Saturday, June 9, 2012

King Leopold's Ghost

Book: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo

Description: 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. (from

(I wrote these on two separate occaisions, during and after I was reading King Leopold's Ghost in March of this year)

Wow, I'm so impressed with this book so far (just finished chapter 8 or 9).  Firstly, Hochschild out and out condemns the horrors and crimes that happened in the Congo--no justifying their actions because of the norms of the time or anything (although he does explain some of hte cutlural stuff going on, it is absolutely not in a way to justify their actions, more in a way to help us understand).  He also condemns the main actors in the whole thing, especially King Leopold II of Belgium.  Hochschild doesn't hide his contempt for him--and no, I don't think it's too strong of a word--or for some of the other main people.  I must say, all of the people are very well described and feel very real to me.  Even the people who fought against what was happening in the Congo weren't described as saints--he also described their faults, and honestly rather condemned those parts of them even while praising them for their other actions.

The whole things seems so real.  Very well-written, and in a way to engage the reader.  Described so interestingly, and often with really interesting epeople, too.  Hochschild is also so sarcastic!

Wow.  Need a moment to gather my thoughts...

A lot of what I said last time are still my strongest impressions of the book: Hochschild's whole-hearted condemnation of practically everything and everyone that had anything to do with the exploitation of the Congo, his portrayals of people (and, untimately, the movement against what was happening in the Congo) were fair and portrayed both the good and bad aspects.  He was also curiously cynical and optimistic at the same time--acknowledged human nature, questioned the fact that there were so many other horrible things going on at the same time that no one even questioned, pointed out that not much changed in the Congo after the reforms even to the present day, how the 10 million dead not acknowledged by Belgium today; but also praising the efforts of everyone working against what was going on in the Congo, and definitely thinks well of organizations fighting for human rights today.
Really impressed with how hard Hochschild tried to acknowledge important workers in the story, especially people not much talked about before (often because they were black).  Also pointed out that Africans weren't all that innocent or virtuous before Europeans came, something I found oddly brave--no one ever wants to talk about that.

Would highly recommend.  Riveting story and resounding condemnation of imperialism, exploitation, and greed.


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