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As a student it is my job to ingest and marinate in new information of all forms, prior to reading King Leopolds Ghost my knowledge regarding the Congo, Belgium and their history was slim to none. With this book being my first exposure to their horrid history I was able to view what happened in a different sort of context that I am used to. The author, Adam Hochschild, told the story in a way that seems more relatable to the reader, there was a sort of emotional tie within the text that made sure that I would indeed feel the grief.
Typically I learn about history in a textbook kind of manner where the topic is slightly desensitized and is straight facts. Although the text was grabbing, it was also filled with information that I have yet to learn in any academic setting, all while being written in a novel like style. After finishing the book I knew my mind was going to forever be altered when thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries similarly to the haunting memory of the millions of people who lost their lives just for financial gain.
King Leopolds Ghost gave me a humane view on the historical events of the Congo due to Hochschild’s story-telling like style as well as the factual standpoint that gave me a greater understanding over just how manipulative Leopold was. Hochschild managed to project a well defined historical crime against humanity in the form a book that left me with a range of angst and understanding I lacked before.
King Leopolds Ghost is the story that depicts a king, Leopold II of Belgium, who uses his power to take control over the Congo. Despite being almost 80 times larger than Belgium itself, Leopold never had to step foot on the land to enforce his rule. This concept of him being a ruthless, evil king who caused millions of people to lose their lives but never physically step foot in his colony shows that he held a sizable amount of power. The only way he was able to achieve this was that he had a large following of minded subordinates who were willing to assist him in the destruction of the Congo. With the Congo being such an immense size, what makes the downfall of this land so great is the amount of people who were negatively affected just by being on their home land.
Though millions of people lost their lives due to his rule, this is not the most severe example of a crime against humanity, it’s how he did it and what it took that makes it so significant. Another aspect that makes it so terrible is he was able to make his mark without ever going to the Congo and that it only occured a little over 100 years ago which, in a way, seemed to modernize his reign. Despite all the villainous acts Hochschild did manage to fit some aspects of heroism and courage in this historical retelling. Human rights during this time were still a trivial topic, but few, like George Washington Williams, did find a way to protest and strive for those rights despite their own personal restraints. After reading I do feel that this topic is not talked about enough, especially after Hochschild also expressed his lack of knowledge over this segment of history. It made me aware of the general ignorance people of society contain especially after Hochschild mentioned Jules Marchal, a retired belgian diplomat, who knew nothing and thought it was slander. That segment shocked me the most, the fact that the people of Belgium may not be aware of their own history. To me it is almost like they tried to forget about their history or lose their history, in which I think Hochschild did a thorough job at portraying with the chapter name “The Great Forgetting”. I would think that at least Belgians would know their history, especially a diplomat to say the least, this just goes to show that what they teach or display is selective as well. I’m assuming it may be because Belgian is not proud of that part of their countries history.
For multiple reasons, Marchal was unaware and as was I over the history of Belgium and the Congo, so I do feel that this book is a great resource to get a general understanding. Hoschild did well, in my opinion, with his analysis and retelling over this course of history. I felt actually engaged with in his writing, his tone, style and organization kept me interested. The point of view as well was unique to me, it all seemed sincere, but it is from a view of facts mixed with opinion. Which can give me a even deeper sense of understanding since it did offer me opportunities to view this part of history in different ways allowing me to form my own thoughts based off the authors. I also feel that Hochschild achieved in describing all the different characters to paint just how controversial the whole thing was, during and years after the fact. All the different pieces that contributed to the reign of Leopold II made it all the more nerve-racking, he was able to run and profit off of a great sized piece of land like it was a game. He had little pawns that did what he wanted that essentially led to the Congos great demise.
Despite all the pain and suffering there was the silver lining that gave people a chance to campaign for human rights, something that was not completely seen as a norm yet. In a way, because of all the destruction this kind of gave people a chance to make awareness that it is indeed okay to fight for what is morally right on a larger international scale. Personally, I also think its significant that George Washington Williams is a black man. The fact that he is black just makes me feel that since his people have been condemned in the United States for some time he would, off all other people, be able to understand that what Leopold II is doing is unjust. It would just make sense that Williams can relate more to this pain rather than a white man, though I am not disregarding that white people are able to feel remorseful. A white mans history in america just does not warrant that sort of understanding.
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