Monday Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost

It’s rare that I read a book I liked so very much and yet find myself hard pressed to come up with words to talk about it. King Leopold’s Ghost, subtitled A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild, is a powerful, detailed reading of one man’s ability to wield awesome power amassing an amazing fortune, killing roughly ten million people in the process.

But wait, I hear your brain asking…..ten million people is practically genocide, how have I heard nothing about this?

Again I say awesome power.

King Leopold II of Belgium wanted a colony of his own. Not for Belgium, no, for himself. He saw the potential to make unheard of millions out of a colony. All the big kids were doing it after all; France, Germany, Great Britain, United States….Heck even the little kids; Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish were dabbling in colonialism. Using a blend of bribery, flattery, and pure lies Leopold got his hands on the Congo, well he named it that. The Independent State of the Congo, was it’s full christened name. Leopold promised things to everyone, got signatures of deeds of lands from people who did not read French, and the press tauted his humanitarian efforts to civilize the savage.

Long story short. He actually used forced labor to steal all the ivory that could be found and then to garner rubber. I know a fortune made of rubber, who knew. Forced labor was just a bit different in the Congo. Men were told to work and to ensure they did, their wives and children were taken hostage. Workers and hostages were NOT fed. It is estimated at the peak, men had to devote 25 days per month working for the rubber effort. Villages that tried to rebelled were slaughtered and their right hands cut off as proof. In some cases other bits were removed, I won’t get specific but men, go ahead and cross your legs.

Few who went to the Congo said much. Either they enjoyed the life or they had no idea what to do. Joseph Conrad went out as a steam ship captain and canceled his contract after just one trip up the river and into the interior. He wrote Heart of Darkness upon his return to England. You can learn volumes about where he got his ideas. Hochschild explains the people Conrad met in Congo and what they are on record as doing, row of skulls ringing your garden anyone?

One black missionary attempted to shed light on the situation but as his own past was not quite, quite, he was disgraced in the papers and Leopold reigned on. Another man who ran a prominent paper, was fond of traveling with his mistress. Leopold invited him to see the gardens at the royal castle. The man attended with his mistress and a lovely time was had by all. Leopold thought he had a convert. Until the man continued to publish detrimental articles about Leopold and the Congo. So Leopold had a large flower arrangement sent to his home. The card read, in remembrance of Mr and Mrs newspaperman’s visit to the royal gardens.

Finally, finally, enter E.D. Morel. He was a shipping clerk for the shipping company with a monopoly to carry goods into or out of Congo. Because Morel spoke English and French, he was chosen to go to Brussels and verify the shipments. It didn’t take him long to realize the quantity of rubber coming out of the Congo was 10 times greater than the goods going back in. To him this meant slavery. How else could one procure so many exports at the cost of so few imports. He brought the situation to the attention of his superiors who ignored him. So he quit. And he began to agitate full time for change in the Congo. The louder he shouted the more people whispered facts he could use.

Leopold would burn all of the official government record of the Congo before he turned it over to the Belgian government in response to pressure by Morel and his efforts. “I will give them my Congo but they have no right to know what I did there.” Snort. Let’s sum it up shall we, in the Mongo language “to send someone to harvest rubber” is an idiom meaning “to tyrannize.”

℘℘℘℘ – between four and five pages. It wasn’t the sort of book one can read in one sitting. It is heavy material. But it’s really well written. And I’m a firm believer if we don’t learn about what happened in the past, it will happen again in the future. Forewarned is forearmed.