King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (1998)

I can’t remember the last time a book made me feel this physically sick. About half way through another description of the murders, rapes, dismemberments, garrotings, hangings, torture and shootings carried out by members of the Force Publique which policed the forced labour system set up by King Leopold II in his colony in the Congo (1885 to 1909), I thought I might throw up.

Leopold II, king of the Belgians, and his genocide

If you like historical horror stories, you’ll love this book. It intertwines a biography of lonely unloved Leopold – aloof, shy king of the Belgians, ignored by his parents, separated from his wife – who conceived a great ambition to own a chunk of the dark continent, Africa, during the 1880s when it was being carved up by the the European powers.

Hochschild describes how, once he’d decided on the Congo to be his slice of the pie, Leopold commissioned the greatest explorer of the age, Henry Morton Stanley, to open it up by building a road running 220 miles beside the mighty river, from the post town of Boma to Stanley Pool, which bypassed its many cascades and waterfalls (a back breaking project which took from 1879 to 1885).

And how Leopold then created a system of concessions to commercial companies extracting first ivory, then rubber, which more or less guaranteed that at every level and in every way, the native peoples of the vast Congo basin would be worked to death, exploited, punished and murdered every bit as cruelly and needlessly as the genocides carried out by Hitler or Stalin.

Villages were razed to the ground, women and children were casually shot or taken as hostages to force the menfolk to drain rubber from the vines which grew high up into the rainforest canopy. If enough rubber wasn’t collected, the women or children were murdered. Or their hands were cut off. Or their brains were dashed out with rifle butts. Or they were raped or tortured to death, or beaten, or tied in sacks and thrown into the river, or flogged to death, or left chained to trees till they died of thirst. And much more.

Leopold’s loot

This happened for 20 years or so, roughly 1890 to 1909, over an area the size of western Europe. The profits to the Belgian, French and British companies who extorted raw rubber were big, but as nothing compared to Leopold’s take. This book details the countless cunning ways the king screwed the maximum revenue out of every aspect of the operation. Hochschild quotes the scholar Jules Marchal who estimates Leopold’s total haul at around $1.1 billion in today’s money.

Leopold’s follies

Leopold spent his loot on turning his palace on the outskirts of Brussels into a new Versailles, building grandiose public monuments in cities around Belgium, on collecting a suite of villas on Cap Ferrat in the south of France, and on an impressive series of prostitutes and mistresses, until he fell in love with a 16-year-old fille de joie, Caroline Delacroix, when he himself was an ageing 65.

The genocide

Modern scholars estimate the population of the Congo region was halved, from about 20 million to around 10 million, during the decades of Leopold’s homicidal rule. Hochschild quotes Alexandre Delcommune, ‘a ruthless robber baron’ of the time, saying that, if Leopold had ruled the Congo for another ten years, there probably wouldn’t have been a single rubber vine left, or, quite possibly, a single native. The genocide would have been complete.

It goes without saying the all this was done in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’, of ‘law’ and ‘morality’ and it is nauseating to read how Leopold posed as a philanthropist and promoter of civilisation while presiding over a genocide. It is particularly disgusting that the Catholic church, right up until the end and beyond, supported Leopold, a crime just as egregious as its better known relationship with the Nazis.

The resistance

Speaking of Christians brings us to the resistance to Leopold’s bloody rule and among these were many Protestant missionaries, especially from the non-conformist sects. What eventually became a worldwide campaign against Leopold’s rule was run by two passionate advocates, the doughty English shipping clerk-turned-crusader-for-justice Edmund Morel, and the febrile but effective Irishman, Roger Casement who set up the Congo Reform Association.

Through a brilliant series of books, pamphlets, newspapers and speeches, through fundraising and lobbying and especially via the stark photos of the Baptist missionary Alice Seeley Harris (see below), they managed to discredit Leopold’s rule and make the scandal one of the great issues of the Edwardian world, forcing a parliamentary vote on the issue, keeping it constantly in the papers, and travelling to America to lobby the President and Congress.

Hochschild makes the standout point that the CRA’s campaign was the most important and sustained crusade for human rights between the late-eighteenth century abolitionist movement and the worldwide boycott of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 80s.

Black heroes who campaigned against the horror

Beside Morel and Casement, Hochschild goes out of his way to bring attention to the work of several remarkable black missionaries and campaigners, namely George Washington Williams, William Henry Sheppard and Herzekiah Andrew Shanu who, often at great risk, travelled far, took testimony, and publicised the horrors of what Morel called ‘that infamous System’.

Review

I read Hochschild’s book immediately after Thomas Pakenham’s wonderful Scramble for Africa, which covers the same period and a lot of the same subject. Pakenham’s book has the breadth and scale and depth of War and Peace. It is an epic work which also finds space for detailed portraits of key individuals, ranging across the whole continent throughout the scramble period of 1880 to 1914.

Pakenham’s tone is judicious and, for the most part, detached; only occasionally does he pass judgement on the men he’s describing and his biting criticism is all the more powerful for being rare. By contrast, Hochschild’s book is much shorter, much lighter, and he is ready with sarcasm and criticism from the start.

He is sarcastic about Britain’s claims to abolish slavery after the 1830s, he is sarcastic about the so-called ‘civilising’ mission of the explorer and colonisers, he is quicker to dismiss all high-falutin’ rhetoric and, in doing so, I think he misses the complexity of these rhetorics and discourses. Many people  sincerely believed what they said about bringing civilisation to the ‘savages’. A number of native tribes did practice cannibalism and human sacrifice and a number of people in Britain thought that was wrong. It is wrong, isn’t it?

The slave trade was rampant in East Africa and British authorities did do their best to stamp it out, spending a lot of money on the Royal Navy’s East Africa squadron and bringing pressure to bear on the Sultan of Zanzibar to close his slave market in 1873.

Hochschild is particularly scathing and sarcastic about the character and behaviour of Henry Morton Stanley, quoting the passages in his books where he reported whipping his porters or putting some in chains, taking at face value Stanley’s claims that that he led huge well-financed expeditions.

These are  precisely the accusations which Tim Jeal sets out to refute in his exhaustive 2007 biography of Stanley, which explains how Stanley exaggerated the size of his forces for dramatic affect and places the handful of passages about disciplining his porters in the context of scores of other passages where Stanley explains how he tried to save his hundreds of porters – from violent attack, starvation and the other tribulations of exploring – and went out of his way to praise his expedition managers or ‘captains’ as the finest, bravest men in the world.

But it was interesting to read Hochschild giving the traditional, very negative impression of Stanley which is what Jeal was writing against. Between them you have good epitomes of the case for and the case against this central but divisive figure.

Back to Pakenham’s book: because it is maybe four times longer than Hochschild’s, it has the space and depth to explore the highly complicated ways scores and scores of contemporaries struggled to make sense of their world  they were living in and of the mad scramble for African colonies. As such it is a much deeper and more satisfying read. But what it lacks in scale and depth, King Leopold’s Ghost makes up for in intensity and horror. After you’ve read a certain amount, it’s hard not to share his sense of indignation, his anger, that human beings from so-called civilised, so-called Christian, Europe were allowed to get away with such barbarity and depravity for so long.

The end?

Leopold died of cancer in 1909. Despite the worldwide success of the campaign against him, in the end he was only forced to sell the Congo to the Belgian state a year or so before his death (he had planned to leave it to the Belgian people in his will).

And in a depressing final chapter Hochschild makes clear that, although the scale of wanton murder was reined in, forced labour of some sort continued in Congo, and in neighbouring European colonies, well into the 1930s, and was even intensified during the Second World War in response to the Allies’ bottomless need for tyres for all types of war machinery.

One of the most powerful lessons for me was the link Hochschild draws between the occasional tribes who managed to rebel against the system, who stole arms and killed their white torturers and escaped into the jungle to wage prolonged guerrilla campaigns against their oppressors – and the similar tactics adopted by anti-colonial nationalists fighting the British and French following the Second World War, the Mau-Mau and so on. If, as Hochschild book makes you, you powerfully and emotionally root for the first group of freedom fighters – then surely you must, at the very least, sympathise with their descendants.

European civilisation

‘To open to civilisation the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire people is, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ (From Leopold’s opening address to the Geographical Conference he called in 1876 to begin his campaign of posing on the international stage as a selfless philanthropist)

Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Note the smart uniform, the shiny medals, the impeccable manners. What a Christian gentleman!

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

Leopold II, king of the Belgians

And now some of the hundreds of thousands of Africans whipped, chained, mutilated, raped and murdered by Leopold’s officers to incentivise them or their parents to gather more rubber for the wise and good king.

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands have been cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold

Children in the Belgian Congo whose hands were cut off to encourage their parents to gather more rubber for King Leopold: some of the hundreds of photos taken by Alice Seeley Harris and used by Morel in his lectures, articles, books and campaigns against Leopold’s evil rule

Credit

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild was published by Mariner Books in 1998. All references are to the 2012 Pan paperback edition.


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