King Leopold’s Ghost is a non-fiction, narrative type of historical account of the King of Belgium Leopold II and his conquest of the Congo. Adam Hochschild’s motivation in writing the book was to make people aware of what happened in the Congo and what effects Colonialism had on the African Nation. He also sheds light on the following reform movement that took place when the public found out about the atrocities happening in the Congo and how it was the beginning of any civil rights campaign occurring currently.
Leopold had always wanted a colony; he had seen the other European nations amassing great wealth and natural resources that Leopold wanted a part of. By this time though, most of the New World had been colonized and all that was left was Africa. Leopold wanted to take part in the “slicing up of Africa”, making sure that he and his country Belgium would get its piece. Leopold found the perfect person in the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to begin his expedition into the Congo, Stanley was one of the most famous explorers of the day.
Stanley had recently crossed the continent of Africa and was well know to Leopold through his articles published in newspapers. Under the guise of philanthropy and ending the slave trade, Stanley started to make his way through the Congo setting up infrastructure to gather the resources found in the Congo. Originally they were there for the ivory but as industrialization came into full swing, rubber became the most profitable resource found.
There were great injustices with the native people in the Congo; people were basically slaves for Leopold and his colony only being used for the free labor, which is the exact opposite of the reasons Leopold was supposedly there. Leopold also set up the brutal ‘Force Publique” who ran the ivory and subsequent rubber siege. Some estimates of the death caused by the Colonization and the removal of rubber is that half of the native population died, many tribes were completely wiped out.
King Leopold was also a master of public relations, initially when negative reports started to make their way out of Africa and the Congo specifically; he was able to sway the public opinion in his favor continuing to appear as philanthropic. Hochschild’s also includes some primary accounts in the book to give insight into the suffering and death that was happening on the ground in the Congo. Of the many people to report the degradation and human rights violations in the Congo, one of the first was George Washington Williams an African American journalist and historian.
Williams wrote an open letter to Leopold as well as numerous other articles that made their way around Europe and America describing the indignation in the Congo. Another author, Joseph Conrad wrote the novel “Heart of Darkness” some years after spending six months in the Congo. The story centers around the narrator Marlow, Conrad’s alter ego, and Mr. Kurtz who was loosely based on possible members of the Force Publique. Although Conrad himself supported British Colonialism, he “fully recognized Leopold’s rape of the Congo for what it was. Another African American named William Sheppard was in the Congo as a missionary and preparing for the back to Africa movement after the civil war in the United States, he wrote accounts of the abominations that he saw there. One of the most important critics of Leopold and Belgium in the Congo was Edmund Dene Morel and later his Congo Reform Association with Roger Casement, he uncovered various frauds committed by Belgium concerning the shipment of resources and skimming of funds.
Morel was on a full time campaign writing multiple books, articles, and even started a newspaper, trying to inform the public of what was happening in the Congo. Morel caused so much of a stir that the British Government passed a resolution condemning Leopold’s actions; the world was finally beginning to learn about the Congo. Although Leopold ran interference by accusing the British of similar crimes, it was a little too late due to so much bad publicity received about the Congo.
During this time Leopold had sent a “Commission of Inquiry” to the Congo only to backlash on him from the testimonials from the natives of the Congo, later found by a Belgian diplomat Jules Marchal. The author has provided many examples of people speaking out against the human rights violations, and how the public reacted to them. Soon before Leopold dies at the age of seventy-four, he sells the Congo to Belgium for the relief of his debt as well as a handsome sum and some other absurd conditions.
Even though the King had died, there was still mistreatment happening in the African nation. Similarly, these types of atrocities still happened around the world at the hands of various governments. Morel and Casement brought a lot of attention to the Congo with their Congo Reform Association but Morel “considered the Belgian takeover of the Congo only ‘a partial victory. ’” Due to the fact that the Belgian Government was earning so much money from the Congo, not much really changed there at the time but was swept under the rug.
The author refers to this in the title of the last chapter of the book, “The Great Forgetting. ” Hochschild makes the argument in the closing of the book that the story of the Congo is a story of a human rights movement and is just one example of the many places where there were drastic effects on the native population. The Congo was only one example of what a horrible situation Colonialism brought about, but was imperative according to the author to establishing insight and awareness to any movement against the violation of human rights.