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King Leopold's Ghost Review


King Leopold’s Ghost is justly a famous book, one which dramatically changed around the conversation on Belgian colonialism, bringing the ghoulish crimes of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo’s infamous rubber producing regions to light. It has all the marks of a thriller, a drama, a historical expose of a sordid and complicated, underhanded and devious, brutal and shocking strategy. Adam Hochschild weaves these together to make the threads o it understandable to the wider world: how the devious Leopold II gained the international approval for the Congo colonization, its horrific paths, and the campaign which “ended” it however, mitigated the victory was.

The Belgian Congo was a perfect choice of stage for the story, since its very creation entailed a complicated and lengthy process of winning international support, a vigorous public relations campaign, and a political ballet to deal with its opponents. As Hochschild lays out this campaign was a brilliantly managed effort by Leopold which effectively harnessed the humanitarian instincts of the late 19th century, and used a combination of legal deniability, plausible identity, and high powered individuals, such as most prominently Henry Morton Stanley, the famous explorer, to back up and support his projects.

This skill in covering individual portraits is a centerpiece of the book, showing the author’s journalistic heritage and his great talent for capturing individuals. Stanley is a case in point: the abandoned son who grew up in an English workhouse was brilliant, driven, skilled at self-presentation, and ambitious, but also brutal, desperate for approval from his social betters, and incapable of brooking rivals. The same skill goes for the representation of Leopold II, with his suaveness, his ambition, his charm, and lust for self-aggrandizement.

It also does an admirable job of incorporating many voices into it, both European and particularly African, who are more difficult to find, in a time where little attention was paid to Africans or blacks in general. The depictions of lives on the Congo and its tributaries, the portrayal of African songs and memories of the horror of rubber collection, and their actual recollections and what interviews were recorded. It brought to life the horror and pain of conquest, the ivory trade, and then most brutally the wild rubber boom, marked by the usage of massive amounts of forced labor to extract, painfully and at great cost in human life, rubber from the Congo. The victims of this reign of terror have the opportunity to speak for themselves and we can see their suffering through their own eyes. Even without its look at the birth of the Belgian Congo and the humanitarian campaign for its reform, the vivid depiction of life within it would be well worth it.

This does however, link very well with the humanitarian movement, in what inspired and drove it: the brutal conditions, completely callous disregard for human life, the ghoulish crimes committed by European officers and leaders and the largely African troops operating under their command. It does however, stumble a bit as it comes to explaining why the Belgian Congo in particular was singled out as a target for humanitarians in a fin-de-siecle where there were many other atrocities. the Belgian Congo may have been among the largest, but there were, as the book notes, similar atrocities in French and German tropical colonies surrounding the Congo, the German Herero genocide, and the British treatment of the Boers in the Boer War.

The last received substantial international outcry and discontent - and this belies the claim that the Belgian Congo was in good part chosen as a weak country incapable of response, given that the animus was rather against Britain, with the world’s largest empire and navy. It but does, as a comparison, reinforce what the book discusses but doesn’t expand on: power politics. There is the mention of how the Dutch trading company, the Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handels, financed the publication of George Washington William's Open Letter, the first attacks on the Belgian Congo - as a way of bringing pressure to bear on the monopolistic Etat independent du Congo. I can’t help but suspect that there was more of this power competition involved, from competitors or to direct attention away from other crimes, such as British conduct in the Boer War.

A key component of the book’s comparison and one which has gained widespread credence since, is the comparison of European colonial terror and domination in their colonial empires, with international totalitarianism - establishing an explicit link between the Soviets and Nazi Germany, and the Congo. This comparison is a reasonable one: all three conducted terrible atrocities in their quest to remake society, to expand their economies, and at least in part out of racial or class profiles of their victims.

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It does tend to lead to one of the more difficult tasks, verifying deaths, a rather morbid task. The claim of 10 million casualties from the Belgian Congo seems to me unlikely: pre-colonial populations were miniscule, and a 20 million population in the Congo, when today it is only exceeding 100 million, seems unlikely. the figure is based off of a very simple arithmetic - assume the loss of half of the population (decently supported by some evidence), take the post-war Belgian census of around 10 million people, and thus establish an equivalent population as vanished. This ignores population growth in the interim or differing Belgian state capacities which presumably could reach and count more people. I think casualties were still massive and without doubt the Belgian Congo was still a real humanitarian disaster, but that 10 million deaths seems outsized - which again, is in no way to deny or minimize the tremendous cruelty of Leopold’s Congo. But it speaks to the constant competition for the biggest number of the famous Western genocides - the Congo, the Soviet Holodomor, and purges, and above all the Holocaust.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a fascinatingly poignant book - exposing a horrific and terribly brutal crime against humanity, and which can only sympathize with that more was not done to set it to rights and make amends. But it manages too to provide the optimism and hope, that the spirit of the quest for human dignity and freedom which the reformist and humanitarian associations embodies is one which still drives the world to today, so that even amidst great evil, the dream of a better future still exists.

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