Review of King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
King Leopold's Ghost
by Adam Hochschild
As someone who is interested in the history of colonialism, I was very intrigued when I learned of this book about the Belgian exploitation of Congo—or should I say, King Leopold's exploitation? For indeed, it’s one thing to read about British or French colonization elsewhere, or to hear the famous phrase “Scramble for Africa,” and another entirely to be reminded that the creation, colonization, and exploitation of Congo and the peoples therein was initially driven by a single man. Yet Adam Hochschild is careful not to fall prey to Great Man Theory: he argues that Leopold was the primary visionary behind creating Congo, yes, but the atrocities that were implemented in his name were the result of centuries of a system of white supremacy designed to enslave Indigenous peoples for their land and resources. King Leopold’s Ghost is as much about the complicity of Europe as it is about one man’s avarice for Africa.
This is quite a rich book in terms of information. Roughly chronological, Hochschild establishes Leopold’s motivations for colonizing Congo while also diving into the lives of some of the more prominent people in this story—Henry Morton Stanley, George Sheppard, etc. He provides enough context for us to understand what the world was like in the late 1800s when this went down: most of the world had been colonized, or at least “discovered” and claimed, by one of several European powers, with Britain still leading as the empire on which the sun never set. The brave days of exploration were seemingly over—yet the so-called dark continent of Africa continued to beckon. Leopold became an expert at enticing explorers like Stanley, diplomats, and businessmen to act as his proxies in Africa. He provided the nudge that sent thousands of people trekking into jungles, portaging up rivers and through mountains, ultimately succumbing to sickness or violence or worse.
Hochschild balances this tale of last-ditch exploration with a sobre reflection on the de facto use of slavery in African colonies. Towards the end of the book, as he gives a final accounting of the atrocities in Congo, the lives lost, etc., he points out that Congo is not an exception to Africa—rather, it is just a particularly poignant example of the rule. Although slavery was theoretically abolished in most countries by this time, that didn’t stop white people from forcing Africans to serve as militia, harvest rubber, or otherwise labour for the good of empire. King Leopold’s Ghost is careful not to over-simplify history, particularly when it comes to atrocities. He also presents, lucidly and logically, the case for how economic imperatives drove these exploitative and inhumane practices. Often when we talk about racism, we think about it as highly personal (you were being racist to her) or abstract (ugh, that policy is so racist). What we forget is that there is a reason behind racist policies—exclusion and discrimination is often driven by the need to make subjugation and exploitation more palatable, more acceptable.
Hochschild is quite detail-oriented. At times I found his presentation of minutiae to be less interesting than some of the larger picture he was portraying. Yet as Hochschild himself acknowledges, when faced with large numbers and statistics, we are often overwhelmed. Only by burying us in a plethora of anecdotes and records can he hope to help touch us through the human plights he unveils. It’s one thing to tell me 6 million people died; it’s another to show me photos of women tied to stakes as hostages while their husbands collect rubber, or for a grisly recounting of what happened to one African man who tried to travel to testify before an inquiry into the Congo atrocities.
In addition to exposing the human cost of colonialism, Hochschild draws a clear line from Leopold to the present day situation in Africa. We say that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, and I’m not sure that is true—we are awfully good at coming up with new ways of being terrible. Nevertheless, if we don’t learn history, we won’t understand why things are the way they currently are, and that leaves us at a great disadvantage. The current issues in many African countries are a direct result of the colonialism of the late 1800s—after all, most of those countries wouldn’t exist in their present form had it not been for the Berlin Conference and other such fun “let us draw the map for you” moments. We (white people) literally created this mess, and it is ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst to say we should turn around and make African peoples sort it out and figure it out on their own. That being said, drowing their countries in debt they can’t ever pay back while we continue to extract massive amounts of conflict minerals to build more iPhones is … well, it’s not a good look.
At the end of the day, this is a necessary book. It is not a sexy book, or a happy book, or a book with much in the way of good news. But it is a necessary book. I would recommend it to anyone who considers themselves even casually a student of world history, anyone who wants to compare notes versus what was done here in Canada, or in the States, or South America or Australia. The language changes but the song is the same, and it will never truly end until we decide to abandon the instruments of exploitation that play it.