King Leopold's Ghost

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King Leopold's Ghost
Author Adam Hochschild
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Mariner Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)

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.[1] The book succeeded in increasing public awareness of these Belgian colonial crimes.[2]

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 book is the basis of a 2006 documentary film of the same name, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.[3]


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.


The story chronicles the efforts of King Leopold II of Belgium to make the Congo into his proprietary colonial empire. With a complex scheme of political intrigue, corruption and propaganda, he wins the assistance of one of the best-known explorers of the time, Henry Morton Stanley, as well as that of public opinion and of powerful states. Through the Berlin Conference and other diplomatic efforts, he finally obtains international recognition for his colony. He then establishes a system of forced labour that keeps the people of the Congo basin in a condition of slavery, collecting ivory and rubber under brutal conditions, which he used to finance his palaces, while claiming he was bringing Christianity to the natives.

The book places King Leopold among the great tyrants of history. The death toll in the Congo under his regime is hard to estimate, both because accurate records were not kept and because many of the existing records were deliberately destroyed by Leopold shortly before the government of Belgium took the Congo out of his hands. Although Wm. Roger Louis and Jean Stengers[4] characterize the earliest population and mortality estimates as "wild guesses", Hochschild cites many subsequent lines of inquiry that conclude that the early official estimates were essentially correct: roughly half the population of the Congo perished during the Free State period. Since the census taken by the Belgian government (after acquiring the Congo from Leopold) found some 10 million inhabitants, Hochschild concludes that roughly 10 million perished, though the precise number can never be known.

Hochschild profiles several people who helped make the world aware of the reality of the Congo Free State, including:

  • George Washington Williams, an African American politician and historian, the first to report the atrocities in the Congo to the outside world.
  • William Henry Sheppard, another African American, a Presbyterian missionary who furnished direct testimony of the atrocities.
  • E. D. Morel, a British journalist and shipping agent checking the commercial documents of the Congo Free State, who realized that the vast quantities of rubber and ivory coming out of the Congo were matched only by rifles and chains going in. From this he inferred that the Congo was a slave state, and he devoted the rest of his life to correcting that.
  • Sir Roger Casement, a British diplomat and Irish patriot, put the force of the British government behind the international protest against Leopold. Casement's involvement had the ironic effect of drawing attention away from British colonialism, Hochschild suggests. The Congo Reform Association was formed by Morel at Casement's instigation.

Hochschild devotes a chapter to Joseph Conrad, the famous Anglo-Polish writer, who captained a steamer on the Congo River in the first years of Belgian colonization. Hochschild observes that Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, despite its unspecific setting, gives a realistic picture of the Congo Free State. Its main character, Kurtz, was inspired by real state functionaries in the Congo, notably Leon Rom. While Heart of Darkness is probably the most reprinted and studied short novel of the 20th century, its psychological and moral truths have largely overshadowed the literal truth behind the story. Hochschild finds four likely models for Kurtz: men who, like Kurtz, boasted of cutting off the heads of African rebels and sometimes displaying them.


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.[5]

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[6][7][8][9] 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.[citation needed]

Belgian historian Jules Marchal called the book "a masterpiece, without even one error about the historical deeds related."[citation needed] 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.[10]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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."[11] 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.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hochschild 1998.
  2. ^ Neier 2012, p. 43: "The story is familiar thanks to Adam Hochschild's 1998 book, King Leopold's Ghost."
  3. ^ King Leopold's Ghost at the Internet Movie Database
  4. ^ Louis & Stengers 1968, p. 252–257.
  5. ^ a b "In the Heart of Darkness — A Glimpse of the World". 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. 
  6. ^ 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 
  7. ^ 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 
  8. ^ 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 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Bates, Stephen (13 May 1999). "The hidden holocaust". Retrieved 17 June 2015. 
  11. ^ "The hidden holocaust". The Guardian. London: GMG. 1999-05-13. ISSN 0261-3077. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 2011-06-02. 
Cited works

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