King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

by Adam Hochschild

Paperback, 1999


Houghton Mifflin (1999), 366 pages


History. Nonfiction. HTML: 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 W… (more)

Media reviews

Although much of the material in "King Leopold's Ghost" is secondhand -- the author has drawn heavily from Jules Marchal's scholarly four-volume history of turn-of-the-century Congo and from "The Scramble for Africa," Thomas Pakenham's wide-ranging 1991 study of the European conquest of the
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continent -- Hochschild has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions.
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Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" is an absorbing and horrifying account of the traffic in human misery that went on in Leopold's so-called Congo Free State, and of the efforts of a handful of heroic crusaders to bring the atrocities to light. Among other things, it stands as a reminder of
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how quickly enormities can be forgotten.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Amidst the dismal history of the dark continent, the Congo has a good claim for the most miserable. Late to the party, the King of the Belgians sent his minions to wreck havoc among the natives in order to extract ivory and rubber. Hochschild's book offers a highly readable account of the early
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history of the Congo, its Belgian colonial venture of exploration and exploitation as well as its major protagonists. While his hyperbolic claim that the world did not know about the tragic history might be true for its non-francophone part, the excesses and mistreatment was not exactly a secret in Belgium with its large African community. When I visited the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, some kilometers outside Brussels in Belgium, in the early 1990s, it still celebrated old type colonialism and is now, also due to this book's publicity, in a state of flux (I vividly remember its lovingly presented collection of shrunken heads. Looking at the museum's new website, I wonder whether they are classified either among the 10,000,000 animal specimens or the 120,000 ethnographic objects.).

Hochschild masterfully brings the main characters to life: King Leopold II, frustrated in marriage and locked to a powerless second class country, looking out for fortune and his own place in the sun - at any cost to others. Henry Morton Stanley, a poor Welsh bastard, drifting across the globe, fighting for both sides during the American Civil War, until he found his niche as an adventure travel writer and celebrity, ruthlessly prodding his expeditions on, regardless to their human cost. In their wake followed a colonial enterprise that exploited Africa in such a way that it shocked the other colonialist nations, hard task masters themselves. The second part of the book is devoted to the international public relations campaign that pried the Congo out of Leopold's cold hands. The four pages at the end of Hochschild's book, unfortunately, do not really do justice to the checkered history that followed Belgian decolonization and resulted in Mobutu's dictatorship (as well as the brutal Congo Wars). An excellent read about a dark chapter of human history.
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LibraryThing member Widsith
‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ – Kurtz

A very readable summary of one of the first real international human rights campaigns, a campaign focussed on that vast slab of central Africa once owned, not by Belgium, but personally by the Belgian King. The Congo Free State was a handy microcosm of
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colonialism in its most extreme and polarised form: political control subsumed into corporate control, natural resources removed wholesale, local peoples dispossessed of their lands, their freedom, their lives. To ensure the speediest monetisation of the region's ivory and rubber, about half its population – some ten million people – was worked to death or otherwise killed. And things were no picnic for the other half.

Hochschild's readability, though, rests on a novelistic tendency to cast characters squarely as heroes or villains. Even physical descriptions and reported speech are heavily editorialised: Henry Morton Stanley ‘snorts’ or ‘explodes’, Leopold II ‘schemes’, while of photographs of the virtuous campaigner ED Morel, we are told that his ‘dark eyes blazed with indignation’. This stuff weakens rather than strengthens the arguments and I could have done without it. Similarly, frequent references to Stalin or the Holocaust leave a reader with the vague idea that Leopold was some kind of genocidal ogre; in fact, his interest was in profits, not genocide, and his attitude to the Congolese was not one of extermination but ‘merely’ one of complete unconcern.

Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the reliance on written records naturally foregrounds the colonial administrators and Western campaigners, and correspondingly – as Hochschild recognises in his afterword – ‘seems to diminish the centrality of the Congolese themselves’. This is not a problem one finds with David van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People, where the treatment of the Free State is shorter but feels more balanced. (Van Reybrouck, incidentally, regards Hochschild's account as ‘very black and white’ and refers ambiguously to its ‘talent for generating dismay’.)

For all these problems, though, this is a book that succeeds brilliantly in its objective, which was to raise awareness of a period that was not being much discussed. It remains one of the few popular history books to have genuinely brought something out of the obscurity of academic journals and into widespread popular awareness, and it's often eye-opening in the details it uncovers about one of the most appalling chapters in colonial history. The success is deserved – it's a very emotional and necessary corrective to what Hochschild identifies as the ‘deliberate forgetting’ which so many colonial powers have, consciously or otherwise, taken part in.
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LibraryThing member banjo123
This is exactly the kind of non-fiction that I like to read. It’s definitely got some meat to it, but is written for a popular audience. Facts and history are wrapped into character-driven story. Hochschild explains his references well enough that I didn’t have to keep running to Wikipedia. The
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book is gossipy and engaging. I felt that by reading this book, I got a better picture of what colonialism did to the African continent. I was surprised to find out how much I didn’t know about this topic. King Leopold’s rule led to the death of half the population of the Congo—about 10 million people.

Colonialism, I am afraid was just horrible. In Congo, there was a lot of money to be made out of harvesting rubber. All of that money went to the King Leopold and his companies, none of it stayed in Africa. Harvesting rubber is labor intensive. For other kinds of work in the Congo, Europeans had been easily able to enslave Africans, as porters, etc. For rubber harvesting, it was a little trickier as the laborers needed to go into the forest to tap the rubber trees. They were able to coerce Congolese labor by kidnapping the women, and not releasing them unless the workers brought in the rubber. The women, of course, were kept in very poor conditions and many of them died.

When I mentioned this book to my daughter, she said “Oh that’s where they had the severed hands.” Apparently, they actually are teaching something in public schools these days. The Force Publique, a local military force led and paid by the Belgians were required to provide a hand of their victims as proof when they had shot and killed someone, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions (imported from Europe at considerable cost) for hunting food. Sometimes hands were severed from still-living victims.

King Leopold’s rule was so grisly that it actually led to the first human rights campaign in Europe. Many prominent people, including [[Mark Twain]] and [[A. Conan Doyle]] joined the The British Congo Reform Association founded by Edmund Morel and Roger Casement. This did lead eventually to some change in the Congo, although this movement was still Euro-centric.

One would hope that Colonialism was not as bloody in other parts of Africa. However, Hochschild tells us that there was less difference between the Congo and other African Colonies than the British reformers liked to believe.

One of the weaknesses of this book is that the voices are pretty much all European whites, as the Congo did not have literature and so Congolese were not able to leave a written legacy. And with the extent of the cultural destruction, oral histories would also be disrupted. Hochschild is very aware of this issue and discusses it in depth.

I am very glad that I read this book and hope that it will help me to have a better understanding of modern Africa.
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LibraryThing member GingerbreadMan
The atrocities of the Congo “Free State” during the decades around 1900 are hard to fathom. During the exploitation of first ivory and then rubber, many many people died from hunger, overworking, disease and violence. I rather conservative estimate is ten million dead – more than the
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holocaust. And still, while the evil brand of colonialism practiced in the Congo was very much a matter of public outcry in it’s time, it now seems more or less forgotten. I for one knew very little about it before reading this well-researched, sober book.

Congo, a truly vast territory now consisting of two of Africa’s biggest countries, is unique in that it was more or less the property of one man. King Leopold of Belgium, a man of ambition and greed, with little but contempt for his own tiny kingdom, had already been looking to get into the African race for many years when the opportunity arouse. Through cunning, diplomacy and a thin veil of philanthropy, he managed to get the world to recognize his huge claim, and indeed to support it for the longest time, despite reports of horrors and abuse. Vital as his strong arm in the area was Stanley the explorer, severely dethroned in this book. In a matter of just decades, the pair managed to practically destroy the tribal structure in the area, and instead creating a racist regime built around slave labor, taking families hostage, whipping to death and losing limbs as punishment.

Hochschild’s book is well researched and crisp, but he also has a keen eye for character. Especially Leopold himself, and those brave men who start to publically campaign against his state, are fully fleshed characters, and it’s a joy to get to know such figures as Casement, Morel and Sheppard, all real personas and completely new to me. Hochschild is also careful to point out the less flattering sides: the fact that no first-hand accounts of the many attempted African rebellions exist, the paternalistic attitudes of the people defending the Africans, how they wanted to see Leopold’s regime as “bad colonialism” rather than understanding that there is no other kind, and the corrupt domestic leadership that was left as a legacy in these countries once they gained independence.

This is a very readable, meaningful book about a subject I knew too little about. It has stuff to say about the horrors of this time and place, perhaps worse than anywhere else on this continent. But it also has stuff to say about the European and American attitudes towards Africa at the time, a racism we can still see the consequences of. It’s by no means a difficult read. The pages fly by. But it is often difficult TO read. I dare you to look at the picture of the man sitting on the ground looking at the cut off hand and foot of his five year old daughter (punishment for his inability to fill his rubber quota) without a lump in your throat. An important read.
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LibraryThing member grheault
How the good king Leopold got away with slave labor, 'off the books' governance via private armies,the killing of millions of Congo black, long decades after slavery was banned, and how he was thwarted by good guy activists and journalists. The cast of characters is enticing in their familiarity:
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Albert & Victoria, Carlotta & Maximillian, Stanley & Livingstone, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain; and fascinating in their newness ( to some of us): black Americans William Sheppard & George Washington William, and UK activists Edmund D. Morel & Richard Castleton.

The Leopold story was taught in the 1950's as an example of bad colonialism to children in British Commonweath countries, in contrast to the UK's 'good' colonialism. Author analyzes why the Belgian Congo became the focus of anti-slavery activism when similar sins were being committed by other European powers. And one still wonders, with Belgiums French/Flemish divide about the role of the Catholic Church in all this.

Interesting characters, action, and analysis by the author. Great bibliography and notes for further reading.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
A very compelling book. The story of how the king of Belgium ended up owning a huge swath of Africa as a private possession. The local people were never considered the owners of their land, or the masters of their own lives. Their possessions, land and animals were taken, their lives were often
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destroyed, their families were broken up, their bodies tortured, maimed and killed, and their culture was ground into the dust. All this was done in the name of educating them how to work, to be decent, clothes wearing, god-fearing people, but in reality they were made into slaves. The underlying reason was profit, and power for the Europeans.

Leopold managed to keep reformers and even those in his own country from learning the full truth about how the place was run, how much money he extracted, and the cost in lives, and suffering. The sad thing is most didn't care about the suffering of the locals. They were not treated any better in the other colonies, but the Congo is the one that was in the spotlight in the early 1900s.

Belgium was a small country and easier to make an enemy of than say, France, Germany or Great Britain, which also had colonies, with the same driving force.

Many of the documents of the investigations that weren't destroyed by Leopold when he turned the colony over, were hidden away in the Belgium state archives, and access was refused. They have now been released, but only in French. The past has faded away in human memory and even in the history books. Many famous monuments, buildings and parks were purchased with African blood, but there is no mention or knowledge of it.

The horrors of the past have set the patterns for today and the cycle of violence, poverty, terror and theft have continued. Now it is the Africans themselves who are perpetuating it. Though there is still western money and power in the background pulling the strings.

Just a searing tale of how 10 -13 million people in one colony were killed, worked to death, or died of disease and/or starvation. And Africa was full of colonies.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
If you ask an educated American to name the worst despots and atrocities of the twentieth century, you'll immediately hear such names as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Very few would name Leopold II, King of the Belgians and absolute master of the Belgian Congo. I wouldn't have before reading
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this book, yet a man thousands of miles from a land he never visited is charged with instituting policies responsible for 10 million deaths in the course of a couple of decades, sparking the "first great international human rights movement of twentieth century." Hochschild tells us in the introduction that the book "is the story of that movement, of the savage crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it and of the way the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history." The first third of the book sets out the background--the explorations of the brutal Henry Morton Stanley of "Stanley and Livingston" fame, and the machinations of Leopold to gain a colony. The story of almost every monster of history seems to lie in a hunger for fame, glory or a twisted patriotism or ideology. With Leopold, as he's presented, the motive seems to be pure greed. The next third begins to set out how Leopold's military dictatorship used forced labor to meet demands for ivory and rubber. It explains how Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness was inspired by his own experience in the Congo. Finally, Hochschild tells the story of the protest movement, especially the story of Edmund Dene Morel, "an obscure shipping-company official" who became Leopold's most dangerous enemy.

After reading this I certainly will never again be able to see Stanley as a hero or read Heart of Darkness in the same way. Given the material, this is an absorbing book--a five star in terms of the importance of the story, but not, I thought, in presentation. Hochschild, a former editor of the Marxist Ramparts and a co-founder of the far-left Mother Jones, often lets his socialist biases peek out. For instance, he bizarrely expresses his bewilderment over how a businessman like Morel with no attachment to socialism could be so passionate about fighting injustice! Even more than the intrusive socialist lens, I was left uneasy by the whiff of sensationalist journalism in his psychoanalysis and unsupported speculations about motives and actions and focus on scandal. I think in a lot of cases like that, less would have been more. And in the case of what happened in Congo, more would have been more. I felt I got a better sense of how Leopold conducted his affair with his teenage mistress than how he governed the Congo. Hochschild's chronology and evidence for the numbers he claimed killed in the introduction and analysis of what part could be pinned down as due to the direct effect of colonial rule felt sketchy, as did the exploration of Leopold's role beyond press relations and lobbying. (Admittedly, as Hochschild related, difficult precisely because so many documents were ordered destroyed by Leopold.) When I contrast King Leopold's Ghost to say Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I just can't rate Hochschild as impressive as a writer or historian.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
I pride myself on being a student of history, and I knew that the history of the Belgium Congo was not one of the high points in Europe's colonial adventures in Africa, but I had no idea how bad it really was, or how awful King Leopold of Belgium was.

Impeccably researched and eminently readable,
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this book is compendium of horror. How anyone could possibly defend colonialism in Africa after reading it is beyond me. A sad excuse for a king, aided and abetted by greedy, grasping explorers (so much for my childhood impressions of "Dr. Livingston, I presume" Mr. Stanley), businessmen and soldiers of fortune raped and pillaged the Congo River basin leaving a sad legacy of corruption and brutality that continues up through today.

On the flip side the efforts of a handful of human rights crusaders valiantly tried to end the terrible abuses in the territory. While only partially successful their efforts, too, live on today in organizations like Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders.

This book should be required reading for anyone who today is promoting the overseas adventures in the United States in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
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LibraryThing member ElizabethPisani
I read this when I happened to be living in Belgium and working in Africa, and when I thought I knew at least a little about both. I found King Leopold's ghost immensely informative, and more than a little shocking. It has haunted me for may years --a compelling read.
LibraryThing member stevesmits
This is a remarkable history of events in colonial Africa that, though poorly known today, constituted one of the most horrific occurences of genocide and exploitation in modern history. It tells of King Leopold of Belgium's obsession to become a colonial power at the end of the nineteenth century.
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Leopold seized vast territory in central Africa in what is now Zaire. Unlike other western European states that played out their imperialist aims as nation states, Leopold, in his person, became the ruler of this vast territory. Leopold portrayed himself as the savior of African people against the predations of "Arab" slave traders (in the faux humanitarian and racially superior tone of the times), but was actually responsible for massive and devastating oppression of the native people to wrest riches of their lands from them (ivory and, later, wild rubber) through forced labor. It is estimated that up to ten million people died from this genocidal treatment.

There is quite a bit of material on Henry Stanley, the famed explorer. Needless to say, he turns out not to be the heroic adventurer that popular myth portrays.

Another theme of the book recounts the herculean efforts of a few people to expose and oppose this horror. Hochschild describes Joseph Conrad's travels in the Congo and his encounters with Belgian mercenaries that resulted in his masterpiece of the degradation of the era -- "Heart of Darkness". He identifies the officials that were mostly likely his models for Kurtz. Hoscschild also narrates the stories of American and British missionaries to the region who reported the malevolent treatment of the inhabitants. Two highly signficant instigators of the anti-Leopold movement were Sir Roger Casement, a British consul, and E.D. Morel. Morel was a shipping agent for a line that moved goods to and from the Congo. He noticed that huge quantities of valuable goods were coming from there, but returning ships there contained arms and worthless trinkets for trade. His investigations led to a life-long campaign against this massive exploitation that ultimately turned world opinion against Leopold.

This book is a vivid portrayal of excesses of the colonial era by western powers and the havoc that this visited on people in the Congo and elsewhere. That this story is not told alongside the other genocides of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a real blind spot in a complete history of these times.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Hochschild, an award-winning author of history, a journalist, and a Civil Rights worker, describes in gory detail the mass murder in the Congo that took place under the aegis of Belgium’s King Leopold II, mostly between 1890 and 1910. The greed for ivory, land, and rubber was behind the drive by
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Leopold that is thought to have reduced the population of the Congo by half: an estimated five to ten million lives. This figure does not include the numerous people subjected “merely” to amputation of hands and/or feet, an apparently common punishment meted out to family members of recalcitrant workers. (Cutting off hands was also the practice subsequent to executions to prove one had “not wasted” ammunition on nonhuman targets. Children were often killed with the butt of guns, also to save ammunition.)

Inhabitants were used as porters - taking luggage, wine, and pate inland for the white overseers, and bring back ivory and rubber. They also had to harvest the ivory and rubber and process it prior to transportation. Porters were generally chained together by the neck, so that, for example, if one fell into the Congo while working on a bridge, the whole line would be dragged in too, to a certain death for all of them. Women were imprisoned and chained (and often raped) while the men were out gathering rubber, to ensure their return. Food allotments for workers were not generous, and punishment was meted out with the chicotte, a whip made out of dried hippopotamus hide cut into a sharp-edge strip. Beatings could be fatal. It was also not unusual for whole villages to be burned and their inhabitants executed as ‘examples” to other villages.

The author maintains that Europeans of Leopold’s time thought of Africa “as if it were just a piece of uninhabited real estate to be disposed of by its owner.” But more than that, the black inhabitants were regarded as less than human beings. Hochschild pauses in his tale of horror to ask: “What made it possible for the functionaries in the Congo to so blithely watch the chicotte in action and … deal out pain and death in other ways as well? To begin with, of course, was race. To Europeans, Africans were inferior beings: lazy, uncivilized, little better than animals. … Then, of course, the terror in the Congo was sanctioned by the [white] authorities. For a white man to rebel meant challenging the system that provided your livelihood [as well as a very good livelihood for your superiors. Leopold himself is estimated to have taken some $1.1 billion (in today’s dollars) in profits]. Finally when terror is the unquestioned order of the day, wielding it efficiently is regarded as a manly virtue, the way soldiers value calmness in battle.”

Hochschild reports that a great deal of historical detective work went into the estimation of statistics “about something [officials] considered so negligible as African lives.” On the other hand, as he ruefully observes, much data is in fact available: many officials reported meeting their “death quotas” with enthusiasm. Not all of the population loss was caused by massacre: the author delineates three other closely connected causes of death: starvation, exhaustion, and exposure; disease; and a plummeting birth rate (as a result both of the death of so many men and of the reluctance of women to bring children into their nightmarish world).

While most of the book focuses on the Congo, Hochschild’s last chapter summarizes the situation in some of the other colonial possessions. The French Congo, for instance, has a similar legacy: "In France’s equatorial African territories…the amount of rubber-bearling land was far less than what Leopold controlled, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company ‘sentries,’ and the chicotte were the order of the day.”

Hochschild also tells the stories of some of those who tried to bring the atrocities to the attention of the public: the tireless white crusader Edmund Dene Morel, black journalist George Washington Williams, black missionary William Sheppard, and the Irish patriot Roger Casement. Casement was hanged by the British for treason in the fight for Irish home-rule. But his self-defense at his trial spoke to the Congo as well as Ireland, and inspired, among others, Jawaharlal Nehru to go on to seek his own nation’s liberation. He said, “Where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours…then surely it is braver, a saner and truer thing, to be a rebel…than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.”

Hochschild is to be commended for trying to bring this true horror story back to life. There is still a need to learn from the dangers of power and greed. As he concludes, “At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, the idea of full human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today.”

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LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
While only the most naive today would contend that the European coloni-zation of Africa occurred for purely altruistic reasons, atrocities and subterfuge on the scale presented by Adam Hochschild in King Leopold’s Ghost give even the jaded cynic pause. That such base greed carefully done up as
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humanitarianism managed to inflict so much suffering for so long almost takes one’s breath away.
Hochschild presents the story of King Leopold II and his determination to establish some sort of empire for himself. Hochschild makes clear that Leopold’s ambition centered upon himself; if Belgium or his family profited as a result, that was secondary to the King. Leopold emerges as a master schemer and con-niver, adept at seeing a profit where most would pass by and skilled at manipu-lating even the most damaging turns to events to suit his own agenda.
Writing more as a journalist than as a traditionally trained historian, Hochschild spins a gripping story that compels the reader like a novel. Had the work turned out to be a roman á clef, it would not have been surprising. Indeed his cast of players offer fascinating insights into characters that Dickens would have been proud to have created. Besides Leopold, Henry Stanley is the villain on the spot, whose cruelty and butchery mesmerize with the macabre lure that the cobra holds over its prey. Furthermore, Lèon Rom appears as the real life monster on whom Joseph Conrad based Mr. Kurtz, in The Heart of Darkness. Unfortunately, what makes brilliant villains in fiction, makes for genuine horror in reality.
Despite the often grisly and lurid information Hochschild has to convey, he manages to do so as tastefully as possible yet still impresses the reader with the grim conditions that prevailed in the Congo. The beatings with the chicotte and the severing of hands burn vividly in the reader’s mind. Besides Hochschild’s descriptive skill, the various illustrations make clear the tragic plight of Africans who failed to comply with Belgian demands.
However, as promised in the subtitle, the story has its heroes as well. Jo-seph Conrad personally saw European cruelty at work and voiced his horror of the situation in The Heart of Darkness. E. D. Morel, who crusaded tirelessly on behalf of the Africans caught in Leopold’s web displays sacrifice and altruism on a vast scale – the only scale that could possibly match the iniquity on the side of Leopold and his agents. Sir Roger Casement, the Irishman with a fondness for lost causes and martyrdom, managed to aid the Congolese before getting him-self embroiled in even more hopeless causes like Irish independence and un-closeted homosexuality. Hochschild also presents blacks as heroic agents for resistance, notably George Washington Williams, Hezekiah Andrew Shanu and Reverend William H. Sheppard. These men fearlessly proclaimed the wrongs being perpetrated in the Congo and insisted that it not be ignored.
Hochschild contends that only through the efforts of men brave enough to speak out against Leopold and his tribe did the evil system of oppression yield to more humanitarian methods. Leopold, he asserts, would have continued his sordid ways as long as possible and abrogated them only when the scrutiny of the world’s attention made their continuance intolerable.
In the final section of the book, Hochschild addresses the larger issues, which are: why is any amount of atrocity tolerable at all, and how are atrocities so easily forgotten or ignored? Regrettably, his answers do not reflect favorably upon humanity. Self-serving ends combined with guilt or complicity lead to col-lective forgetfulness and, eventually, ignorance. The harsh light of self-examination seldom appeals to any but the most saintly of us while politicians offering salves to assuage our shame easily convince us that it is better not to dwell upon it. Fortunately, writers like Hochschild force the mirror before us and reveal humanity in both its ignominy and its heroism.

Alex Hunnicutt
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LibraryThing member santhony
Having only a passing familiarity with the history of the European colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, I must admit to being somewhat shocked at the raw body count associated with Leopold's rape of the Congo. As many have asked, "How could the death of up to 10 million people become nothing more
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than a footnote to this historical era?"

The subjugation and plundering of large areas of the region was certainly not an activity that began and ended with Leopold, however, the scope of his atrocities coupled with the other aspects of his pathetic life identify him as an utterly miserable excuse for a human being.

That being said, however, it should be noted (as the author does at the end of his work), that in many ways, Leopold was a man of his times. If his body count was higher than that of French, German and English colonies, this was largely due to the fact that the rubber resource was more densely located in his area of control. What matter the body count if the value of the bodies were negligible? Even many of the "heroes" identified in the book, looked with disgust and abhorence at the subjects of Leopold's crimes against humanity.

However, it is these very individuals, who took on at great risk the powers involved in the carnage that make up the story of this period. A willingness to protect the defenseless, at great personal sacrifice and with virtually no hope of either success or reward is what identifies the finest among us.
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LibraryThing member furriebarry
Brutal and fascinating history of Congo.
LibraryThing member michaeleconomy
read this in college, pretty good, covers history i would have never had any idea about otherwise
LibraryThing member veevoxvoom
At the end of the nineteenth century African colonialism was at its height, and no more was this evident than in King Leopold of Belgium’s personal scramble for the area known as the Congo. Adam Hochschild follows the development of the Congo under Leopold and its brutal, ruthless regime against
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the natives. But in his story of cruelty is also the story of those who opposed and rallied against Leopold.

I was assigned to read this book as a study in colonialism during a first year university history course. I read only about half of it and then stopped; not because of lack of interest, but because exams and other distractions had started to dominate my time more. Two years later I’ve returned to this book and now I feel embarrassed that I ever let it go. It is gripping, meticulously researched, and written more like a novel than an academic text, which makes it easy reading in style at least.

The subject? Not so much. It’s hard to read about such rampant genocide and not feel personally disgusted or moved, which was the case for me. History of African colonization is not a topic that I’m well acquainted with. I don’t think a lot of westerners are acquainted with it. It’s not taught much in schools in any case, and I knew nothing about the Congo prior to this book. Now I feel like I’ve made the first step in knowledge, although I’m sure there’s still a long way to go.

The synopsis of this book calls the opposition to Leopold’s Congo the first human rights movement of the twentieth century. I think this is a vital book for anyone who is interested in the history of human rights campaigns, or anyone in general who wants to know more about the world’s darker, bleaker histories.
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LibraryThing member getupkid10
An amazingly detailed account of King Leopold's destruction of large swatch of land in central Africa, the murder of its people and the people in Europe and the United States that battled to end it.

The story documents the roughly ten million people who were killed through starvation, murder,
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disease or infertility caused by the migration of forced labor with heart wrenching detail. Many stories, often given by missionaries working, tell the story of people being shot on sight for not bringing back enough rubber, people being forced in shackles from their villages to work deep into the jungles searching for rubber and villages brought to starvation as they are forced to provide food to gov't or rubber companies workers.

Though it does cover the people of the Congo, the majority of It follows the work of Edmund Morel, a newspaper writer and author of books that published the atrocities perpetrated by Leopold and the concession companies in the Congo, William Sheppard, an American missionary who also wrote about the methods used by the Belgians and Roger Casement, British consul, who witnessed the atrocities and would work with Morel in bringing the events to the Western public.

Hochschild does an amazing job covering this often forgotten moment in colonialism and one of the first battles for human rights in the twentieth century. No wonder this book is referred to by Bryan Mealer and Michela Wrong, both authors on the Congo, as "the definitive account of the rubber atrocities" and as "gripping, impeccably researched... [and] unbeatable.", respectively.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
Director Pippa Scott, with the collaboration of Adam Hochschild, the author of this work, has made a historical documentary film which traces the arc of the Congo from its period as a private possession of King Leopold II in the late 1800's through a brief democracy in 1960's (ending with the
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torture and assasination of Patrice Lumumba) to today's homicidal chaos in which an estimated 3.9 million Congolese may have died in armed conflicts.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
King Leopold’s Ghost is the story of Congo Free State – a colony owned outright not by a European country, but by a single monarch, King Leopold II of Belgium. The state, an area almost 30 times the size of Belgium, existed for 23 years (1885 – 1908), and was run solely for profit – mainly
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from Ivory and rubber.

Congo was “discovered” by the Portuguese in the late 1400’s and became a source of slaves for the slave trading. But, it was not penetrated by Europeans until Henry Morton Stanley began his treks of discovery (leaving a bloody path behind him) in the mid-19th century. At this point King Leopold stepped in and successfully manipulates the creation of the “Free State of Congo” under his personal ownership. In Europe Leopold promoted his mission in the Congo as humanitarian.

But, out European sight, was a prolonged massacre for profit. This is the world of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Under Leopold, the Congo became basically an enslaved country of forced labor. The brutality was unrestrained and the stomach turning stories are endless. The black population dropped in half…something like 10 million black Africans died during this during this period. This was not genocide. The torture and mass death came in the name of profits.

However, this was not unique in Africa. Similar kinds of things happened in other places under other European states. The main difference of Congo was that it covered a huge area. Also unique was that Leopold provided a villain, and a strong movement developed to end the Congo Free State. The truth of the Congo was partially exposed during Leopold’s lifetime.

Hochschild has written a very detailed and gripping history of the Congo. He captures some of the atmosphere of life in the Congo, and he fleshes out many of the key people involved, especially the madman who was Henry Morton Stanly. His chapter on Joseph Conrad was absolutely fascinating.
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LibraryThing member John5918
This is a well-written book that reads easily like a novel. Once I started it I couldn't put it down. But the subject matter is not easy - the systematic atrocities carried out in King Leopold's Congo. I was only a few kilometres from the Congo border whilst reading it, which added to the poignancy.
LibraryThing member jcovington
Everyone should read this book. It is simply brilliant. King Leopold's Ghost is the best of all Adam's works. Reading this explains the current chaos still reigning in the Democratic Repoblic of Congo/Zaire.
LibraryThing member bhowell
This is the horrifying but true history of the atrocities carried out in the then Belgian Congo by it's colonial master. It is a sobering thought that these practices continued into the 1960's when the world supposedly knew better.
LibraryThing member Jeyra
A journalistic style account of the rape of the Congo under King Leopold III. The most shocking story no one ever told us.
Reading level: medium
Suitable for: over 14
LibraryThing member bernsad
Despite the rather horrible subject matter I found this an enjoyable read. Hochschild has obviously done extensive research but presents it in an easily readable style. He gives us a good picture of colonial Africa, specifically the Congo but probably applicable in general, not just to Africa, but
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a lot of the colonial territories. I think the most poignant part of the book is the photographs of people with hands cut off as punishment! Frightening, but probably still possible in some parts of the world today. We are not very far advanced from this mentality yet.
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LibraryThing member KendraRenee
An amazing, well-researched, informative book. My brother went to the Congo a few years ago to develop more micro-finance in the area, and some of the stories he told while there make so much more sense now--i.e. the strained relationship between blacks and whites, the current corruption in their
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government, the guerilla warfare, etc. There's a history of incredible, terrible repression, slavery, slaughter, and abuse that clearly made this country what it is today. Turns the stomach and makes one want to weep at the cruelty of mankind. The story of the people who fought to end this era of human rights abuses might have inspired me to join Amnesty International sometime soon.
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