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King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998)

by Adam Hochschild

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,8341262,359 (4.3)287
History. Nonfiction. HTML:

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.

.… (more)
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    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (chrisharpe)
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    We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (paulkid)
    paulkid: Complementary accounts of international interest in Central Africa's material resources, but disinterest in its people.
  3. 40
    Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist (Anonymous user)
  4. 20
    Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (otori)
  5. 20
    In the Forest of No Joy: The Congo-Océan Railroad and the Tragedy of French Colonialism by J. P. Daughton (alco261)
    alco261: Different day, same nightmare
  6. 10
    The Inheritors by Joseph Conrad (bertilak)
    bertilak: A character in The Inheritors by Conrad and Ford is based upon Leopold II, King of the Belgians
  7. 10
    Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo by William Henry Sheppard (Stbalbach)
    Stbalbach: Sheppard's book is discussed in King Leopold's Ghost. It's a vivid account and visually interesting to use Google Maps to track Sheppard's trail through the Congo.
  8. 00
    Tears of the Tree: The Story of Rubber--A Modern Marvel by John Loadman (KayCliff)
  9. 00
    Leopold II: het hele verhaal by Johan Op de Beeck (VonKar)
    VonKar: In "Leopold II, Het hele verhaal" (Horizon, 2020) haalt Johan op de Beeck de these van Adam Hochschild onderuit en hekelt zijn eenzijdige en onwetenschappelijke benadering van het thema.
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» See also 287 mentions

English (120)  Dutch (2)  Swedish (2)  Catalan (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (126)
Showing 1-5 of 120 (next | show all)
A Tragic "Great Forgetting"

"Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host. Hear how the demons chuckle and yell Cutting his hands off, down in Hell." (p. 266)

There has been a a great forgetting of the tragic deaths of millions of Africans just a mere 125 years ago. This well - researched book thoroughly documents the Belgian atrocities in the Congo from 1890 until approximately 1910. ( )
  Chrissylou62 | Apr 11, 2024 |
Well researched and very readable. ( )
  localgayangel | Mar 5, 2024 |
A terrific, eye opening, horrifying true story of the Belgian King and his colonization of the Congo. Highly recommended. ( )
  jjbinkc | Aug 27, 2023 |
Before reading this book, my knowledge of African history was scanty. I have read a few books on North Africa, but none on the history of the sub-Saharan continent. Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, proved to be a startling introduction.

First off, the book has a reputation for brutality. Before I began, people warned me to prepare myself. I don’t think anything could prepare someone for the horrors perpetrated on the people native to Africa by the European colonizers. The term “colonize” sounds so innocuous that it masks the violence of the process.

Hochschild highlights King Leopold II, king of the small and relatively new country of Belgium. Leopold’s bottomless well of greed and ruthless ambition caused him to gain control, underhandedly, of the massive area of central Africa called the Congo. He didn’t share this wealth with his country. So, the people of Belgium didn’t even profit from any of his activities using slavery to gain riches from the sale of ivory and rubber at the beginning. This changed after the king died.

To make it clear that terror and exploitation are not unique to Leopold or Belgium, Hochschild talks about violence perpetrated by Africans on other Africans before the Europeans arrived. He also touches on inhumanity demonstrated by other countries worldwide, but primarily by Europeans in their colonization of Africa and theft of its natural resources. He takes pains to discuss the complicity of the United States in similar outrages within its borders.

People have told me that Hochschild cherry-picked his facts and that this book presents an unfair view of the place and the period. I find this difficult to believe. He provides his sources, and the sheer number of damning statistics, facts, and anecdotes cannot be denied. Though the story sickened me, I cannot discount it, and I am glad I read it. We need to know history, no matter how horrible it may have been. Looking at historical darkness in the heart of Africa should prompt us to search for traces of that darkness in ourselves because that’s the only way to ever rid ourselves of it. ( )
  Library_Lin | Jan 27, 2023 |
An outstanding book that clinically and calmly exposes the outrage of the Belgian King's appalling crimes in colonial Africa.
Along with Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Alice Seeley Harris's photos of severed hands, this book should be required reading for all westerners so we never forget the worst aspects of European colonial history. While not all colonial leaders were as depraved as King Leopold, the colonial era was fundamentally founded on exploitation. The Belgians, in the Congo, merely took that exploitation to an extreme. ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 20, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 120 (next | show all)
Although much of the material in "King Leopold's Ghost" is secondhand -- the author has drawn heavily from Jules Marchal's scholarly four-volume history of turn-of-the-century Congo and from "The Scramble for Africa," Thomas Pakenham's wide-ranging 1991 study of the European conquest of the continent -- Hochschild has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions.
 
Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" is an absorbing and horrifying account of the traffic in human misery that went on in Leopold's so-called Congo Free State, and of the efforts of a handful of heroic crusaders to bring the atrocities to light. Among other things, it stands as a reminder of how quickly enormities can be forgotten.
added by lorax | editSan Francisco Gate, Luc Sante (Sep 27, 1998)
 

» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hochschild, Adamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Björkegren, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Enderwitz, UlrichÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Howard, GeoffreyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kingsolver, BarbaraForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Noll, MonikaÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schubert, RolfÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For David Hunter (1916-2000).
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The beginnings of this story lie far back in time, and its reverberations still sound today.
Quotations
White officers were shooting villagers, sometimes to capture their women, sometimes to intimidate the survivors into working as forced laborers, and sometimes for sport. "Two Belgian Army officers saw, from the deck of their steamer, a native in a canoe some distance away...The officers made a wager of 5 pounds that they could hit the native with their rifles. Three shots were fired and the native fell dead, pierced through the head."
A Force Publique officer who passed through Fievez's post in 1894 quotes Fievez himself describing what he did when the surrounding villages failed to supply his troops with the fish and manioc he had demanded:" I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people ...but that allowed five hundred others to live."
Witness Mingo of Mampoko: "While I was working at brick-making at Mampoko, twice the sentries Nkusu Lomboto and Itokwa, to punish me, pulled up my skirt and put clay in my vagina, which made me suffer greatly. The white man Likwama [a company agent named Henri Spelier] saw me with clay in my vagina. He said nothing more than,"If you die working for me, they'll throw you in the river."
Once underway, mass killing is hard to stop; it becomes a kind of sport, like hunting. Congo annals abound in cases like that of Rene de Permentier, an officer in the Equator district in the late 1890's. The Africans nicknamed him Bajunu (for bas genoux, on your knees), because he always made people kneel before him. He had all the bushes and trees cut down around his house at Bokatola so that from his porch he could use passersby for target practice. If he found a leaf in a courtyard that women prisoners had swept, he ordered a dozen of them beheaded. If he found a path in the forest not well-maintained, he ordered a child killed in the nearest village.
Two Force Publique officers, Clement Brasseur and Leon Cerckel, once ordered a man hung from a palm tree by his feet while a fire was lit beneath him and he was cooked to death. Two missionaries found one post where prisoners were killed by having resin poured over their heads, then set on fire. The list is much longer.
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History. Nonfiction. HTML:

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.

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