Monday 17 June 2013

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

"What I do there is done as a Christian duty to the poor African; and I do not wish to have one franc back of all the money I have expended."

European colonisation of Africa during the nineteenth century is a common story but the Congo was somewhat of a unique case as it's owner was just one man, King Leopold of Belgium, as opposed to an entire country.  After convincing his fellow European heads of state that he was on a humanising mission to preserve the Congo and bring Christianity to it's inhabitants, Leopold was allowed to run it privately.  What he did was effectively create a whole system designed to exploit the resources of the Congo for his own personal wealth, including the Congolese themselves, some ten million of whom were murdered and countless others were maimed in the pursuit of rubber.  Cutting off hands became an acceptable punishment for not meeting your rubber quota. King Leopold's Ghost is a history of Leopold's rule and the campaign that eventually rose up against the cruelty and injustice.

I was somewhat familiar with the history of the Congo before starting this book, but it was still shocking to read.  I was expecting to read details about the exploitation of Africans, as unpleasant as that is, but what I wasn't expecting was how calculating and pre-meditated the whole thing was.  Leopold told bare-faced lies about developing the Congo and not wanting any money in order to obtain it, fully intending already to run it as a personal fiefdom.  Once he had it, he instigated an extremely barbaric and planned system that he went to great lengths to hide from the rest of the world, including bribing members of the press and hassling people that tried to tell the truth, to the extent that some of them committed suicide.  This was no accidental, time and place evil, this was the premeditated destruction of an entire country and a good chunk of it's population.  Ten million people deliberately murdered.  Many of the problems the Congo faces today can be traced back to Leopold's rule.  

Half of King Leopold's Ghost is dedicated to Leopold's rule and the other half to the campaign against it.  It was interesting how some witnesses were able to turn away from what was going on, justifying the cruelty with racism, and how others felt compelled to speak up, even when it had consequences for them personally.  The campaign against Leopold was one of the first international movements for what we would now call 'human rights' and was a fore-runner for organisations like Amnesty International. Of course, they were only campaigning for the Congo to be put under a 'better' colonial rule, but it was nevertheless a step in the right direction.

I did feel like Hochschild got a bit bogged down in the anti-Leopold campaign and there was a lot of keeping up with various campaigners that dragged a bit in the latter section of the book.  As Hochschild himself identifies, the book also suffers from a lack of Congolese voices, as people of the time either didn't think their voices worth recording or evidence was destroyed on Leopold's orders.  Despite this, King Leopold's Ghost is an excellent history book, well researched, readable and eye-opening.  I'm really glad that I read it.

Source: Library
First Published: 1999
My Edition: Pan Books, 2012
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:
1. The State of Africa by Martin Meredith - a general overview of Africa during and after European colonialism.  Great if you're new to African politics.
2. The Fear by Peter Godwin - Another example of one man terrorising and exploiting an African state, but in modern times.  Godwin travels in Zimbabwe during the elections that resulted in Mugabe returning to power, and witnesses torture and repression.


  1. I really want to read this as Adam Hochshild's book Bury the Chains was one of my favorite nonfiction reads. I actually didn't know the things you describe above in your review - I knew about exploitation in Africa generally speaking, but not about what happened specifically in the Congo. Horrifying.

    1. I plan on reading more books by Hochschild in the future, I might give Bury the Chains a go next. He's got a very engaging, easy to read writing style.

  2. I know a bit about this subject from reading fictional novels set in this time/place but I'd REALLY like to read this one! Really really :)

    1. I think it was actually The Poisonwood Bible that got me interested in the history of the Congo in the first place. Let me know what you think of this one :)