King Leopold’s Ghost: A Critical Book Review

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At the beginning of the 18th century, Africa became a target of European imperialism. Prior to the said period, Africa only served as trading post for ensuring the flow of goods to Europe. It was also one of the chief sources of slaves. The Portuguese established small settlements on the Cape of Good Hope and Eastern Africa. The Spaniards colonized some parts of Western Sahara and Morocco. During this period, much of Africa was still unknown to the Europeans. It was a land of mystery and barbarism (from the descriptions of Spanish and Portuguese chroniclers).

From 1850 to 1870, the European powers divided Africa into several colonies.

The British received Sudan, Egypt, South Africa, and most of central Africa. North Africa, except Libya (which was allocated to Italy) was given to France. Germany received Tanzania, Togo, Cameroon, and Western Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese retained their possessions. At the Berlin Conference (headed by Otto von Bismarck), the European powers were surprised at Belgium’s insistence of acquiring colonies in Africa.

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After a careful review of territorial arrangements, the European powers agreed to give Belgium Congo. King Leopold’s insistence on acquiring Congo was essentially based on two reasons.

First, according to official record, he wanted to stop the so-called Arab slave trade. The Arab slave trade had its origins in the Portuguese slave trade in the 16th century. The Arabs provided a significant supply of slaves to the Portuguese. King Leopold wanted to put an end to this practice as it jeopardized the dignity of the Christian religion.

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Second, King Leopold wanted to increase his property holdings. King Leopold believed that the future and prosperity of his country depended on acquisitions in Africa. Leopold witnessed the progress Britain enjoyed after it acquired a significant number of colonial possessions.

The same thing can be said about France and Germany. Leopold wanted to make Belgium an equal partner of the other European powers in propagating European culture and ideology to Africa. General Summary The first chapters of the book provided insight to the colonization of Congo. Henry Stanley, a known advocate of African colonization, wrote a general account of the African life. The account was full of exaggerations and promises, that is, stimulants to pressure the European powers to colonize Africa. Stanley described the Africans as ‘submerging in the ways of barbarism and cannibalism’ – a description that he never saw.

The deep prejudice of Stanley towards the people of Africa can be shown in his later writings. He argued that there is a need to educate and train the African people in order that they may become self-sufficient – by self-sufficient, one means the right to self-govern. Stanley’s belief was predominant among European scholars – an element of the so-called ‘white man’s burden hypothesis. ’ In any case, Stanley’s accounts made impression to the rulers of Europe – most of which were keen to acquire more colonies for wealth and prestige.

Although it is erroneous to assume that Stanley’s account was the actual cause of European colonization of Africa, Stanley’s account provided sufficient justification for the colonization of the continent. The middle chapters of the book dealt with the main opponent of the Congo government. George Washington Williams was a man of righteous standing – worthy of the name he carried. Most of his life was devoted to denouncing the evils of European imperialism in Africa. He opposed the ‘collectivization of the Congo people’ as a means to increase the wealth of the king.

He proposed for a general education program that will train the Congo people to become ‘self sufficient’ – a satirical word Williams used in his writings. He argued for the abolishment of forced labor – a method which he deemed unChristian and immoral. He exposed the true nature of the ‘humanitarian motive’ of the king, arguing that it was merely a front to increase the king’s popularity in Europe. The death of Williams in 1891 did not end the criticisms against the Congo government. Other individuals like William Sheppard and Roger Casement followed the steps of Williams.

The intensity of the criticisms forced King Leopold to sell the Congo state to Belgium. The last chapters of the book dealt with the legacy of King Leopold in Congo. His legacies are as follows: 1) The establishment of tobacco and rubber plantations throughout the Congo State resulted to famine and forced conscription. Because much of the agricultural land was utilized for tobacco and rubber plantations, the production of agricultural crops decreased by about 70%. Many people died from starvation and disease. Many people who worked in these plantations lost their arms, legs, and noses because most of the equipment used were unsafe.

Those who failed to meet the required quota were either thrown into prison or sold to wealthy landowners. Children, women, and the elderly were required to work for about 16 hours a day – worse than the factory system in Europe; 2) King Leopold destroyed the cultural life of the people of Congo. The royal governors neglected and even repressed cultural practices in an attempt to inculcate Western values to the Congo people. Of course, such effort failed. It was impossible to inculcate Western values because the Congo people saw it as the driving force of oppression.

In any case, the royal governors succeeded in destroying the cultural life of the Congo people by increased brutality – only by brutality would people lost faith on their own way of living. The King’s Ghost The brutality of the Congo State was first and foremost the reflection of the king’s image. In private, he expressed his deepest prejudice to the Africans – which in his view were nothing but primates and sources of labor. Yes, he disgruntled slavery, so long as it does not concern the Europeans. The white man’s burden was essentially based on prejudicial philanthropy.

The king only possessed prejudicial qualities and never philanthropy – a very concept which he himself despised. In any case, his death did not signal the end of oppression in Congo. The oppression continued until Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960 – the year in which European imperialism in Africa ended – or supposed to have ended. The King’s Property It was Stanley’s description of the Arab slave trade which made significant impression to King Leopold. From the official records, Leopold argued that the only barrier to prosperity in central Africa was the Arab slave trade – a phenomenon that must be stopped.

However, King Leopold wanted Congo for the following reasons: 1) Leopold saw Congo as a source of wealth and income. Upon acquiring Congo, Leopold proceeded to institute repressive administration tasked to extract wealth from the country. Ivory, minerals, and other precious objects were acquired by forced labor. Populations were ‘collectivized’ in order for the system to be more efficient and cost effective. When Henry Stanley became governor of the Congo State, he instituted policies that further the suffering of the Congo people.

Tobacco was planted instead of traditional crops in a significant portion of Congo’s agricultural lands. Congo’s tobacco would be sold to Europe at a considerable price. The effect: there was widespread famine in Congo; 2) King Leopold wanted to build his reputation as a ‘philanthropist’ in the eyes of the European powers. Leopold initially doubted this approach, arguing that it was generally deviant from the methods used by other European powers. Stanley advised him that such approach was the most appropriate. He would gain fame and more importantly an important economic base in Africa.

His ulterior motive of ‘becoming a philanthropist’ was somehow facilitated by his eradication of the Arab slave trade in Congo – which in actuality, he replaced by forced labor. A Picture of Congo The followers of Williams painted a general picture of Congo. According to them, Congo was: 1) A land of opportunity where the people can be exploited and robbed of their possessions. For the Europeans, the most priced asset of a colony was its inhabitants. Forcing inhabitants to work for about 16 hours a day was excruciating for the Europeans. It demanded more creative means of ‘persuading’ people to increase their quotas;

2) A land of desolation where famine and disease were everywhere. The syllabus of European imperialism called for the introduction of science and medicine to alleviate peoples’ sufferings. The Congo State did the opposite. Instead of allotting food and medicine to the poor, it used its official coercive powers to destroy life, property, and liberty; 3) A land of primates whose hands tittered with mud and suffering. A group of primates (Africans) for Leopold would never equal a poor Belgian. From King Leopold’s view, the efficacy of effective colonial rule rested on the laurels of brutality.

If the colonized people were ‘primitive’, then it was the work of the colonizer to further the suffering of the people. The hand of the primate, remarked Leopold was worth more than the mind of a European gazer (but never his personality). Conclusion Hochschild’s picture of Congo is accurate in three respects. First, most of the accounts used were directly derived from personal accounts of former slaves, plantation workers, and prisoners. Although it is possible that the accounts might be a little exaggerated, the flow of theme is generally in unity. Two things are certain.

First, King Leopold acquired the Congo State for his personal use (increase his wealth and prestige). Second, his policies led to increased suffering to the Congo people. In any case, one cannot deny the fact that the ravages of European imperialism were also present in other parts of Africa. Only in Congo were the ravages greatly manifested itself in the policies and directives of the royal governors. This is not a proclaimed hypothesis; this is fact – a reality that every individual must know.


Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1998.

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King Leopold’s Ghost: A Critical Book Review. (2016, Dec 22). Retrieved from

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Critical Book Review

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