King Leopold's Ghost
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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998) is a best-selling popular history book by Adam Hochschild that explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908, as well as the atrocities that were committed during that period. The book succeeded in increasing public awareness of these Belgian colonial crimes.
It was refused by nine of the 10 U.S. publishing houses to which an outline was submitted, but became an unexpected bestseller and won the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for literary style. It also won the 1999 Duff Cooper Prize. By 2013 more than 600,000 copies were in print in a dozen languages.
The title is adopted from the 1914 poem "The Congo", by Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay. Condemning Leopold's actions, Lindsay wrote:
- Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost,
- Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
- Hear how the demons chuckle and yell,
- Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Leopold II, King of the Belgians, privately controlled and owned the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908. In 1908, the area was annexed by Belgium as a colony known as the Belgian Congo. Leopold used his personal control to strip the county of vast amounts of wealth, largely in the form of ivory and rubber. These labor-intensive industries were serviced by slave labor, and the local peoples were forced to work through various means, including torture, imprisonment, maiming and terror. Christian missionaries and a handful of human rights organizers internationally publicized these atrocities. Slowly, various nations, including Great Britain and the United States of America, began to object to Leopold's tyranny with the result that the country's administration was transferred to Belgium. Little changed inside the country, however, until the ivory and rubber were exhausted.
European interest in the African continent can be traced back to the late 1400s, when a European explorer sailed the west coast and discovered the Congo River. By the 1860s, most African coastal regions were claimed as colonies of European powers, but the vast interior of the continent remained unknown to Europeans. Henry Morton Stanley, a complicated man and renowned explorer, ventured through much of that unknown during a descent of the Congo River. Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was fascinated with obtaining a colony and focused upon claiming the interior of Africa—the only unclaimed sizable geographic area. Moving within the European political paradigm existing in the early 1880s, Leopold gained international concessions and recognition for his personal claim to the Congo Free State.
His rule of the vast region was based on tyranny and terror. Under his direction, Stanley again visited the area and extracted favorable treaties from numerous local leaders. A road and, eventually, a rail line were developed from the coast to Leopoldville (present Kinshasa). A series of militarized outposts were established along the length of the Congo River, and imported paddle wheelers commenced regular river service. Native peoples were forced to gather ivory and transport it for export. Beginning c. 1890, rubber—originally manufactured from coagulated sap—became economically significant in international trade. The Congo was rich is rubber-producing vines, and Leopold transitioned his exploitative focus from dwindling ivory supplies to the burgeoning rubber market. Rubber harvesting is labor-intensive and slavery, exploitation and the reign of terror continued and even increased.
Meanwhile, early missionaries and human rights advocates began to circulate news of the widespread atrocities committed in the Congo under the official blessing of Leopold's administration. Women and children were imprisoned as hostages to force husbands and fathers to work. Flogging, starvation and torture were routine. Murder was common—tribes resisting enslavement were wiped out; administration officials expected to receive back a severed human hand for every bullet issued. Rape and sexual slavery were rampant. Workers failing to secure assigned quotas of rubber were routinely mutilated or tortured. Administration officials so completely dehumanized local peoples that at least one decorated his flower garden with a border of severed human heads. News of these atrocities brought slow, but powerful, international condemnation of Leopold's administration leading, eventually, to his assignment of the country to Belgian administration.
In 1908, Belgium annexed the Congo as a colony and proclaimed a general sea-change in administrative policy. Actual change, however, was nearly imperceptible. The era of World War I shifted attention from atrocities in Africa to European trench warfare. In the post-war era, the global demand for reform was largely forgotten. However, commercial rubber tree farming had become firmly established and the collection of wild rubber became commercially insignificant, just as ivory supplies had been exhausted years earlier. Because of this, the slave labor industries of the Congo diminished in importance and atrocities became far less frequent. Finally, in 1960, the Congo gained independence.
Hochschild cites the research of several historians, many of them Belgian. He refers especially to Jules Marchal, formerly a Belgian colonial civil servant and diplomat who (as Hochschild describes) spent twenty years trying to break Belgian silence about the massacres. The documentation was not easy to come by; the furnaces of the palace in Brussels are said to have spent more than a week burning incriminating papers before Leopold turned over his private Congo to the Belgian nation. For many years Belgian authorities prevented access to what remained of the archives, notably the accounts given by Congolese to the King's Commission.
Although few African scholars outside Belgium seriously question that large numbers died in Leopold’s Congo, the subject remains a touchy one in Belgium itself. The country’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, founded by Leopold II, mounted a special exhibition in 2005 about the colonial Congo; in an article in the New York Review of Books, Hochschild accused the museum of distortion and evasion.
Also in 2005, the American and British publishers of King Leopold’s Ghost reissued the book with a new “Afterword” by Hochschild in which he talks about the reactions to the book, the death toll, and events in the Congo since its publication.
Hochschild has been praised by critics for his narrative. However, he acknowledges that most of the facts illustrated in the book were already known (although appearing in works in several languages). The book was praised by scholars of Africa such as Prof. Robert Harms of Yale University and by the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer.
Belgian historian Jules Marchal called the book "a masterpiece, without even one error about the historical deeds related." Several other Belgian experts on the period, such as anthropologist Jan Vansina, have also voiced support for Hochschild. Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, a Congolese scholar whose Histoire générale du Congo was published the same year as King Leopold's Ghost, estimated the death toll in the Free State era and its aftermath at roughly 13 million, a higher figure than the various estimates cited by Hochschild.
While Hochschild has said that his intention was to tell the story in "a way that brings characters alive, that brings out the moral dimension, that lays bare a great crime and a great crusade", he was criticised for his overly moralistic dimension, and former Belgian officials deplored his comparison of Leopold with Hitler and Stalin.
The Belgian historian Jean Stengers, whose works are cited in King Leopold's Ghost, argued in a newspaper article that Hochschild's moral judgements were "not justified in respect to the time and place" and that his conclusions about the scale of the mass murder were based on incomplete statistics. He argued that, in Hochschild's book, historical objectivity was affected by the desire to attract a wide public. Hochschild replied to Stengers' criticism, accusing him of not accepting the implications of his own research, arguing that while Stengers was "a meticulous and talented scholar", he was affected by colonialist bias. Hochschild points out that the estimates about the reduction of the population of the Congo reported in his book are taken in part from Stengers' writings.
Hochschild was also criticized by Barbara Emerson, the author of a biography of Leopold, who described his book as "a very shoddy piece of work" and declared that "Leopold did not start a genocide. He was greedy for money and chose not to interest himself when things got out of control." Hochschild does not use the word genocide, but describes how the mass deaths happened as a result of the forced labor system instituted at Leopold's direction.
- Hochschild 1998.
- Neier 2012, p. 43: "The story is familiar thanks to Adam Hochschild's 1998 book, King Leopold's Ghost."
- King Leopold's Ghost at the Internet Movie Database
- "In the Heart of Darkness — A Glimpse of the World". HowardwFrench.com. New York Review of Books. 2005-10-26. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
The exhibit deals with this question in a wall panel misleadingly headed 'Genocide in the Congo?' This is a red herring, for no reputable historian of the Congo has made charges of genocide; a forced labor system, although it may be equally deadly, is different.
- Jeremy Harding (20 September 1998). "Into Africa". New York Times. Archived from the original on 13 September 2001. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
a superb synoptic history of European misdemeanor in central Africa
- Michiko Kakutani (1 September 1998). "Genocide With Spin Control". New York Times. Archived from the original on 18 April 2001. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
Hochschild has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative
- Luc Sante (27 September 1998). "Leopold's Heart of Darkness". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
'King Leopold's Ghost' is an absorbing and horrifying account
- Godwin Rapando Murunga (1999). "King Leopold's Ghost (review)". African Studies Quarterly. Center for African Studies at the University of Florida. 3 (2). Retrieved 13 June 2012.
King Leopold's Ghost tells the story of the Congo with fresh and critical insights, bringing new analysis to this topic.
- Bates, Stephen (13 May 1999). "The hidden holocaust". theguardian.com. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
- "The hidden holocaust". The Guardian. London: GMG. 1999-05-13. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
- Cited works
- Hochschild, Adam (1998). King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Pan Macmillan. ISBN 0-330-49233-0.
- Louis, Wm. Roger; Stengers, Jean, eds. (1968). E. D. Morel's History of the Congo Reform Movement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-821644-0.
- Neier, Aryeh (2012). The International Human Rights Movement: A History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-13515-1.