Recently I finished reading an incredibly well written book titled King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa written by Adam Hochschild, this book is focused upon the acquisition by Belgium of an African colony in the Congo region and the subsequent economic, social, and political exploitation and terror of that region by various different forces within the region. In summary Hochschild argues that Belgium’s acquisition of a large colony in the Congo was due mainly to the territorial ambitions of its king at the time, King Leopold II, and Leopold gained that territory through a clever campaign of subterfuge, misdirection, diplomacy, intrigue, and lobbying both directly by King Leopold and by a web of his personal agents. Hochschild then proceeds to examine the actual policies and actions of the various organizations and companies that ran Leopold’s newly acquired Congo colony. Hochschild spends considerable time skillfully showing how Leopold ruled the Congo directly and treated it as a personal fiefdom, those agents acting within the territory did so at his personal approval and the funds raised from the various raw materials gathering efforts in the Congo went directly into Leopold’s personal fortune.
Probably the cornerstone value of this work is how Hochschild focuses attention upon both the atrocities conducted in the Congo by the agents of Leopold throughout his personal control of the colony, the extreme focus upon extracting the highest return of resources possible from the Congo during this period (specifically ivory and subsequently rubber), and the pioneering efforts by various concerned individual missionaries and reformers to bring about an end to Leopold’s abuses in the Congo. Abuses is a highly appropriate word as evidence from various sources cited by Hochschild provide convincing evidence that during the roughly thirty years that Leopold personally ruled the Congo colony approximately fifty percent of the total indigenous population, or between 8 to 10 million people, died from both direct violence and indirect suffering at the hands of Leopold’s Congo policies and agents. In addition to the high death count many survivors of this period lost their right hand to violence, a policy in the Congo was that it was expected for every round of ammunition fired an indigenous individual was to be killed. Local soldiers who used their weapons to hunt would often take the right hand of a person still alive to even out their count.
As well Hochschild also does an incredible job of detailing the link between the novel Heart of Darkness and its authors real time spent in the Congo region. Hochschild details how many of the events depicted in Heart of Darkness are directly drawn from Conrad’s own time in the Congo during this period. The only complaint I would have for this book is, honestly, the title, it seems to imply a focus upon the post-Leopold II time in the Congo and the impact that ruler had on the region after his demise. However this topic is only lightly covered in the final chapter of the book itself, most of the focus is on Leopold II and those who directly opposed him. But beyond that minor complaint, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in either the colonial era in Africa, Belgian politics in the Congo, or a good very character focused history.