Thinking Aloud: “King Leopold’s Ghost”

June 30, 2014 by Darius 

I just read King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild.  It is the tale of the Belgian colony in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Congo was the result of one man’s insatiable greed: King Leopold II of Belgium.  He conned his way into control of a colony the size of Western Europe and portrayed himself as an uplifting humanitarian even as his forces carried out a decades-long rape of the Congo’s ivory and rubber resources that left an estimated 10 million Congolese dead.

From a young age, even before ascending the throne, Leopold wanted a colony for Belgium – and the riches it would bring for himself.  He set his gaze upon the vast, uncharted area of central Africa, and, following the 1884 Berlin Conference, his claim to the area was recognized by European powers.  Leopold paid the most famous explorer of the age, Henry Morgan Stanley, to map out his new colony and to erect a string of forts to allow him control of the interior.  He also bribed a prominent American businessman into lobbying the US government to recognize his claim to the Congo.  Finally, Leopold set up a vast propaganda campaign to mask his claim to the Congo as purely humanitarian by arguing he wanted to end the slave trade conducted by “Arab” slavers from the Swahili Coast.

Leopold’s real plan was far different.  Congo was rich in ivory, and Europe couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  Then, starting around 1890, following the invention of the pneumatic tire, another commodity supplanted ivory: rubber.  Millions and millions of today’s dollars’ worth of these products were extracted from the Congo.  Most went straight into Leopold’s personal pockets.

Everything in the Belgian colony was built on the back of slave labor.  Especially in the early years of the colony, hundreds of native porters were forced to carry staggeringly heavy loads for the Belgian colonizers.  The porters were barely fed and countless numbers died.  Slave labor was also used to build a railroad around the rapids of the Congo River to allow penetration of the interior of the country.  What was worst of all, though, was what came to be known as the “rubber terror.”  The Belgians forced natives to gather harsh quotas of wild rubber – so much that adult men had to spend virtually their entire time out in the forest harvesting rubber, leaving things like agriculture secondary.  Any village or man who failed to meet its quota was severely punished.  The chicotte, a whip made from hippopotamus hide, was a favorite, as was amputation of hands and feet.

Any large-scale dissent was dealt with by the Force Publique, a body composed of white officers and native conscript soldiers.  The rank-and-file of the Force Publique were virtual slaves themselves and were beaten with the chicotte or worse for any perceived infraction – or just if any of the white officers felt like it.  Indeed, whites could do just about anything to any native in the territory.

Hochschild also details the remarkable human rights movement that grew up to oppose Leopold’s colony in the Congo.  The leader of the movement was E.D. Morel.  Morel was a lowly clerk at the British Elder Dempster shipping company.  Elder Dempster had an exclusive contract with Leopold to transport goods to and from the Congo.  Morel noticed something odd: for all of Leopold’s trumpeting of his humanitarian work in the Congo, the trade didn’t add up.  Ships were constantly arriving from the Congo filled with rubber, ivory, and other valuable commodities.  Ships from Belgium to Congo were filled with arms, ammunition, and soldiers – and nothing to trade.  Morel realized that only one thing could explain the discrepancy: slave labor.

Morel organized a remarkable international movement that encompassed missionaries, British diplomats, and some of the most well-known humanitarians of the day.  They lobbied constantly against Leopold’s abuses in the Congo and succeeded in raising public outcry to the point that Leopold was forced to transfer the Congo from his personal property to the Belgian state in 1908.  That didn’t stop the horrific abuses in the Congo, but it did force some small reforms.

Leopold died in 1909.  Over the course of his life, he had alienated his entire family and most of the Belgian public.  One person remarked that Leopold had two goals: to become a billionaire and to disinherit his daughters.

Hochschild’s work does an excellent job of shining a light on a historical issue that still has ramifications for the present.  Much of the DRC’s struggles since independence stem from Leopold’s violent exploitation of the Congo; there are uncanny similarities between longtime Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Leopold himself.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a no-holds-barred look at a largely forgotten atrocity that still reverberates through the DRC.  It would appeal to anyone interested in history or modern Africa.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: “King Leopold’s Ghost”

  1. DebraB says:

    Thanks for writing about this book. I read it a few years ago; it is so good!

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