Review of “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

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King Leopold II of Belgium was keen on securing his country as an imperial power and sought for colonization in Africa. He succeeded, but at what cost? The lives of ten million Congolese people were ended and the trauma of Leopold’s reign of terror is still felt by their descendants today. Disguised by his charisma, King Leopold succeeded in convincing the world that his atrocities in the Congo were actually humanitarian efforts and economic investments, completely dismissing the decimation of the Congolese people.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild provides thorough accounts of ordinary man’s ability to do extraordinarily bad things while working in the Congo through manipulation and fear. Ordinary men such as Henry Morton Stanley and Henry Shelton Sanford overpowered the Congolese people into slavery and submission using force, political power, and threats of violence. Henry Morton Stanley was born to a drunkard and a housemaid as an ordinary person with a troublesome childhood. After changing his identity and emigrating to the United States, Stanley became a renowned explorer.

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In 1876, King Leopold II approached Stanley for recruitment, as someone well experienced with Africa, to bring trade relations to the Congo through the construction of roads. Three years later, the explorer returned to Africa and paved the way for the development of the Congo Free State (pg. 65). Stanley spent the better half of his life defending the Belgian King’s cruel regime, as well as enforcing it. In fact, he became known as Bula Matari, or “Breakstones” as he overworked his men and was merciless in killing any opponents without hesitation.

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Over a decade later, lawyer George Washington Williams arrived in the Congo and became enraged by the crimes and cruel abuse against the Congolese under the administration of King Leopold’s representatives. He signed an Open Letter to King Leopold II disclosing all the truths the sovereign omitted to the public. He accuses Henry Morton Stanley and his European colleagues of using illusions and elaborate ruses on the Africans into signing off their land to Leopold, such as shows of almost supernatural strength disparity and the ability to deflect bullets (pg. 109). Williams reveals the excessive cruelty of the overseeing Europeans over the prisoners and their hypocrisy and racism when confronted with a white man’s word against that of a black man’s (pg. 111). The treatment of African women was no better, with European officials capturing them and using them as concubines (pg. 111). Thus George Washington Williams emphasized that the tyrannous governance of the Congo must be replaced with a just and moral jurisdiction. Although Henry Morton Stanley was born and raised as a common man, he demonstrated the capacity to do unusually bad things by essentially claiming and establishing the foundation of King Leopold’s Congo, and acting as his personal political agent, so willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.

In 1890, Joseph Conrad had only spent six months in the Congo before his perspective of human nature was permanently changed. The author witnessed a colonial reign of shocking greed and violence and left Africa distraught. Conrad transferred his detailed records into his novel Heart of Darkness (pg. 142), describing the appalling conditions of laborers working on Leopold’s railroads, and the brutality he witnessed as the Europeans killed Africans for insignificant transgressions (pg. 144). In an ongoing battle of prejudice and racism, the United States sent African American missionary William Sheppard to the Congo in 1890 in the hopes that millions of black Americans would follow and emigrate there (pg. 152). During his two decades in the Congo Free State, Sheppard wrote detailed accounts and became famous for exposing the truth of Leopold’s rubber economy. Half of the Congo was covered in wild rubber vines, and as King Leopold accumulated debt, the rubber seemed more and more like a blessing (pg. 159). The Europeans forced the Congolese into draining their villages dry of rubber, for fear of the chicotte, a long knotted whip, and indescribable torture. Additional means of instilling loyalty based on terrorization combined the slaughter and capture of women, children, chiefs, or elders as hostages, the looting of food and animals, and the destruction of villages until the rubber quota was fulfilled (pg. 161). As the rubber boom progressed, the need for transportation surged along with it. The construction of the railway resulted in laborers succumbing to diseases and precarious conditions.

There was a severe lack of shelter, food, and “uncooperative” porters would be required to work in chains (pg. 171). Gravestones traveled along the railway, with the death toll for nonwhites at nearly two thousand in the first year alone. The militia force and European officials overseeing the severing of African hands, the slaughtering of their people, and the entirety of the rubber economy confirmed author Hochschild’s conclusion of ordinary men being able to perform exceptionally awful deeds, as they used oppression and authority to instill fearful loyalty. As protests against King Leopold II’s reign began, the Congo government made grand displays of prosecuting low ranking white officials for heinous crimes against Africans (pg. 218). In the rare instances of criminal sentences, convicted leaders would nonetheless be freed after a short period of time (pg. 219). The guilty party responsible for any massacre or atrocity would matter of factly state that they were simply obeying orders (pg. 220), acting as Leopold’s marionettes. In a ludicrous turn of events, the villains would often victimize themselves, saying that instead of being the conquerors of the Congo, the blood on their hands caused themselves great suffering. As the population of the Congolese people plummetted, statistics state the four main elements include mass genocide, starvation, a decreasing birth rate, and diseases.

In 1896, a German article was published disclosing that one thousand and three hundred severed hands of the Congolese people had been discovered in a single day (pg. 226). Additionally, according to a Swedish Force Publique officer, five hundred and twenty-seven Africans in a single village died within four months of the rubber boom (pg. 227). The villages were burnt and natives massacred ruthlessly, and the phrase “exterminate all the brutes” was coined (pg. 229). The news of Europeans burning and looting native villages spread like wildfire, and thousands of people fleed in fear for their livelihoods.Consequently, food became scarce. It was estimated that about forty thousand people were sleeping in forests without shelter or any sources of food (pg. 229). Smallpox and sleeping sickness claimed more lives than any bullets, with the latter killing more than half a million Congolese people in 1901. Lastly, when men were forced to leave their homes in search of rubber, and women were starved and held as hostages, the number of children born significantly decreased, dropping by sixty percent (pg. 232). The decimation of the Congolese people provides clear evidence of ordinary men doing remarkably wicked acts with a lack of remorse and mercy. To conclude, under the Belgian King Leopold II’s reign of terror and bloodshed, the Congolese people endured suffering. Adam Hochschild accounts for ordinary man’s ability to do extraordinarily bad things while in the Congo using manipulation and fear to force the Congolese people into submission and loyalty. The tragic events of the Congo were committed by ordinary people who made concious efforts to wreak devastation for economic and political motives.

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Review of “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild. (2022, Apr 01). Retrieved from

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