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King Leopold’s Ghost (thoughts)

March 25, 2008

But before I get to my thoughts, there are some awesome book giveaways going on right now!  Katrina of Stone Soup is offering brand new copies of Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent’s Tale! These are medieval mysteries, with Ariana Franklin as the main character. I’ve read the first one, and I know I’ve seen reviews of both of them floating around the blogosphere, so here’s your chance to check them out as long as you comment by Sunday. :) Then, C.B. James of Ready When You Are, C.B. is hosting his first-ever book giveaway! I told him it would be fun, so now y’all all need to participate and prove me right! He’s offering a copy of The Masterby Colm Toibin, which is an awesome fictionalised look at Henry James’ later years (I read it and loved it in my pre-blogging days), and since it was shortlisted for the Booker, he’s asking participants to name the book they want to see win the Best of Booker contest. You have a long time to decide: the contest is open until April 10th (day before my birthday!). And finally, Jenclair of A Garden Carried in a Pocket is giving away a copy of Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward.

And now, I finally get to talk about a book.  King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild examines Belgium’s colonization of the Congo, and the atrocities committed there in the name of King Leopold’s greed.  It also looks at one of the first international human rights campaigns, which attempted to bring an end to the abuse of the Congo’s people. As he explains in the introduction, he wrote the book because there isn’t a modern memory of the Congo’s history, at least in the West. Furthermore, as a journalist he was struck by the relatively ‘modern’ feel of the story:

It was the first major international atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera. In its mixture of bloodshed on an industrial scale, royalty, sex, the power of celebrity, and rival lobbying and media campaigns raging in half a dozen countries on both sides of the Atlantic, it seemed strikingly close to our time.

So, what is the story?

Between 1890 and 1910, approximately ten million native Congo people ‘disappeared’, from four main causes: murder, death by starvation, exhaustion, or exposure, disease, and a plummeting birth rate. King Leopold ‘owned’ the territory himself, and when the international rubber boom occurred, he told his white administrators to do whatever it took to get as much rubber as possible. So the administrators would tear into villages and force the men into the jungle, to tap the wild rubber vines (at great personal danger). If the men refused, the administrators held the women ransom. If the men didn’t meet their quotas, the administrators killed them. If the administrators felt that they had been offended, they killed the villagers. Meanwhile, they took all of their food to feed themselves and the army of native Congo people (who were often themselves abducted from the villages) they brought with them to enforce rule. And things get even uglier. The administrators didn’t want government issued bullets given to the native troops to be ‘wasted’ on non-human targets. So, each time a soldier killed a civilian, he had to cut off a hand (usually the left) to bring back to the administrators to account for the used bullet. Aside for the sheer gruesomeness of this, if a soldier fired a bullet that didn’t kill someone, he would just chop off any old civilian’s hand. Rape was commonplace. And to ensure that they had a large native army, Leopold ordered the construction of three ‘military academies’ in the Congo. Young boys would be abducted from their villages and forceably enrolled in these schools, far from home. These were the general evils.

The more particular evils came when some white administrator would off of his head. As Hochschild explains, there were several real-life models for Conrad’s crazed Kurtz in Heart of Darkness(which is, while fictional, a very loyal account of the actual conditions in the Congo when Conrad visited in 1890): Major Edmund Barttelot “went mad, began biting, whipping, and killed people, and was finally murdered. Yet another Kurtz prototype was a Belgian, Arthur Hodister, famed for his harem of African women and for gathering huge amounts of ivory.” And then were was Captain Leon Rom, who decorated his garden with he heads of twenty-one women and children killed in a punitive raid.

Hochschild does a very good job putting these events in context; he looks at the history of Europeans in the Congo, he looks at King Leopold’s early life and his obsession with making Belgium a great power through colonies, he looks at Henry Morton Stanely, the typical Victorian explorer who ‘opened’ the Congo, and of course he touches on the Great Scramble for Africa that all of the European nations engaged in. All of this helps the reader understand how these things could have happened.

And there is goodness in the book as well. Especially in the latter half, Hochschild examines the huge international campaign that eventually grew up against King Leopold and his behavior in the Congo. This was spearheaded by the English E.D. Morel and the Irish Sir Roger Casement, but even before they came on the scene missionaries were trying to tell the world the true story. Hochschild also describes the stunning PR abilities of King Leopold, as he tried to discredit the reports of atrocities and keep the American and other European governments placated. So in addition to being an account of mass murder on a genocidal scale (Hochschild rightfully points out it wasn’t technically genocide, since the goal wasn’t to extinguish a particular ethnic group), the book talked about the importance of individuals and the media in international relations, which was quite interesting.

For me, the most impressive aspect of the book is Hochschild’s attempts throughout to give the native Congo people a voice. At the beginning, he laments the lack of research material from the native point of view, since they didn’t have mass media and for the most part were oral cultures. But he did find a collection of testimonies collected by a human rights committee at the time, and he quotes extensively from them. He never condescends about the native culture or people, so they stay completely human which forces the reader to identify with all of the horrible things happening. If Hochschild had adopted a different attitude, I don’t think this book would have worked.

That being said, I did think something was lacking. I’m not quite sure what, but it’s why I dropped it down to four stars: some of the chapters feel a bit thin. I understand of Hochschild just couldn’t find any sources to further his analysis, but it is a bit frustrating. Nevertheless, this is a very important book that I would highly recommend to everyone; don’t be scared off by the horrendous accounts-Hochschild’s goal isn’t to make you cry, but just to make you aware. And I believe that ten million people deserve at least three hundred pages of your time.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2008 3:35 pm

    Even at 4 stars, I’m adding this one to my list. Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite books (not the most enjoyable, but one of the most thought-provoking), and I’ve read it many times and from both literary and historical angles. I really want a more in depth historical view.

    And thanks for mentioning that I’m giving away a copy of Forgive Me!

  2. March 25, 2008 6:25 pm

    I read King Leopold’s Ghost when it came out in paperback and was very impressed. It’s just the kind of history book I enjoy. I found it hard to put down, myself. I’d have to re-read it to see how many stars I’d give it, four or five in any case.

    The author’s recent book Bury the Chains is also worth a look. It’s about the fight to end the slave trade in the British Empire.

    Thanks for mentioning my giveaway, too.


  3. March 25, 2008 8:19 pm

    I have not read this book, but the story sounds so familiar… an outside nation takes control of a country they see as inferior and sucks dry all the resources, not caring about the turmoil they’re causing, the lives being lost, the misery.

    It is depressing sometimes to study history and see how common that story is. It sounds like this is a good book that reminds us not to ignore whats going on outside our own little world. Thanks for the review

  4. March 26, 2008 6:44 am

    “And I believe that ten million people deserve at least three hundred pages of your time.”

    They do. I will read this.

  5. March 26, 2008 9:27 am

    Thanks for this review. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds like one that everyone should read. Unfortunately, this feels eerily similar to what’s going on in the world today. In Darfur, for example.

  6. March 26, 2008 6:08 pm

    What a tremendously tempting review. I’m going to have to find this book: I love history, and I’ve been interested in the topic for a while. It’s time I learned more about it.

  7. March 28, 2008 4:54 am

    Damn. My comments don’t seem to be showing up here either. Nonetheless, here I go trying again. (Don’t know why I’m having so much trouble with wordpress blogs these days.)

    Anyway, I was anxiously awaiting your review of this one…and I was not at all disappointed! Thank you, Eva, for another informative, thoughtful review…you definitely sold me. The Non-Fiction Five challenge might be the perfect time to squeeze this one in.

  8. March 29, 2008 6:56 pm

    JenClair, I think this’ll fit perfectly for what you want! I’m reaidng Heart of Darkness for the first time for the novella challenge, and now I can’t wait.

    C.B., I agree-I found it very engrossing! I’ll haev to look into Bury the Chains-thanks for the rec.

    Kim, yep-this story is even worse than most of the Europe colonises Africa stories. :( The nice thing is that there are always some people who fight against it!

    Nymeth, I’d love to read your thuoghts on it. :)

    Lisa, yeah-the world never seems to be lacking for genocides, does it?

    Poodlerat, I think you’ll really like it!

    Debi, I’m glad you liked the review. :) (and that your comment showed up!) You’re always so sweet!

  9. January 9, 2009 6:59 pm

    Hmmm. I think I may end up reading this for the World Citizen challenge! Sounds fascinating!

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