In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million–all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated.
King Leopold’s Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent.
Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II.
With great power and compassion, King Leopold’s Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo–too long forgotten–onto the conscience of the West. Early in the imperial colonial period slavery was the chief reason for exploiting central Africa. King Leopold of Belgium ruthlessly but brilliantly exploited much of central Africa in the 19th century without regard for human suffering. When slavery became politically obsolete, ivory and later natural rubber was exploited using slave labor, blackmail, kidnapping, you name it.
King Leopold personally benefited from this exploitation of the peoples and the environment. He managed to do so without raising concerns about the illegalities or moralities of his time. To this day much of what is in this book has been ignored by history. Belgium’s imperialist rape of Africa King Leopold’s GhostA story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild Book review by Stuart Nolan Adam Hochschild’s study of King Leopold II of Belgium’s creation of the Congo Free State goes to the essence of the economic and political systems established in colonial Africa.
Between 1885 and 1908, there were between five and eight million victims of Leopold’s personal rule, under a barbarous system of forced labour and systematic terror. When reading a reference by Mark Twain to these deaths, and the world-wide campaign against slavery in the Congo of which he was a part, Hochschild was surprised at his own ignorance. “Why were these deaths not mentioned in the standard litany of our century’s horrors? And why had I not heard of them? ” Pursuing his inquiries he uncovered a “vast supply of raw material”. His book has ruffled quite a few feathers, particularly in Belgium.
The British Independent newspaper’s review calls Hochschild’s comparisons to contemporary imperialism “unhelpful. ” But it is such contemporary resonances that place King Leopold’s Ghost above a routine historical work. One example from the introduction: “… unlike other great predators of history, from Genghis Khan to the Spanish conquistadors, King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilt in anger. He never set foot in the Congo. There is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere, above the clouds, who never hears screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh. p4) Hochschild examines how, in the nineteenth century European drive for possessions in Africa, the moral rationalisation of the “civilising” mission was used to justify colonialism. An example was the founding of Leopold’s International African Association (IAA) in 1876, at a conference of famous explorers in Brussels. As its first secretary, King Leopold opened the conference thus: “To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress…. ” (p44)
The aim of the conference was proclaimed to be “abolishing the [Arab] slave trade, establishing peace among the chiefs, and procuring them just and impartial arbitration. ” Contrast this with remarks Leopold made to his London minister on the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, hired by the IAA to explore the interior of the Congo: “I’m sure if I quite openly charged Stanley with the task of taking possession in my name of some part of Africa, the English will stop me… So I think I’ll just give Stanley some job of exploration which would offend no one, and will give us the bases and headquarters which we can take over later on. p58) Leopold felt squeezed out by the British and French Empires, and the rising power of Germany. He studied forms of colonialism from the Dutch East Indies, to the British possessions in India and Africa. Java or How to Manage a Colony, by English lawyer JWB Money, appealed to him because it showed how a small country like Holland had perfected the technique of exploiting vast colonies. Money concluded that the huge profits made from Java depended on forced labour. Leopold agreed, commenting that forced labour was “the only way to civilise and uplift these indolent and corrupt peoples of the Far East. p37)
Opposing the prevailing desire of Belgian parliamentarians to avoid the expense of colonies, he argued, “Belgium doesn’t exploit the world… It’s a taste we have got to make her learn. ” (p38) Leopold’s land grab Stanley’s murderous descent into the Congo is documented in his own diaries. The King sent instructions to Stanley to “purchase as much land as you will be able to obtain, and that you should place successively under… suzerainty… as soon as possible and without losing one minute, all the chiefs from the mouth of the Congo to the Stanley falls… p70) He was to purchase all the available ivory and establish barriers and tolls on the roads he opened up. Land rights treaties should be as “brief as possible and in a couple of articles must grant us everything. ” (p71) Stanley secured 450 such agreements. Leopold developed a military dictatorship over a country 76 times the size of Belgium, with only a small number of white officials. Initially, he paid mercenaries, but in 1888 these were transformed into the “Force Publique”. At its peak, there were 19,000 conscripted African soldiers and 420 white officers.
By means of bribes and lobbying, Leopold gained recognition for the Congo in 1884 by the United States, followed by a similar deal with France. By making a web of bilateral agreements at the Berlin conference in February 1885, he carved out the boundaries for this huge state. Once his ownership of the Congo was secure, the rubber boom erupted. Rubber sap was in great demand for tyres and other products, and the Congo was covered with such vines. Joint ventures ensued between Belgian, British and Dutch firms. The astronomical profits saved Leopold’s colonial empire.
An example given is the 700 percent profits of the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploration Company (ABIR). The race was on to extract as much wild natural rubber as possible before organised cultivation stole the market. Apart from financing Leopold’s private army and the Force Publique (which took up half the Congo’s budget) to control the slave labourers who gathered the rubber, capital outlay was non-existent. Natives had to search out vines through inhospitable jungle. In Leopold’s Congo it was an illegal offence to pay any Africans with money, so other more brutal forms of exhortation were employed.
The British vice consul in 1899 gave a terrifying example of how the Force Publique carried out this task: “An example of what is done was told me up the Ubangi [River]. This officer[‘s]… method… was to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants of which invariably bolted on their arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grain etc, out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the chief of the district brought in the required number of kilograms of rubber.
The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats apiece, and so he continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected. ” (p161) Companies operating in the Congo used prison stockades to keep hostages. If the men of the village resisted the demands for rubber it meant the death of their wife, child or chief. The Force Publique supplied military might under contract and each company had its own mercenaries. In the rubber regions, Africans had to gain a state permit to travel outside their villages.
Labourers wore a numbered metal disk, so a record could be kept of their individual quota. Hundreds of thousands of desperate and exhausted men carried huge baskets on their heads for up to twenty miles a day. An account in 1884 describes the actions of an officer known as Fievez taken against those who refused to collect rubber or failed to meet their quota: “I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people… but that allowed five hundred others to live. (p166) The Force Publique had a combined counter-insurgency role: as a force to suppress the natives and as a “corporate labour force. ” Their murderous assaults against the native population were described as “pacification”, as it was during the Vietnam War.
The demand was for labour, and they destroyed all obstacles in their way. Hochschild quotes the Governor of the Equatorial District of the Congo Free State when the demand for rubber became ferocious: “As soon as it was a question of rubber, I wrote to the government, ‘To gather rubber in the district… ne must cut off hands, noses and ears’. (p165) Following tribal wars, state officials would see to it that the victors severed the hands of dead warriors. During expeditions, Force Publique soldiers were instructed to bring back a hand or head for each bullet fired, to make sure that none had been wasted or hidden for use in rebellions. A soldier with the chilling title “keeper of hands” accompanied each expedition. Force Publique soldiers were slaves who had been press-ganged through hostage taking, or stolen as children and brought up in child colonies founded by the King and the Catholic Church.