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King Leopold’s Ghost [Book Review]

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King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild is the story of how King Leopold II of Belgium used violence and coercion to gain control of the Congo. On a larger scale it provides a perspective on how various European powers carved up Africa for their own gain. The book includes a reasonable amount of data and statistics to show how Leopold II profited from devastating the Congo.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a well recommended and highly rated book. I understand the significance of the book and the events to which it gives attention. But, while the book is informative, I found it to be not quite dry but hard to get lost in. Usually when I’m really into a book, I use every spare moment to try to read another page. The story and characters draw you in and you find yourself wanting more, wanting to know what’s next. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen here.

Hochschild includes a lot of insightful data in the book, but I found the main person in the story, Leopold II, to be a pretty boring individual. He was a rather miserable person who was completely absorbed with his own needs and wants. Learning about his schemes and machinations was interesting and necessary to understand how plans and initiatives were developed and executed.

I’m usually drawn to people in a story but in this case most of the people involved just ran together and I had a hard time keeping track of who was who. Part of this is a result of history being told by the victors. The first-hand accounts primarily came from Europeans and Americans active in Africa during this time. A more powerful book would have been if the story of Europe’s pillaging of Africa, in this case Leopold’s plundering of the Congo, had been told from the perspective of the affected Africans that survived.

Hochschild does his best to include these perspectives where possible. But, part of the problem with colonialism is that in addition to forcibly confiscating land, goods, and other possessions, the occupying force also tends to stifle the voices of the colonized. The people aggrieved by colonization lose not only their lives and the way of life that they’ve always known. They also lose their personhood as the violations and wrongs committed against them are quietly tucked away.

In some ways, this took away from King Leopold’s Ghost. But, it’s indicative of the larger story at hand. What’s largely missing from the book, a plethora of first-hand accounts from the Congolese people about all of the events in the book, provides powerful commentary about what is in the book.

Quite often, when we think of Africa, it’s spoken of as though it’s one large country. The reality is that it’s comprised of 54 countries (per the United Nations). Yet, the names and borders of these countries were heavily influenced by European colonization. Prior to the Europeans, the boundaries between villages, cities, etc. were different.

Leopold’s explorers ventured into the interior of the continent and named rivers, lakes, mountains, etc. to their liking and quite often after themselves or their benefactors. They claimed land through exploitative trades and treaties. Then implemented infrastructure that allowed for the cultivation of natural resources, goods, etc. and their transport to Europe and other markets without paying for them or paying very little. At the epicenter of this particular story is rubber.

In history classes, I learned of the rushes for gold, spices, and if you’re in America, cotton. When you think of it, these situations have occurred at just about every point where some country or entity recognizes a market for a natural resource or good. And instead of paying fair market price for the resource and its associated labor, inhumanity is allowed to run rampant.

The people who are intended to provide the forced or slave labor are first dehumanized. There’s always some reason given for them needing the guiding hand of the more powerful party. In this case, Leopold II and the Belgian overseers initially cloaked themselves in the idea of helping to civilize the collective now referred to as the “Congolese”.

As part of their education, the Congolese men are made to work tirelessly. First as porters and other expeditions support roles, then in the building of railroads, and finally as rubber sap gatherers. They did so under threat of the lash and/or threat of their families (who were being held hostage) being maimed or murdered. Women were used as concubines and forced to perform other types of labor.

Most frequently hands and heads, but occasionally other body parts were cut off as punishment or as proof of kills during raids and conflicts. The brutality masquerading as an education in civility really just served as a conduit for unrestricted capitalism.

King Leopold’s Ghost makes two points that really stuck out to me.

First, the 1800s saw the abolishment of slavery in many locations that played a role in the Atlantic slave trade. But the powers that either profited from the Atlantic slave trade in colonization in the new world, or had missed the boat, we’re looking for a similar but new emerging market. This leads to the second point.

Many of the countries that now pat themselves on the back for becoming anti-slavery or abolishing slavery in the 1800s were involved in the carving up of Africa for colonization. Belgium is the primary focus of King Leopold’s Ghost but stories of French, German, British, etc. exploits are also included. The countries that felt compelled to bring a “civilizing hand” to Africa also had no qualms about using those hands to pillage and murder in their colonies.

If you think about it, there’s a tendency where countries make the case for themselves colonizing a nation or an area because they’re “more civilized” or “morally superior” to the other countries that are essentially their competitors. So they all have the same goal in mind, but they use this idea of their civility or virtuosity as the reason they should be allowed to colonize a land versus a competitor country.

And now about 100 years later, in popular history these events are glossed over and these once colonizers are now portrayed as modern standard bearers for human rights and trying to bring about or preserve world peace.

I wholeheartedly recommend reading King Leopold’s Ghost. It’s not a perfect book, but even with its limited resources, it is a poignant book. The book isn’t very long, but it’s packed with a lot of information and descriptions of some events are quite atrocious. King Leopold’s Ghost isn’t for everybody, but I think you’ll find it interesting if you’re okay with a book that moves pretty slowly and the battles are wars of words and conniving schemes. There are descriptions of wars and conflicts but not really two armies fighting each other, so don’t expect any Hollywood theatrics.

I’ve been trying to expand my knowledge and understanding of history across the Black diaspora. This is one of the first books I’ve read that covers what occurred in Africa after the peak of the Atlantic slave trade. It primarily focused on one country, the Congo, but I think it’s a good starting point for diving into the history of African countries as it also provides brief overviews of what was happening in other African countries at this time.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the book exactly. It was dry at points but overall I’m glad that I read it and would recommend the book as I learned a lot about individual historical figures and a particular time period in the history of the Congo. It made me want to learn more about this area of Africa, what it was like before it came to be known as the Congo, and what has occurred since the death of Leopold II.

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