KingLeopold’s Ghost Paper
KingLeopold’s Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in ColonialAfricais a 1998 book by Adam Hochschild. The book deeply explores theexploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgiumbetween 1885 and 1908. The author has also intricately exposed theatrocities committed against the Congolese in that period. Indiscussing how he came to research the Congo and its genocide,Hochschild states that he discovered a death toll whose dimensionsequaled those of a Holocaust.
Duringthe scramble for Africa in the 1880s, European powers strived tocarve for space in the continent. King Leopold II was one of thelucky ones, successfully grabbing for himself the unexplored vastterritory that surrounded the River Congo. Leopold has been describedas a cruel, charming and cunning man, not any different than thevillains portrayed by Shakespeare. Through a genocidal plundering ofthe region, the man brutalized its indigenous inhabitants, eventuallyslashing the original population by a whopping ten million people andlooting the resources in the country.
Thedire “Holocaust” situation was initially brought to the attentionof outsiders in the late 1890s. This was after an agent from aBritish shipping company, Edmund Dene Morel, made a strangeobservation of shipments coming to and leaving Congo. Morel notedthat cargoes arriving from Congo contained valuable and preciousgoods such as ivory, hardwood, and rubber. On the other hand,Congo-bound cargoes were crammed with nothing more than firearms andsoldiers. This rang a bell in his mind and he correctly came to theconclusion that the situation could only be caused by a vast scale ofthe slave trade in King Leopold’s Congo colony. As a result, heresigned his job, choosing instead to concentrate on informing theworld about Leopold’s slave labor regime. Other parties who choseto expose the misdoings included two Americans, William Sheppard andGeorge Washington Williams. Roger Casement also made efforts to bringout information by conducting eye-opening investigations into themassacre. A young steam boat officer, Joseph Conrad, sailed into thecenter of the story to make first-hand confirmations on the ground(Hochschild, 33-50).
Leopold’sAfrican reign between 1885 and 1908 exerted a kind of suffering thathad not been experienced before. This was due to his adoption of astrategy that included enslaving the indigenous people.
QuotingHochschild’s words, the area experienced “a death toll ofHolocaust dimensions”. Much of the death toll resulted from purekillings carried out using the imported armed militias. Villagerswere compelled to tap rubber for which they received hefty and severepunishments if they failed to comply. They also received punishmentsif they failed to meet the quotas set by the Europeans. However, agreater number of deaths were the result of starvation, sickness,exposure and exhaustion. Plummeting birth rates caused by poor livingconditions heavily contributed to the decrease in population.
Basedon the information that Hochschild provides about the Congo genocide,questions arise as to the reasons why the militias and their leadercould engage in such reprehensible actions against unarmed men,women, and children. Several reasons could be offered with the firstbeing that of racism and superiority. King Leopold believed thatbeing a white man, he was more superior and civilized than the blackpeople he found in Africa. This made him cloak his selfish ambitionsby pretending to be getting rid of the darkness that hung over theregion. He did this cunningly by initiating Henry Morton Stanley andplacing him in charge of the large River Congo opening. When awayfrom Africa, Stanley was put in charge of addressing large Europeancrowds, instilling in them the need to civilize “the neglectedmillions of the dark continent”. In the meantime, King Leopoldcontinued with his exploitation of the Congo in the pretense ofsetting up missions and bringing an end to slave trade (Hochschild,50-60).
Quotinga Swedish missionary, C.N. Borrisson, Hochschild (Hochschild, 267)states how strange it is that a people claiming to be extremelycivilized can treat fellow humans inhumanely for being of a differentcolor. In this statement, the “civilized” Europeans havedisregarded the life of Africans based on skin color, religion,background and even nationality. Hochschild writes that when JosephConrad visited the Congo, he was greatly horrified by the brutalityand greed amongst the white man that it permanently changed his viewof human nature (Hochschild, 37).
Asmore atrocities are exposed, the reader learns the kinds ofpunishments that people received. It is said that the militiassevered the hands of the dead Congolese, using them to account forspent ammunition to their superiors. They also extended their acts ofmutilations to the living, thereby incapacitating them while stillexpecting them to be productive. If these people had any humanity inthem, they would treat the indigenous communities well. As a result,they would have more able laborers resulting in more quality work andincreased produce.
Greedis another factor that is clearly depicted by King Leopold II and hismilitias. The individuals plundering the Congo and other regions ofAfrica and Asia supposedly did so in the guise of Christianity,progress, and civilization. Plundering a nation in the name ofChristianity, progress and civilization is the greatest form ofhypocrisy that was practiced by Leopold.
Themanner in which the local chiefs signed treaties and agreements tohand over their land displayed pure greed. Stanley exchanged onepiece of cloth a month to each chief for a promise by the chiefs togive up all rights to their territories, and also assist with laboror as otherwise required by the white man. With these agreements thatthe indigenous communities did not understand, all roads andwaterways running through the country, the total right to collecttolls belonged to the association (white man). In addition, all game,forest, fishing and mining rights also shifted and became theabsolute property of the association. As Stanley did all this forLeopold, he was putting up a railway and a road along the river. Thiswas in a bid to facilitate shipping of the abundant wealth in theform of ivory, precious stones, rubber and hardwood to personallyenrich Leopold (Hochschild, 301).
Informationregarding the atrocities and exploitation reached overwhelmingheights and the Belgian government decided to buy the country fromLeopold. The process began in 1906 but only got completed in 1908 dueto Leopold’s greed that saw him drag his feet as he continued tobenefit from his territory. The final settlement was ratherextravagant as he received hefty amounts. According to Hochschild(345), "The Belgian government first of all agreed to assume[Congo`s] 110 million francs worth of debt, much of them in the formof bond`s Leopold had freely dispensed over the years to [his]favorites. Nearly 32 million francs of the debt was owed to theBelgian government itself through loans it had given years earlier toLeopold”.
Inaddition, the government paid 45.5 million francs towards thecompletion of Leopold’s unfinished building projects. A further 50million francs, though released in installments, was paid as a formof gratitude for the great sacrifices Leopold made for the Congo. Theworst point of all this further exploitation is that the funds weresourced from the very much deprived, exploited and exhausted Congo asopposed to getting it from the Belgian taxpayer.
Atone point, Hochschild quotes Roger Casement refuting Edmund Morel’sclaim about England and America being two great humanitarian powers.He states that at the onset, all are materialistic but later act asif they are humanitarian. This was the case with the Congoexploitation when the Belgian government came to the rescue longafter the damage had already been done. The entire episode depicts ofracism, greed, inhumanity and insensitivity to fellow humankind.
Hochschild,A. KingLeopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in ColonialAfrica.Pan Macmillan, 1998. Print.