King Leopold's Ghost

featured in Macworld, one of the 5
best history sites on the web

Bookstore | Exhibits | HistoryWiz | Primary Source Archives | Search

King Leopold's Ghost
by Adam Rochschild


Book 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.

About the Author
Adam Hochschild was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son, was published in 1986. It was followed by The Mirror at Midnight: a South African Journey, and The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. The Unquiet Ghost won prizes from the Overseas Press Club of America and the Society of American Travel Writers.

Hochschild's Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels, won the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay. King Leopold's Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It also won a J. Anthony Lukas Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize in Great Britain and the Lionel Gelber Prize in Canada. His books have been translated into ten languages.

Besides his books, Hochschild has also written for The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books and many other newspapers and magazines. He is a former commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

Hochschild was a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, and was an editor and writer there for some years. He now teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and has been a guest teacher at other campuses in the U.S. and abroad. He spent five months as a Fulbright Lecturer in India. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Arlie, the sociologist and author. They have two sons.

Reviews   Book Description   Author   Excerpt   Buy

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Hochschild's superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885. Until 1909, he used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, burn villages, mete out sadistic punishments, including dismemberment, and commit mass murder. The hero of Hochschild's highly personal, even gossipy narrative is Liverpool shipping agent Edmund Morel, who, having stumbled on evidence of Leopold's atrocities, became an investigative journalist and launched an international Congo reform movement with support from Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington and Arthur Conan Doyle.


African History Books

HistoryWiz Africa

That Magnificant African Cake- a HistoryWiz exhibit


Other pivotal figures include Joseph Conrad, whose disgust with Leopold's "civilizing mission" led to Heart of Darkness; and black American journalist George Washington Williams, who wrote the first systematic indictment of Leopold's colonial regime in 1890. Hochschild (The Unquiet Ghost) documents the machinations of Leopold, who won over President Chester A. Arthur and bribed a U.S. senator to derail Congo protest resolutions. He also draws provocative parallels between Leopold's predatory one-man rule and the strongarm tactics of Mobuto Sese Seko, who ruled the successor state of Zaire. But most of all it is a story of the bestiality of one challenged by the heroism of many in an increasingly democratic world. 30 illustrations. Agent: Georges Borchardt. First serial rights to American Scholar. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Having had two books named to LJ's Best Books list in the past (Half the Way Home in 1986 and The Unquiet Ghost in 1994) Hochschild wins the Triple Crown with this powerfully moving account of enslavement, mutilation, and murder in 19th-century Africa. Though it is not well known today, five to eight million African lives were lost when the Belgians colonized the Congo under King Leopold?a slaughter that, as Hochschild points out, proves Conrad's Mr. Kurtz to be no exaggeration. Hochschild is quietly devastating: he's got the facts, gleaned from prodigious research, and they speak?damningly?for themselves. (LJ
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

The Economist, Sept. 11, 1999
"To an already long list of tyrants which includes Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Idi Amin, a late addition is required. 'Late' only because King Leopold II of Belgium (1835-1909) should always have been there. As 'owner' of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908 he was responsible for what Joseph Conrad once called 'the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.' It is indeed a ghastly story of greed, lies and murder. And Adam Hochschild retells it well. 'King Leopold's Ghost' last week beat several excellent books to win the Lionel Gelber prize. . . . now the world's most important award for non-fiction. . . . Around the turn of this century in the depths of the Congo the bonds of humanity were unbound and the trappings of civilisation cast aside, releasing something diabolical which exists within us all. Mr. Hochschild conveys this particularly well."

The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani
It is a book that situates Leopold's crimes in a wider context of European and African history while at the same time underscoring the peculiarly modern nature of his efforts to exert "spin control" over his actions.

The Boston Globe, Robert Taylor
Adam Hochschild's spellbinding account of imperial machinations and how these led to the first major human-rights movement of this century presents a dynamic story. Largely forgotten now, its very obscurity suggests the success of the monarch's role-playing in his day, and indeed King Leopold's Ghost is the first comprehensive account in English for the general reader.

From Booklist
The intersection of the boundless egos of Henry M. Stanley (the writer and explorer famous for having found Dr. David Livingstone) and King Leopold II of Belgium resulted in the colonizing of the Congo region of Africa and a period of slave labor, torture, and mass murders to rival the Holocaust. Hochschild magnificently renders a period in the 1880s little acknowledged in history, and includes the perspective of black Americans and black Africans, a perspective not often included in history books. Under the subterfuge of civilizing Africans and saving them from Arab slave traders (with no mention of the recently halted European slave trade), Leopold enlisted Stanley in colonizing a region 76 times the size of Belgium for his own personal benefit. This is a finely detailed account of the arrogance and hypocrisy of Europeans of the era in carving up Africa, appropriating land and resources in the name of humanitarian and scientific advancements. Hochschild's impressively researched history records the roles of the famous and obscure, missionaries, journalists, opportunists, politicians, and royalty in this long-forgotten drama Vanessa Bush

"Carefully researched and vigorously told, King Leopold"s Ghost does what good history always does -- expands the memory of the human race."

The haunting portrait of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, this "outstanding study, unmatched by any other work on the Congo, reveals how all Europe--and the U.S.A.--contributed to the making of King Leopold's holocaust of the Congolese people" (Nadine Gordimer). 30 photos.

Excerpted from King Leopold's Ghost : A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. Copyright © 1998. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved
As with any traumatic piece of history, the roots of this story lie far back in time, and its reverberations still sound today. But for me a central vantage point, an incandescent pivotal moment that illuminates long decades before and after, is a young man's flash of moral recognition.

The year is 1897 or 1898. Try to imagine, briskly stepping off a cross-Channel steamer, a forceful, burly man in his mid-20s, with a handlebar mustache. He is confident and well-spoken, but his British speech is without the polish of an Eton or an Oxford. He is well-dressed, but the clothes are not from Bond Street. With an ailing mother and a wife and growing family to support he is not the sort of person likely to get caught up in any idealistic cause. His ideas are thoroughly conventional. He looks--and is--every inch the sober, respectable businessman.

Edmund Dene Morel is a trusted employee of a Liverpool- based shipping line. A subsidiary of the company has the monopoly on all transport of cargo to and from the Congo Free State, as it is then called, the huge territory in central Africa that is the world's only colony claimed by one man. That man is King Leopold II of Belgium, a ruler much admired throughout Europe as a "philanthropic" monarch. He has welcomed Christian missionaries to his new colony; his troops, it is said, have fought and defeated local slave-traders who preyed on the population; and for more than a decade European newspapers have praised him for selflessly investing his personal fortune in public works to benefit the Africans.

Because Morel speaks fluent French, his company sends him over to Belgium every few weeks to supervise the loading and unloading of ships on the Congo run. Although the officials he is working with have been handling this shipping traffic for years without a second thought, Morel begins to notice things that unsettle him. At the docks of the big Belgian port of Antwerp he sees his company's ships arriving filled to the hatch-covers with immensely valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. But when they cast off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo, while military bands play on the pier and eager young men in uniform line the ships' rails, what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition. There is no trade going on here. Nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory. As Morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes with horror that there can be only one possible explanation for their source: slave labor on a vast scale.

Brought face to face with evil, Morel did not turn away. to the Times on the Congo would be signed by 11 peers, 19 bishops, 76 Members of Parliament, the presidents of 7 Chambers of Commerce, 13 editors of major newspapers, and every Lord Mayor in the country. Angry speeches on the horrors of King Leopold's Congo would be given as far away as Australia. In Italy, two men would fight a duel over the issue. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, a man not given to overstatement, would declare that "no external question for at least thirty years has moved the country so strongly and so vehemently."

This is the story of that movement, of the great crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it, and the way the world has managed to forget one of the great mass killings of recent history.

* * *

I myself knew almost nothing about the history of the Congo until a few years ago, when I noticed a footnote in a book I was reading. Often when you come across something particularly striking, you remember just where you were when you read it. On this occasion I was sitting, stiff and tired, late at night, in one of the far rear seats of an airliner crossing the United States from east to west.

The footnote was to a quotation from Mark Twain. Twain had made this comment, the note said, when he was part of the worldwide movement against slave labor in the Congo, a system that had taken at least five to eight million lives. Worldwide movement? Five to eight million lives? I was startled.

Statistics about mass murder are often hard to prove. But even if this number turned out to be only half as high, I thought, that would still make the Congo one of the major killing grounds of modern times. Why were these deaths not included in the standard litany of our century's horrors? And why had I never heard anything about them before? I had been writing about human rights for years, and once, in the course of half a dozen trips to Africa, I had even been to the Congo.

That visit had been in 1961. In a Leopoldville apartment, I had listened to a CIA man who had had too much to drink describe with great satisfaction exactly how and where the newly- independent country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, had been killed a few months earlier. He assumed that any American, even a visiting student like me, would share his pleasure at the assassination of a man the U.S. government considered a dangerous leftist troublemaker. In the early morning a day or two later I left the country by ferry across the Congo River, that conversation still ringing in my head as the sun rose over the waves and the dark, smooth, greasy-looking water slapped against the boat's hull.

Several decades later, I could not get that footnote about those millions of deaths at the turn of the century out of my mind. After a time, it occurred to me that, like so many other people, I had actually read something about that time and place, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. However, with my college lecture notes on the novel filled with scribbles about Freudian overtones, mythic echoes and inward vision, I had mentally filed the book away under fiction and not fact.

I now began to read more. The further I explored, the more it was unmistakably clear that the Congo of a century ago had indeed seen a death toll of Holocaust dimensions. At the same time, quite unexpectedly, I found myself totally absorbed by the extraordinary characters who peopled this patch of history. For although it was Edmund Dene Morel who ignited a movement, he was not the first outsider to see King Leopold's Congo for what it was, and to try hard to draw the world's attention to it. That role was played by George Washington Williams, a black American journalist and historian who, unlike anyone before him, inter- viewed Africans about their experience of their white conquerors. And it was another black American, William Sheppard, who recorded a scene he came across in the Congo rain forest one day which would brand itself on the world's consciousness as an unforgettable symbol of colonial brutality. There were other heroes as well, one of the bravest of whom would end his life on a London gallows. Then, of course, sailing into the very middle of this story came the young sea captain, Joseph Conrad, expecting the exotic Africa of his childhood dreams and finding instead what he would call "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience." And looming above them all was King Leopold II, a man as filled with greed and cunning, duplicity and charm, as any of the more complex villains of Shakespeare.

As I followed the intersecting lives of these men, I began to realize something else about the terror in the Congo and the controversy that came to surround it. The Congo was the first international atrocity scandal of the age of the telegraph and the camera, and in its mix of bloodshed on an industrial scale, royalty, sex, the power of celebrity, and rival lobbying and media campaigns that raged in half a dozen countries on both sides of the Atlantic, it often feels strikingly closer to our time than one would expect. Furthermore, unlike some of the other great predators of history, from Genghis Khan to the Spanish conquistadors, King Leopold II never saw a drop of blood spilled in anger. He never even set foot in the Congo. There is something very modern about that, too, as there is about the bomber pilot in the stratosphere, above the clouds, who never hears screams or sees shattered homes or torn flesh.

Although today Europe has long forgotten the victims of Leopold's Congo, in reconstructing their fate I found a vast supply of raw material to work from: Congo memoirs by explorers, steamboat captains, military men; the records of mission stations; reports of government investigations; and that peculiarly Victorian phenomenon, accounts by the gentleman (or sometimes lady) "traveler." The Victorian era was a golden age of letters and diaries, and sometimes it almost seems as if every visitor or official in the Congo kept voluminous journals and spent each evening on the river bank writing letters home.

One problem, of course, is that virtually all of this vast river of words is by Europeans or Americans. There was no written language in the Congo when Europeans first arrived. And this inevitably skews the way history has been recorded. We have dozens of memoirs by the territory's white officials; we know the changing opinions on Congo

Contact Us