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

by Adam Hochschild

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,1691202,370 (4.29)272
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 movementof 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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    paulkid: Complementary accounts of international interest in Central Africa's material resources, but disinterest in its people.
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    Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist (Anonymous user)
  4. 20
    Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (otori)
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    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.
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    bertilak: A character in The Inheritors by Conrad and Ford is based upon Leopold II, King of the Belgians
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English (113)  Swedish (2)  Dutch (2)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  All languages (119)
Showing 1-5 of 113 (next | show all)
Though a horrifying history, it's an amazing read. So well researched and very engaging. I'd highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in African history, colonial history and human rights. ( )
  thewestwing | Aug 12, 2022 |
A hard but important read. ( )
  pacbox | Jul 9, 2022 |
Well, that was a depressing but very worthwhile read. As with many (even educated) Caucasians, I knew little specific about the horror that was the colonization of Africa. It's something that should be taught but typically isn't.

The reality is sad, painful, and infuriating to read. What’s even more painful to realize is that the genocide of the natives peoples of North America would likely tell a similar tale if chronicled in equal detail. It seems racscism, greed, and cruelty have been the lasting legacy of the "white" race. Reparations alone will not wipe away this horror. Education, apology, and proactive steps to atone for this and avoid future occurrences are minimum starting points.

The author rightly notes the heroic actions of some to end these atrocities. But those efforts, as worthwhile as they were, in no way outweigh the tragic impact of this history. The book left me more than a little cynical about the potential of our species. Left me thinking that fighting for justice is the only human thing we can do. But one must do so knowing full well our actions may never overcome the evil we fight. None-the-less, fight we must.

A book not to be ignored. ( )
  colligan | Jul 28, 2021 |
I was reading some reviews abouty a month ago about Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and several reviewers mentioned this book. I knew nothing about the history of the Belgian Congo and this book is highly thought of so I decided to give it a go. It's a really good history of King Leopold II and his brutal involvement and treatment in Congo. This book is really well researched, and it also covers direct accounts of normal African's who were involved instead of just scholarly sources. ( )
  Brian. | Apr 9, 2021 |
It is partly thanks to author Adam Hochschild that the world is aware of the tragedy in Congo from the years 1885 to 1908, though "King Leopold's Ghost" covers a bit more than that. Other authors - particularly Jules Marchal - have written about these tragic, inhumane years, but this easy to read book brings this humanitarian and moral catastrophe to the forefront.

In the scramble to colonize and capitalize on the Congo river basin's vast natural resources, King Leopold of Belgium instituted a violent regime that depended on mutilation, forced starvation, slavery, kidnapping, and extreme violence. Hochschild makes the case that this was not a genocide because the goal was not to destroy the entire population. However, I think genocide is an appropriate term - surely the concessionaires hired by Leopold intentionally destroyed entire tribes in the region.

At the time of writing (1999), there was scant information from the Congolese themselves, so the author relies on the biographies of Westerners to tell the story. Henry Morgan Stanley, Roger Casement, E. D. Morel, George Washington Williams, and William Henry Sheppard are all given full, though brief, descriptions of their roles. Other tangential figures like Emin Pasha, Tipu Tip, and David Livingston are also mixed in to add interest. In addition, King Leopold of Belgium and his family are extensively written about, sometimes with a tabloid outlook. These biographies are intertwined with the story of Congo. They inflate the size of the book but they also make it more readable.

At the end of the book, Hochschild connects the Leopold's brutal regime to the country's recent history and current state. It might have been outside the scope of the book, but I think that connection could have been expanded.

I wish the book had more information about the kingdoms and peoples of the Congo river basin. Besides a few missionaries writing journals and letters about the affected people themselves, which he includes, such details are simply not available. Hopefully researchers and historians will be able to uncover stories in the future, though it is doubtful at this point.

Hochschild relies largely on research already conducted by Marchal and gives him rightful credit. References are not given in the text, but there are endnotes to help anyone interested in further research. There is also a good, complete index. ( )
  mvblair | Mar 8, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 113 (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 (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hochschild, Adamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Björkegren, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Enderwitz, UlrichÜbersetzersecondary 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.
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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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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 movementof 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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