King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild – Houghton Mifflin, 1998 –

If you’ve ever wondered why so many African countries continue to be in disarray, long after they chucked out the colonial system, this is a book that you should read.  King Leopold II of Belgium (1835 – 1909) managed to carve out a huge country in the middle of the African continent as a personal fiefdom.  His ability to manipulate the other European powers into recognizing his claims was a tribute to his cunning and ruthless dedication to furthering his own aims.  He made a staggering fortune plundering the Congo, employing the most ruthless of men to implement a reign of terror on the indigenous peoples of central Africa.

With most of Europe duped into believing that Leopold was a great civilizer and philanthropist, it took years of dedication by a man named E.D. Morel and the anti-slavery movement to unmask Leopold as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest villains.  Morel worked for a shipping company in England.  His great quest began when he became puzzled as to why shipments to the Congo only ever consisted of arms and ammunition.

Hochschild has done a remarkable job of bringing Morel’s work to life, re-examining the reputations of a number of characters that were lauded in their day.  You may remember Henry Morton Stanley, trekking into darkest Africa in search of a missionary that had lost touch with the outside world.  The famous greeting: ‘Dr. Livingston, I presume’ still has a resonance that flies in the face of the Stanley found in Hochschild’s book – a megalomaniacal sociopath that sacrificed countless lives in his quest for personal fame.

Joseph Conrad worked briefly in the Congo and based his novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ on the atrocities he witnessed there on a daily basis.  Station heads in the Congo, like Leon Rom, who kept his garden fenced with severed heads of natives he’d killed, worked tirelessly to keep the money rolling in for Leopold.  Natives were there to be exploited and could be kept in line by the use of terror, European weapons, chains and the infamous ‘chicotte’ whip.  During Leopold’s reign, Hochschild estimates that millions of Africans, up to half of the Congo’s population, died as a result of the brutality of Leopold’s colonization. 

This book is primer for anyone who wants to better understand the real effects of colonial conquests and attitudes in the present day.  When a socialist leader was elected in the Congo in 1960 and began threatening the old colonial powers’ economic investments in the country, U.S. President Eisenhower approved his assassination and supported Mobutu Sese Seko as a replacement who would maintain the old status quo.  With the ghost of King Leopold showing him the way, Mobutu was soon getting rich by allowing the plunder of his country for the benefit of large multinational companies that owe their existence to colonial profits.  

TL:DR – a must read in understanding colonialism and why it still haunts us today.


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