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Hochschild Book Review The book King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild tells the esoteric story of King Leopold II of Belgium, a power hungry monarch who uses his sly wit to conquer the Congo, enslaving and killing ten million Africans in the process. For over twenty years, he kept the world in the dark of the atrocities he was committing against his people in the Congo “Free” State. King Leopold’s Ghost gives voice to the few men that opposed him and tried to change his tyrannical ways, attempting to prove Leopold’s apparent “humanitarianism” was nothing more than despotism.
The issues that this book focuses on are the morality of King Leopold’s rule and the lack of awareness that the world has on the events that took place. Even today these issues are relatable, as it is still a not commonly known subject in history despite its influence on major powers of the world.
As informative as Adam Hochschild’s exposé is, there are still some limitations to the sources that he used.
While he talks about the enslavement and mistreatment of Africans in the Congo, most of sources are white Europeans and Americans. He explains in the beginning of the book that during this time period there was no written language in the Congo, so it “skewed the way that history was recorded”l. There were no black Congolese testaments as primary sources to cite because of how well King Leopold managed to bury the truth, even within the Congo, so Hochschild had to stick with strong but secondary sources.
Having all white sources discredits black history in the way that it does not capture the extent of Leopold’s tyranny. On top of that, Hochschild had to work with the limitation that even to his death, King Leopold kept a lot of what was actually going on in the Congo a secret. Information like just how much money that Leopold made in the Congo and the exact number of people who were killed are still uncertain today?. Despite these facts, Hochschild’s consultation and study of sources and accounts like George Washington Williams, Edmund Dene Morel, and Stansias Lefranc at least begin to provide an oversight into the reign of King Leopold over the Congo.
The vision of King Leopold began with what seemed impossible: turning his small country of Belgium, roughly the size of West Virginia, into a powerful and prosperous empire. Even though his country did not have nearly enough money to support itself on top of colonies, he continued to long for the power of colonial rule.
Hochschild characterizes King Leopold as a naïve, power hungry child at the beginning of his rule, stating that his urge for more was insatiable?. In order to achieve this goal, King Leopold set his sights on the land surrounding the Congo River. He began his conquest very carefully, in order not to alert the rest of the world of his selfish desires to obtain this free territory4. To begin with, he brought together a conference of explorers and funded numerous surveys of his targeted land, appearing to be the leading philanthropist to African exploration. By masking his interests as philanthropic and altruistic, he managed to bypass the Belgian people and the major powers of Europe to conquer his little bit of Africa. The explorer he invested the most in was Henry Stanley, a man sent to Africa with the expressed intentions of mapping out uncharted territory, but secret intentions to build a road along the Congo River as well as steamboats to travel along the length of it and trading stations all up and down. Originally, Leopold did not plan to make his wealth off the slave trade but instead off of ivory, but his perspective switched quickly as he realized the value of the slave trade. He later bought out the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo and used it to hide his autocracy over research in the Congo. He also established the Confederation of Free Negro Republics: black, Congolese figurehead leaders of tribes who are puppeteered by Leopold”. In order to secure his rule, he managed to stealthily convince the U.S. to recognize his claim to Congo so that the rest of the world would fall like dominos behind it. His colony eventually grew to the size of England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined, exactly as he had imagined ito. His goal was achieved after many years of conniving, but in the end it took a new form. He originally planned to bequeath his land to the country of Belgium after his death but the truth of his presence in the Congo became exposed. He instead convinced Belgium to buy it from him to punish them for humiliating him and making him give up his colony10.
What once started out as a goal to improve the wealth of his beloved Belgium, became a desperate power struggle to his death where King Leopold was determined to come out on top, sacrificing even the well-being of his country. The state of the Congo under King Leopold’s rule is often compared throughout the book to that of Hitler’s Germany and Soviet Russia under Stalin.
From the beginning, he “talked of Africa as if it were without Africans”l1. He saw Africa as something to which he was entitled and something to be torn apart and divided among Europeans. This supremacist mentality fundamentally guided the premise of his reign. Over time, it just got worse and worse. He implemented extensive military to maintain control12, partook in the buying and selling of slaves, and even advanced from slavery to the taking of hostages in order to force labor upon their families13. He went through a lot of financial crises but always found his way out through the discovery of new, popular resources, such as rubber14. His totalitarian rule went so far as to censor the press both in and out of the Congo, ban certain books to keep his colony unaware, and rewrite Congolese school textbooks so that Africa’s written record eventually forgot the atrocities committed there. As his support from the world slowly began to decline, his cruelties did not, dramatically building up instead until his death. As Leopold’s aforementioned vision changed and the strength of his grip on his colony tightened, the situation in the Congo went from misguided to miserable.
Throughout the book, Hochschild examines multiple critics of Leopold’s control of the Congo who all play a part in finally exposing the crimes against humanity being committed there. One of the prominent critics was George Washington Williams, a black civil rights advocate from the United States who originally was clueless of what was going on in the Congo until he decided to pursue the task of encouraging more job availability for Africans in the developing colony 15.
Williams was one of the first to gain insight of what was really going on, but was originally in awe of King Leopold, tricked like the rest of the world that what Leopold was doing was just. In the beginning Williams described him as “one of the noblest sovereigns in the world”16. He later went to the Congo in order to do research himself and quickly learned of what was actually happening. Because of this, Williams was the very first to write a comprehensive account of the cruelty happening there. In his account he reveals that the beloved explorer Stanley was actually a tyrant, the public aid that King Leopold boasted was actually a fraud, lies were told to the Africans in order to gain land, women were raped, civilians were murdered, and Leopold was very much involved in the slave trade and forced labor17. Despite being the first to figure all this out, George Washington Williams’s writings were not largely accepted, his messages of the truth had barely spread, and he tragically died before being able to complete his exposé.
The important part of all this lies not in the actual story of King Leopold itself, but in the fact that most people do not know about it. King Leopold as a leader is compared to Hitler and Stalin in relation to the excessive number of people he has killed but history has been so whitewashed that as long as it is not Europeans or Americans being slaughtered, then it is rarely worth noting in the record. While telling the true story of what actually happened in the Congo during this time and how the rest of the world was involved, Hochschild exposes also just how easily atrocities of mass proportions can be committed as the rest of the world is kept in the dark. The name of the last chapter itself is called “The Great Forgetting”, appropriately titled because that is exactly what the world does – forgets. This can be strongly related to the world we live in today, since even now racism and hate crimes are still so prominent. Take for example the killings of people of color in the Ferguson community extremely recently in America. Is this something that will be taught in classes years from now? Or will the American government bury it so deep down that will never be dug up again? We have had a hundred years since he happenings in the Congo and we are taught to believe that our morals have changed but racism and how we view the mistreatment of human beings still proves to be a problem today.
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