King Leopold's Ghost

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  • Topic: Congo Free State, Leopold II of Belgium, King Leopold's Ghost
  • Pages : 6 (1884 words )
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  • Published : April 10, 2005
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In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million--all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopold's Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II. With great power and compassion, King Leopold's Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo--too long forgotten--onto the conscience of the West.

Early in the imperial colonial period slavery was the chief reason for exploiting central Africa. King Leopold of Belgium ruthlessly but brilliantly exploited much of central Africa in the 19th century without regard for human suffering. When slavery became politically obsolete, ivory and later natural rubber was exploited using slave labor, blackmail, kidnapping, you name it. King Leopold personally benefited from this exploitation of the peoples and the environment. He managed to do so without raising concerns about the illegalities or moralities of his time. To this day much of what is in this book has been ignored by history.

Belgium's imperialist rape of Africa

King Leopold's Ghost—A story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
Book review by Stuart Nolan

Adam Hochschild's study of King Leopold II of Belgium's creation of the Congo Free State goes to the essence of the economic and political systems established in colonial Africa.
Between 1885 and 1908, there were between five and eight million victims of Leopold's personal rule, under a barbarous system of forced labour and systematic terror. When reading a reference by Mark Twain to these deaths, and the world-wide campaign against slavery in the Congo of which he was a part, Hochschild was surprised at his own ignorance. "Why were these deaths not mentioned in the standard litany of our century's horrors? And why had I not heard of them?" Pursuing his inquiries he uncovered a "vast supply of raw material".

His book has ruffled quite a few feathers, particularly in Belgium. The British Independent newspaper's review calls Hochschild's comparisons to contemporary imperialism "unhelpful." But it is such contemporary resonances that place King Leopold's Ghost above a routine historical work.

One example from the introduction: "...unlike other great predators of history, from Genghis Khan to the Spanish conquistadors, King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilt in anger. He never set foot in the Congo. There is something very...
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