Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost

King Lepold’s Ghost
By Adam Hochschild

Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost is a gripping account of a murder mystery — a mystery made all the more horrific because it involves an estimated 10 million victims. Hochschild’s short book is simply one of the most powerful indictments of mass murder ever written, as well as a testament to how much influence even a single person acting on moral outrage over such an event can have.

The murderer, of course, was Belgium’s King Leopold I. Leopold was never satisfied with ruling the meager kingdom of Belgium, especially since his power was strongly circumscribed by an independent legislature. In the 1870s, Leopold began looking to Africa for a colony that would be his alone to rule — that colony turned out to be the Congo.

Using a cleverly run public relations campaign that asserted he simply wanted the Congo to bring civilization to the area and rid the Congo of Arab slave traders, Leopold used Henry Morton Stanley (the journalist famous for tracking down David Livingstone) to negotiate treaties granting Leopold control over the Congo. That most of the African leaders Stanley signed treaties with either did not have the authority to sign such treaties or did not understand what they were signing was of little consequence to either Stanley or Leopold.

Of course the treaties did not mean anything without recognition from other world powers and here, sadly, the United States played a crucial role in legitimizing Leopold’s control of the Congo. In 1884, driven by Leopold’s promise of free trade in the Congo (which would never actually happen), the United States became the first country to recognize Leopold’s claim over the colony and Leopold successfully maneuvered other countries into recognizing his claims as well.

And it was literally Leopold’s claim. Fearful of being saddled with any debt from the venture, the Belgium legislature had insisted on an agreement with Leopold that he would be solely responsible for the Congo — and, of course, be the sole source of power.

Far from discouraging slavery, however, Hochschild makes clear that Leopold turned the Congo into a virtual slave state that rivaled Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia for the sheer level of barbarity. As with most acts of mass murder, the catalog of cruelties Hochschild’s documents are so extensive and frequent that the sheer repetition of the whole tends to numb the senses. This apparently afflicted those who administered and profited from the Congo — cruelty and torture were such an everyday part of life, they were hardly regarded as exceptional by soldiers, merchants and others.

An example that gets to the core of what Leopold’s Congo was about, however, is the matter of the severed hands. Natives required to perform labor were often reluctant to do so, and the Congo used a time honored method of forcing their compliance — they armed competing tribes and individuals and charged them with keeping the workers in line. There was a concern, however, that the native enforcers were trigger happy and wasted ammunition or used the guns they had been supplied with for hunting wild game. So after awhile they were charged with proving the bullets they used were really used to kill their fellow AFricans. Specifically, for every bullet they expended, they were expected to provide the severed hand of the victim.

Hochschild writes of the Rev. William Sheppard, a missionary who wrote about the grisly scenes he witnessed traveling across the Congo, including this scene,

In 1899 the reluctant Sheppard was ordered by his superiors to travel into the bush, at some risk to himself, to investigate the source of the fighting. There he found bloodstained ground, destroyed villages, and many bodies; the air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh. On the day he reached the marauders’ camp, his eye was caught by a large number of objects being smoked. The chief “conducted us to a framework of sticks, under which was burning a slow fire, and there they were, the right hands, I counted them, 81 in all.” The chief told Sheppard, “Se! Here is our evidence. I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.” He proudly showed Sheppard some of the bodies the hands had come from. The smoking preserved the hands in the hot, moist climate, for it might be days or weeks before the chief could display them to the proper official and receive credit for his kills.

Despite Sheppard’s accounts and the accounts of others, it was not until E.D. Morel took up the Congo’s cause that the horrors of what were happening in the Congo became widely known. Morel was an employee of a Belgium company that handled shipments to and from the Congo. Morel noticed that not only did the shipments he was seeing not match official Congo trade statistics, but that while ship after ship arrived from the Congo filled with rubber and other goods, the only thing that ever departed from Belgium were ships filled with weapons. The conclusion was obvious to Morel — there was no trade between the Congo and Belgium as Leopold and his agents claimed. As Morel later put it, “I was giddy and appalled at the cumulative significance of my discoveries. It must be bad enough to stumble upon a murder. I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman.”

Morel, more than anyone else, was responsible for finally shining a light on the true nature of Leopold’s Congo in what Hochschild rightly describes as the first human rights campaign of the 20th century. Only seven years after Morel began his campaign against Leopold, the King was forced to sell the colony to the government of Belgium which took on the job of administering the colony.

Unfortunately, the story of the Congo does not have a happy ending. While many people saw Leopold’s sale as a victory — even Morel finally conceded victory in 1913 as interest in the Congo was waning — Hochschild makes clear that all that really changed was appearances.

World War I drove the Congo issue completely out of the papers, and Morel was slandered due to his anti-war stance. The Belgian government the outward trappings of forced labor, but simply turned to confiscatory taxation to accomplish the same thing. Brutalization of natives using the lash and other techniques continued in full force. Even the vestiges of an especially cruel system of state-sanctioned hostage taking remained in place, though covered in different finery and bureaucratic language.

More importantly, both the history and the lesson of the COngo were largely forgotten. Hochschild writes that although Belgium is home to the largest museum of Africana in the Western world, there is not a single mention of what happened in the Congo in that museum. Official state records that documented the horrors in the Congo were still marked as secret until just a couple decades ago, and have still been seen by only a handful of independent researchers.

The Congo received its independence in 1960. The United States and Belgium conspired together to overthrow the only democratically elected leader of that nation — Patrice Lumumba was murdered in January 1961 less than two months after being named the Congo’s prime minister. In his place, the United States gave more than $1 billion in aid to dictator Joseph Desire Mobutu, who was overthrown in 1997 by another dictator, Laurent Kabila, who himself was assassinated just a few years later.

Still, Hochschild argues that Morel and his movement accomplished two things. First, they created an extensive historical record that will never allow future generations to misunderstand just how horrific Leopold’s Congo was. Second,

The movement’s other great achievement is this. Among its supporters, it kept alive a tradition, a way of seeing the world, a human capacity for outrage at pain inflicted on someone of another color, in another country, at the end of the earth.

For his part, Hochschild has written an account that follows in the best tradition of that movement.

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