King Leopold’s Ghost Response Paper
With an estimated death toll of ten million people, King Leopold’s conquest of the Congo is recognized as one of the bloodiest holocausts in human history. The sheer brutality of this gruesome process triggered the world’s first international human rights movement. However, unlike the holocaust of Jews committed by the Nazi regime in mid-twentieth century Germany, the Belgian extermination of the Congolese has gone largely forgotten. In King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild seeks to revive the fervor and vehemence with which the world remembers this tragedy. Prior to reading this book, my own understanding of the genocide in the Congo was that of just another awful tragedy in the long process of colonial imperialism. However, after reading the extremely detailed King Leopold’s Ghost, I was able to take note of Leopold’s careful deliberation in his methodical approach to expanding his empire revealing the little regard he had for Congo natives who he saw simply as impediments in his plans.
In his well-researched work King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild was able to reconstruct the Belgian takeover of the Congo from an almost omniscient point of view. Through his narration, the reader is able to see all of the involved agents of the story (King Leopold, Henry Morton Stanley, William Sheppard) acting in motion and how the actions of one affected the plans and behaviors of others. Hochschild’s reconstruction reveals King Leopold’s meticulous manipulation of key individuals and entire governments throughout his expansionist scheme and the lengths a power hungry ruler would go to in order to get his share of the African cake. Although emphasizing the exceptional brutality displayed by Belgian forces in the Congo, Hochschild is also able to present this particular display of imperialism as representative of the colonial ventures of several other European nations such as Germany’s takeover of Tanzania and British rule in South Africa. Published in 1999, approximately a century after the Belgian conquest, Hochschild sought to reignite an impassioned recollection of the phenomenon and after personally reading his work, I would argue he has succeeded in doing so.
With several overtly expressed themes, one can clearly see the consequences of imperialism, racism, and capitalism which explicitly addressed in the book. In this paper, I’d like to draw attention to an underlying theme which played many pivotal roles throughout the course of the conquest of the Congo: technology. Technology was a key component in both constructing King Leopold’s empire in the Congo and in dismantling it through the efforts of the international human rights movement led by E.D Morel and Roger Casement. Different technological instruments make their appearance subtly throughout the book but three specific innovations had major impacts on the development and disintegration of the Belgian Congo: river steamers, the telegraph, and photography. Without these inventions, Leopold’s detailed orchestration of the Congo conquest would’ve been an impossible venture. These instruments brought about improvements in exploration and communication which made Leopold’s covert manipulation and Stanley’s navigation through the Congo feasible.
The Congo river steamers differed in structure so as to navigate through narrow passages and tight turns. Another key difference was that they were made to sail as far as possible on the river until they reached an impasse at which point they could be take apart and carried over land until the next navigable section of the river. Henry Morton Stanley, an explorer contracted by King Leopold to map the Congo interior, relied heavily on these ships to establish a path through the Congo and to begin construction on railroads for more efficient travel over land. Also essential to European invasion of Africa was the medical development of quinine, the...
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