonderful job of setting up the story, exploiting the overlooked, and detailing all the accounts that lead to the mass murders in the Congo. Hochschild use a strong selection of personal journals, writings, and popular literate of the time to reinforce all of his claims. The use of pictures in the middle of the book to show who the explorers were, the native people, and the disfigurement of the native people hits home for the reader. It strongly emphasizes the cruelty of Leopold through visual recognition.

This book serves as a reminder to everyone that racism and slavery can take hold right under our noses if we do not pay close enough attention and that time should not erase tragedies of the past.


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A Literary Analysis of the Epic Book, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. (2022, Apr 13). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-literary-analysis-of-the-epic-book-king-leopold-s-ghost-by-adam-hochschild-essay

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