KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST: A STORY OF GREED,
TERROR, AND HEROISM IN COLONIAL AFRICA. Adam,
Hochschild. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998. Pp. 336.
$ 26.00, cloth.©
The story of Africa's exploration, partition
and domination has been told repeatedly but each age reinterprets past
events with new perspectives. King Leopold's Ghost tells the
story of the Congo with fresh and critical insights, bringing new analysis
to this topic. The author reveals the trickster that Leopold was, the
greed that fired his interest in the Congo, and how this resulted in
crimes against humanity. Of particular interest in the book is the international
scope of Hochshild's scholarship, drawn from such diverse sources as
novels, archives, biographies, historical texts, and statistical data.
The first three chapters provide the background to the trickery and
egoism that drove the colonization of the Congo. The story moves from
Henry Stanley Morton's personally invented parentage to his exaggerated
accounts of life in Africa. Behind the pretense of Morton's expeditions
to Africa was a tendency toward brutality, described as "Stanley's
sadistic streak" (p.196). The study follows Morton's African journeys
to their intersection with Leopold's egoism and avarice. The two used
the excuse of the Arab slave trade to establish the Congo Free State
under Leopold. Leopold was well-suited to fulfill Stanley's wish for
"some generous and opulent philanthropist" to permit him "to
lead a force for the suppression of this stumbling block to commerce
with central Africa." Stanley became the first governor of the
Congo Free State which proceeded to rob the people of their heritage,
humanity and wealth. Both Leopold and Stanley believed that "Africa
was a chance to gain upward mobility towards wealth and glory"
(p.63). The Congo Free State was named the property of Leopold on May
After establishing control over the Congo, Leopold proceeded to institute
a brutally repressive administration and to use slave traders to extract
wealth from Congo. Initially, his target was ivory. Skillful traders,
like Tippu Tip, came in handy. The irony is that in Europe Leopold had
carved out an image as a philanthropist, a humanitarian crusader whose
main interest in Congo was to save the natives from marauding Arab slavers.
The author then takes us to one of Leopold's first challengers, George
Washington Williams. The author traces Williams' career and details
how he denounced what he saw in Congo as outright robbery and trickery.
He argued that Congo State was guilty of "crimes against humanity"
(p.112) without understanding that his conceptualization of "Africans
rights to African lands" did not mean much then. Further, the details
Williams unearthed, prophetic as they have turned out to be, changed
very little for the brutally harassed Africans in Congo. As Williams'
biographer concluded, "his early death [on August 2, 1891] saved
the Congo government from what might have been an embarrassingly formidable
The brutality of Leopold's regime saw no bounds as it included forceful
conscription of men, women and children, and untold physical force applied
using the chicotte, "a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide,
cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip" (p. 120). This made
it possible to inflict wounds upon one lash and, in many cases, the
Force Publique officer in charge added salt to the wounds. The Force
Publique became the sign of brutality par excellence for it was led
by people whose aspiration for power in Belgium would have remained
a dream but for their arrival in Congo. It was the discovery of "the
wood that weeps," as the rubber tree was euphemistically called
(see chapter 10), that intensified human suffering in Congo. The author
uses Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to illustrate the forms
of abuse prevalent in Congo. With convincing details, Hochschild demonstrates
the close relation between Conrad's fictitious characters and the real
figures. The irony is that Conrad's work has been taught as fiction
with no real place and time.
The role of rubber in the Congo receives extensive attention. To harvest
enough rubber, Africans were conscripted into the rubber tapping business
and given quotas to fulfill. Failure to meet the quota meant the chicotte
was applied. Many lost their arms, their noses, ears and/or legs (p.164-165)
or saw their wives detained and children thrown into the forest. It
was this scenario that precipitated bitter struggles against Leopold,
first by the black American evangelist George Shappard, and later with
Edward Dene Morel and Roger Casement.
Morel stands out as the best opponent of Leopold through the Congo Reform
Association (CRA). With the aid of Casement, Morel published his campaigns
against Leopold's brutality in the West African Mail. He fought
through the CRA to influence public opinion on the realities in Congo.
Details of his success in getting the Congo Protest Resolution passed
in the British Parliament in May 1903 are clear, but the atrocities
continued as more people were infected with deadly skin diseases and
others died of accidental causes, like falling from tall trees. Eventually,
Leopold's "secretive royal fief" was sold to the Belgian government
and, when Leopold died on May 10th 1904, he left behind a bitter legacy.
It is estimated that the population was reduced by one-half between
1880 and 1920 (p.233).
This book is a good guide to the work of individual protesters in alleviating
the overt power of an egoistic monarch. It employs both empirical evidence
and fiction to tell a forgotten story. The grasp of the story across
regional, national and continental boundaries is an important strength
of the book. The book is recommended beyond the confines of academia.
In a world characterized by excess avarice, bad politics, and wars of
genocidal proportions, this study is a provocative reminder of the judgements
of history and ought to be read by all.
Godwin Rapando Murunga
Kenyatta University, Nairobi