Book-Blogging: King Leopold’s Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost

“Cut off hands – that’s idiotic! I’d cut off all the rest of them, but not the hands. That’s the one thing I need in the Congo!” – King Leopold II

Evil comes in myriad forms. Sometimes it’s an active process, as when one group tries to exterminate another. The genocides of the Jews, the Armenians, the Cambodians, and others in the past century were calculated acts designed to rid the world of a group of people – as if they were an infection that the world needed to be rid of. Genocide is an actively evil process.

But it doesn’t have to be active; it doesn’t even have to be on person. Often, evil is merely a by-product, an unintended (but purposefully overlooked) consequence of greed, sociopathy, a lack of empathy, and an almost incomprehensible apathy. Evil doesn’t have to be borne by emotion – it can just as easily be borne by disregard. The banality of evil is just that.

The case of King Leopold II, Belgium, and the Congo Free State (as today’s less-than-aptly named the Democratic Republic of the Congo was called a century ago) is a seminal case of passive evil. Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa adroitly shows how evil can be the inevitable end result of a system, not of an emotion.

Arguably, passive evil is even more terrifying and incomprehensible than active evil; ten million[1] Congolese can be killed because of an unemotional, calculated system of exploitation, fear, and profit-seeking. Hate isn’t a necessary precondition for evil to flourish.

Leopoold II’s story is a tale that isn’t well-known – in Belgium, America, or anywhere (save the DRC) – but is a vital one to grapple with. There is no shortage of leaders of the same stripe: greedy, jealous, and so myopic as to completely overlook the feelings, rights, and basic humanity of others. And so we’re left with the unsettling thought that this can happen again. And again. And again. For this reason and others, Hochschild’s book is a must-read.

The short version of the story reads something like this: in the late 19th century, King Leopold II, of tiny, fractured Belgium, sees the European powerhouses of Germany, France, and England acquiring colonies all over the world, and decides he wants one, too; he wants to “…secure for ourselves a slice of this magnificent African cake.” (Nevermind that the “African cake” is already owned by African people)

To get his slice, he  first needs to figure out where in Africa to colonize. The other European countries have “taken” much of the continent, so he contracts intrepid traveler Henry Morton Stanley[2] to traverse the continent in order to find the source of the Congo River – something no Westerner had previously done – and discreetly set up bases for his shadowy International African Association, a charitable-looking front for his machinations. “His” is the right word; for most of his time as king, Leopold was essentially the owner of the Congo Free State; Belgium is merely an uninformed creditor.

At the outset, Leopold’s quest for land in Africa has only prestige and profit as its endgame; ivory supplied the profit, and a combination of the Congo Free State’s enormous size and Leopold’s “save the natives” rhetoric the prestige.

Fortuitously for him – and incredibly unfortunately for the Congolese – he usurps the land right as the worldwide appetite for rubber becomes insatiable. The Congo Free State was lousy with rubber vines, and he effectively held a monopoly on the rubber market: other entrants would need to wait years for their cultivated rubber trees to mature. So, Leopold II wanted to extract as much rubber from the land as quickly as possible.

(via SFASU)

(via SFASU)

The process of collecting rubber from the vines is vividly described by Hochschild, and it’s terrible. It involves spreading the rubber on one’s body to dry, then peeling it (and any body hair) off. Often from hundreds of feet above the ground.

And so, not being the type of work a “civilized” Westerner would enjoy, labor came from the locals. Because they were viewed as sub-human by Leopold II, Stanley, and, well, most Westerners, subjugating them to hard labor for no pay did not surface as an issue; the Belgian solution was to kidnap women, children, and village elders, then hold them for a rubber ransom, with each Congolese man given a quota to collect before the prisoners would be returned.

If the workers or communities got feisty, the Force Publique – Belgium’s military force in the Congo Free State – would quash the insurrection using the chicotte (a whip made from hippo hide), the machete (used to cut off the hands of those who didn’t produce), and the gun.

Riding next to the two Horsemen of War and Conquest were Pestilence and Death. Hunger, malnutrition, and poor working conditions helped dysentery, cholera, malaria, and sleeping sickness to flourish, and millions of Congolese died.

(via Menlo School)

(via Menlo School)

With Leopold an archetype of an antagonist[3], the story needs at least one protagonist; Hochschild’s main saint  is Edmund D. Morel, the first to infer that if virtually no goods were imported into the Congo Free State (money wasn’t a consideration, as the Congolese weren’t allowed to use it), but ivory and rubber left in boat after boat, something was up: workers weren’t being compensated for their labor. The king who was vociferously against the wicked “Arab” slave trade was using slaves himself.

An effective orator and communicator, Morel started the Congo Reform Association and the West African Mail newspaper, and slowly educated the world on Leopold’s reign of terror in the Congo Free State. Hochschild calls his campaign the first significant human rights campaign of the modern era.

Morel was significantly helped by George Washington Williams, a black American politician and minister who was one of the first to raise the alarm after witnessing the oppression directly; William Sheppard, a black American missionary who acted as one of the main ethnographers/anthropologists for the Congolese people; and Roger Casement, a British diplomat who prodded the British and others to act.

Eventually, the tide of public opinion turned, Leopold II died, and the Congo Free State became a true Belgian colony. Unfortunately, a happy ending for the Congolese people doesn’t come for… a while. Leopold’s intervention fractures the nation and Belgium continues to print money on the backs of the Congolese.

Even after independence in the early 1960s, the Western world continued to meddle. The American Central Intelligence Agency conspired with the Belgians to assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the country’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister, and propped up Mobutu Sese Seko, perhaps the platonic ideal of the kleptocrat. (For a more recent history of Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo, see my review of Jason Stearns’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters)

This is recent Western history that has been under-discussed and under-appreciated. It’s not hard to see why: a brutal, visceral case study in Western intervention and intrusion gone horribly wrong, the case study is an uncomfortable to look at Western imperialism’s consequences.

But the things that are difficult to think about are often vitally important to remember, and Hochschild’s book helps us do that. Because he’s able to tell the story in such a compelling way, you should have no excuse but to buy it and learn from it.

It’s not enough to read the book, though, if all you take away is history. This is present, and this is future – if not in all its brutality, certainly in the warnings of unchecked greed. Whether perpetrated by a Wall Street financier or a corporation that doesn’t ensure safe working conditions for t-shirt manufacturers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the propensity of greed to blind people to the means of acquiring wealth is an ever-present issue.

Read this book. Grapple with the history, the present, and the future that it helps to illuminate. And then – if you’re so moved – act.


[1] There’s some dispute about this number, as Hochschild recognizes. In any estimate borne from incomplete information, there’s a pretty wide confidence interval, but it’s undisputed that millions died in the Congo Free State during Leopold’s meddling.

[2] Stanley is, to modern eyes, a racist murderer who treats his porters like oxen. About which: “They are faithless, lying, thievish, indolent knaves, who only teach a man to despise himself for his folly in attempting a grand work with such miserable slaves.” There is no record of how many Africans Stanley personally killed

[3] Though here, Hochschild does an admirable job of explicating that it was the system, not (only) Leopold II, that was truly evil. Leopold’s death, as we’ll see, wouldn’t end the system

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