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“This work of popular history does a great job of bringing to life the story of King Leopold of Belgium’s orchestration of a private empire in the Congo near the end of the 19th century. His greed driven campaign presaged the 20th century shenanigans with its use of political intrigue, bribery,...”see full review » see other reviews »
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“If you ask an educated American to name the worst despots and atrocities of the twentieth century, you'll immediately hear such names as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Very few would name Leopold II, King of the Belgians and absolute master of the Belgian Congo. I wouldn't have before reading...”see full review » see other reviews »
“Documents the doings of Belgium's King Leopold II's effort to run a central African colony as his own brutal fiefdom, wherein he amassed an outrageous fortune at the cost of 2 to 15 million lives. In an era of truly evil bad actor-colonists in Europe and South America, Belgium and Leopold II stand apart as exceptionally awful. ”RKWDC wrote this review Friday, November 15, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“The history of King Leopold's "Congo Free State" and the movement at the beginning of the twentieth century to end the human rights abuses there. The book actually starts with the expeditions of Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870's and has a brief epilogue on the history of the Congo after Leopold. There is a lot of information here about European colonialism in Africa which should be more widely known today; as Hochschild says it has been deliberately forgotten. The story of the Congo is a tale of horror, but the story of the movement to expose it is inspiring. The book is written in a nonacademic, popular style. (Hochschild has also written on Stalin and post-Soviet Russia; I heard a public lecture he gave on that subject at Colby College about a dozen years ago.)”James F wrote this review Sunday, October 6, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“If you ask an educated American to name the worst despots and atrocities of the twentieth century, you'll immediately hear such names as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Very few would name Leopold II, King of the Belgians and absolute master of the Belgian Congo. I wouldn't have before reading this book, yet a man thousands of miles from a land he never visited is charged with instituting policies responsible for 10 million deaths in the course of a couple of decades, sparking the "first great international human rights movement of twentieth century." Hochschild tells us in the introduction that the book "is the story of that movement, of the savage crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it and of the way the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history." The first third of the book sets out the background--the explorations of the brutal Henry Morton Stanley of "Stanley and Livingston" fame, and the machinations of Leopold to gain a colony. The story of almost every monster of history seems to lie in a hunger for fame, glory or a twisted patriotism or ideology. With Leopold, as he's presented, the motive seems to be pure greed. The next third begins to set out how Leopold's military dictatorship used forced labor to meet demands for ivory and rubber. It explains how Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness was inspired by his own experience in the Congo. Finally, Hochschild tells the story of the protest movement, especially the story of Edmund Dene Morel, "an obscure shipping-company official" who became Leopold's most dangerous enemy.
After reading this I certainly will never again be able to see Stanley as a hero or read Heart of Darkness in the same way. Given the material, this is an absorbing book--a five star in terms of the importance of the story, but not, I thought, in presentation. Hochschild, a former editor of the Marxist Ramparts and a co-founder of the far-left Mother Jones, often lets his socialist biases peek out. For instance, he bizarrely expresses his bewilderment over how a businessman like Morel with no attachment to socialism could be so passionate about fighting injustice! Even more than the intrusive socialist lens, I was left uneasy by the whiff of sensationalist journalism in his psychoanalysis and unsupported speculations about motives and actions and focus on scandal. I think in a lot of cases like that, less would have been more. And in the case of what happened in Congo, more would have been more. I felt I got a better sense of how Leopold conducted his affair with his teenage mistress than how he governed the Congo. Hochschild's chronology and evidence for the numbers he claimed killed in the introduction and analysis of what part could be pinned down as due to the direct effect of colonial rule felt sketchy, as did the exploration of Leopold's role beyond press relations and lobbying. (Admittedly, as Hochschild related, difficult precisely because so many documents were ordered destroyed by Leopold.) When I contrast King Leopold's Ghost to say Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I just can't rate Hochschild as impressive as a writer or historian.”
“This work of popular history does a great job of bringing to life the story of King Leopold of Belgium’s orchestration of a private empire in the Congo near the end of the 19th century. His greed driven campaign presaged the 20th century shenanigans with its use of political intrigue, bribery, media manipulation, and lies. The popular explorer Henry Morton Stanley was wooed and appropriated to make his dream become a reality. Its economic success was founded on the institutionalization of slave labor, terrorism, and intimidation of both the population and participants long before Stalin and Hitler adopted such methods. In one way the tale represents a special case of evil genius; in another way it is a case study of approaches broadly common to European colonialism in Africa. When the atrocities behind Leopold’s money machine for ivory and rubber were first recognized, they sparked a brilliant protest movement led by two notable Englishmen. Hochschild makes their story is as interesting as that of Leopold and Stanley’s.
Belgium was late to the feeding frenzy of carving up Africa, and Leopold developed a gnawing hunger for a piece of the pie. Stanley’s forays through central Africa brought Leopold’s attention to the vast area of the Congo River basin, an area the size of India or much of Europe. As an example of Hochschild’s knack of characterization, check out his profile of Stanley at the point of his first meeting of Leopold at age 37:
The ne’er-do-well naval deserter of a mere thirteen years earlier was now a best-selling author, recognized as one of the greatest of living explorers. His stern, mustachioed face appeared in magazines everywhere beneath a Stanley Cap, his own invention …which, in a way, summed up Stanley’s personality: one part titan of rugged force and mountain-moving confidence; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class, anxiously struggling for the approval of the powerful. In photographs each part seems visible: the explorer’s eyes carry both a fierce determination and a woundedness.
Stanley’s job over a five year period was to establish a transportation system and treaties with the populace that gave Leopold carte blanche. His well-paid tasks included building a road past the 200 plus miles of falls in the coastal segment of the river, hauling a disassembled steamship to the navigable portion, and the establishment of many trading posts/military bases along its 1,000 mile main course of the Congo River. Above all he was to buy with goods like clothes and alcohol written deals with all the chiefs and village leaders along the way that handed over a trading monopoly to Leopold under the guise of his benign sounding “International Association of the Congo”. The illiterate chiefs couldn’t have known what they were signing. “The treaties must be as brief as possible,” Leopold ordered, “and in a couple of articles must grant us everything.” Their text promises that the signers would:
freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever … give up to the said Association the sovereignity and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories …and to assist by labor or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause any time to be carried out in any part of these territories …All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining, and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association.”
By labor or otherwise. Stanley’s pieces of cloth bought not just land, but manpower. It was an even worse trade than the Indians made for Manhattan.
The territory included at least 200 different ethnic groups speaking more than 400 languages and dialects, ranging from “citizens of large, organizationally sophisticated kingdoms to the Pygmies of the Ituri rain forest, who lived in small bands with no chiefs and no formal structure of government.” Through intermediary companies which Leopold held at least half the shares, the men of the tribes were forced into labor as porters, food producers, and gatherers of ivory and, later, rubber. Force was effected by making a hostage of wives, children, or chiefs as hostages and intimidation through razing of villages, chopping off of children’s hands, or public whippings of those who did not make their quotas. A lot of this dirty work was carried out be a cadre of black people controlled by their own system of carrots and sticks. Although other European colonies used these practices, Leopold’s intermediaries advanced their use on an unprecedented scale. What was especially outrageous was that the takeover of the Congo was sold to world under the humanitarian guise of eradicating the slave trade and civilizing the savages with the light of Christianity. Some of this duplicity was captured by Conrad in his “Heart of Darkness”. The concept that the evil incarnate of the company agent, Kurz, was a fictional parable is dismissed by Hochschild, who comes up with several candidates for realistic models that Conrad could have met or learned of during his employment on a river steamer.
In the absence of official national military to back up his claim to the Congo, Leopold’s ability to get a consensus of powerful countries to accept his new “Congo Free State” was his next amazing accomplishment. It started with getting the U.S. Congress to recognize it as a sort of protectorate, a coup based on bribery, harnessing missionary groups, and a massive lobbying campaign. Playing Germany, France, and England against each other at a conference in Berlin was the second phase; i.e. the pretension of a free-trade region under harmless Belgian hands was better than the threat of takeover by a more powerful nation.
Early heroes of this sad tale include two black Americans. George Washington Williams, an ex-Union soldier in the Civil War, journalist, and budding historian, showed up in the Congo in 1890 to explore the potential for the region as a place for American blacks to emigrate to. His investigations led him to the first media expose of the true situation. His open letter to Leopold called a spade a spade: the trading sites were labeled “piratical, buccaneering posts” that operated chain gangs and village burnings, and the conclusion was that “your Majesty’s government is engaged in the slave trade, wholesale and retail.” He got the letter published in newspapers and a long report disseminated; it had less impact than it might have if he hadn’t died soon thereafter from TB. The contributions of the black missionary William Henry Sheppard as a brave witness to the atrocities continued into the later phase of whistle blowing.
A few years later, a Liverpool shipping administrator, E.P. Morel, developed into a more unlikely fly in the ointment for dear Leopold. In a leap of logic, he inferred from all the goods shipped on his ships out of the Congo compared to primarily weapons and ammunition sent on returning trips that the colony had to be founded on slavery. Who could have guessed that this apolitical man would feel such outrage and be driven to masterful such effective skills in marshaling information, journalistic and speaking presentation, shaping his message to his audience, and use of celebrities in fund raising. A powerful ally was enlisted in the form of a respected diplomat, Roger Casement, the first British consul to the Congo Free State. His own investigations brought a lot of documentation and recorded testimony to the advocacy efforts. The avalanche of public outcry they raised would rival that of the anti-slavery campaign of decades before and presage some of the more successful strategies of advocacy groups in present modern era. Photographs of Congolese in chains and of individuals with their hands cut off as punishment made good fuel for the fire. A book by Arthur Conan Doyle and satirical pamphlet roasting Leopold by Mark Twain are examples that amplified the impact of Morel and Casement’s work
Eventually, Leopold was forced to transfer his colony into Belgian state control. But not before a week of burning all official records of the reign of terror in Belgium and Africa. Hochschild credits Morel for the success, but he takes pains to educate the reader how the big picture of brutal exploitation of the people of the Congo did not change. He also highlights the blindness of Morel to the possibility of self-rule in the Congo and to the adverse impacts of British excesses in its own colonies. The CIA led assassination of the democratically elected president of Republic of Congo in 1961 and installment of the brutal dictator Mobutu, who ruled in Zaire for three decades, follows the same mindset of imperial entitlement among developed countries with respect to the fate of African peoples. While evidence of a population loss of half of Congo’s residents under Leopold’s commercial regime can be used to claim some level of guilt for the death of 8-10 million people, Hochschild points out that similar population losses have been estimated for colonies under French control over a similar period.
Hochschild’s highly readable history of the rape of the Congo was a great education for me how one king’s bizarre successes could represent in microcosm the more complex and lengthy process involved with other cases of colonial subjugation. Beyond that it read like a novel of a massive, dastardly caper that the good guys eventually catch up to. Thanks to BooknBlues and Care B for recommending it.”
“Required reading for anybody travelling in Central Africa.”Herbert Kristen wrote this review Thursday, July 11, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Unfortunately, greed and terror did not stop with the departure of the colonial masters. Some lessons are hard to forget.”Richard Rogers wrote this review Saturday, June 29, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Black and unknown period in Africa's colonial history”Frits B. wrote this review Tuesday, March 12, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“One of the least known tragedies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A genocide perpetrated by a privately held Belgian coporation during the economic Rubber boom at the turn of the century. I lived in Belgium in 1989 and was completely unaware of this. The Congo archives at the time were marked secret and unavailable to the the public. Eye opening.”David A. Donnelly wrote this review Friday, February 22, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Full of really interesting characters, including Roger Casement - if you ever wondered why he was such a big deal. Also helps explain why the Congo is such a messed-up place. All this and a mention of the Slieve Donard Hotel!”David Achenbach wrote this review Saturday, February 2, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No