Clio Reads

Leopold's Imperial Desire


Gretchen Patterson

Cover for King Leopold's GhostKing Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild surveys the dark history of the Belgian Congo colony from 1885 until June 30, 1960 when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was established. Through memoirs, letters, and historical documents, this well-researched book depicts the enslavement of the Congo people as well as the ‘third worldization’ of Africa as a peripheral continent bound to serve European masters.

The book is a scathing indictment of civilization in the nineteenth century as a new era of imperialism gained a solid foothold in the modern world economic system with the acquisition of territories by Great Britain, France, and Spain. Although a genuine missionary zeal had triggered the concept of “the white man’s burden,” the scramble for wealth and natural resources led to the carving up like a Christmas turkey of central Africa and produced a new global economy. In particular, King Leopold II of Belgium decided that his tiny country could be a contender in the conquest of territorial lands, could garner international prestige, and provide much-needed personal income. He set his sights on the largely unexplored African lands with tragic consequences.

As an academic and journalist, Hochschild develops his storyline with an air of mystery beginning with a short narrative on the discovery of the Congo River which defines the region. He then details Leopold’s carefully laid plans to acquire the central African region. He also provides background information on Leopold’s personal life that shaped the man and his outlook on life. Throughout the book, the reader is informed of the king’s constant and well-documented manipulations to keep an incredible, accumulated wealth Ivory Tusks [from the sale of ivory, rubber, rubies, and precious metals] in his private royal coffers. Beneath this wealth of trade lies the real story of harsh, inhuman slavery, terrorism, and the genocide of the African natives who were forced to give up their lives and culture in the pursuit of riches for a European king.

In recounting Leopold’s greed, Hochschild also disputes an often rose-colored picture of Henry Morton Stanley. Hochschild, although recognizing Stanley’s famous achievements and well known for his African exploits and best-selling books, shows Stanley as a cruel man easily bought with Leopold’s gold. Stanley’s explorations allowed the king to claim over 900,000 square miles of African real estate. Stanley also traveled throughout Europe and the United States at the king’s request on a one-man publicity campaign, portraying Leopold as a beneficent ruler who brought civilization to a backward, uneducated African society.

Although the book revolves around Leopold and the Congo, Hochschild relays the intertwined stories of other well-known, historical figures, revealing the parts they played, either intentional or unintentional in the exploitation of Africa. His research definitely revises previously held views on men like Henry Morton Stanley Henry Stanley, Henry Sanford, and President Chester Arthur. However, the most horrific passages describe the total oppression by Leopold’s company men as they inflicted their own brand of cruelty on the African people, treating them with utter contempt and indifference to their livelihoods and cultures. Few Europeans who traveled to the Congo spoke in public about the bloodshed they had participated in or instigated. Even foreign missionaries, “…who had seen so many atrocities” but had little media savvy, even less political clout or personal influence. Thus, Leopold’s critics “easily dismissed” such evidence. Hochschild’s graphic descriptions of torture, rape, murder, and environmental destruction arouse deep sympathy for the Congolese, and disgust for those who carried out the king’s commands.

A mystery novel must include the fearless detective who ferrets out the evil doer, and Hochschild introduces Edmund Dene Morel. He was an employee of an English shipping line who uncovered Leopold’s dark, ugly secrets. In reviewing company records Morel deduced the practice of slavery by a European country on the far distant continent. He was horrified. With this brilliant flash of ethical recognition, King Leopold II acquired his most formidable enemy. Along with Morel’s condemnation, the author relates the efforts of other heroes including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Roger Casement, George Washington Williams, William Sheppard, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain who saw King Leopold’s predatory abuse of the Congo for what it was and demanded world attention to stop it. Morel’s long fight against the king’s political and financial influences and his principled dedication to ending slavery in the Congo ultimately cost him much of his fortune, and eventually time in an English prison.

From the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, global colonization of foreign territory centered around the explorations of sea-going men who braved the oceans in search of new trade routes and the promise of quick profits. The expansion of markets in China, India, Southeast Asia, and North America drove the modern world system forward out of the age of mercantilism and into capitalism. In turn, the increased demand for consumer products necessitated more practical, efficient methods of manufacturing. With James Watt’s invention of steam power, backed by Matthew Bolton’s financial support, the Industrial Revolution transformed the entire structure of production. The agrarian and cottage industries of Britain, Western Europe, and the United States declined in the face of factories, machine processes, railroads, and steam-powered ocean vessels. Along with the physical manifestations of industrial modernity, the development of stock exchanges, money marketing, and banking evolved to keep pace with the supply and demand of goods and services.

New, innovative technology replaced the older, hand-produced methods, and the need for more raw materials pushed the conquest and colonization of undeveloped countries. King Leopold II of Belgium In the second half of the nineteenth century, Africa became a new frontier for apparently unlimited resources. Leopold’s vision rested upon the incredible wealth of the Congo, the region located in central Africa with access to the Atlantic shipping lanes was for tiny Belgium and its greedy king ripe for pillaging. Hochschild says “Leopold [was] a man as filled with greed and cunning, duplicity and charm as any of the more complex villains of Shakespeare.” His skillful, manipulative diplomacy was realized with the acquisition of the Congo in 1885 in a world market willing to blindly overlook - even condone - his avarice and total disregard for the Congolese people.

For anyone interested in African history, Hochschild’s book offers a thorough scrutiny into the victimization of the Congolese people and one man’s overwhelming desire to have his own colonial empire, whatever the cost. The broader story describes the ‘new imperialism’ of the nineteenth century, the struggle of the Congolese people, and the humanitarian efforts to inform the world of King Leopold’s greed and decades-long deception. The king died in 1908, but the appalling truth of his long tentacles of influence, his financial portfolio, and his dark secrets have proven difficult to expose even in today’s modern, open Internet era. The terrible price exacted from this abundant land still resounds today as the Congo suffers from episodes of governmental corruption, tyrannical dictatorship, disease, and famine. Political instability and civil warfare continue to wreak havoc in the Congo. Hochschild contends that Leopold must bear the blame. The king’s blatant disregard of human rights earned him a place as one of the world’s most notorious rulers of the nineteenth century, and his ghost should never achieve eternal peace. Hochschild is a powerful prosecutor, an excellent writer, and King Leopold’s Ghost is fine work of scholarship.


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