Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost

king-leopolds-ghostMidway through his narrative history of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, King Leopold’s Ghost, author Adam Hochschild includes a series of black-and-white photos, taken by Christian missionaries, that live frighteningly in the mind. One shows a father, seated with slumped shoulders, staring at the severed hand and foot of his young daughter; another shows two emaciated children standing side by side, each with maimed hands and blank expressions. These are the victims of a brutal colony established by King Leopold II of Belgium in 1885, ostensibly to protect the region from slavery and to develop its indigenous peoples but whose true mission was always to enrich the monarch himself. King Leopold’s Ghost is a narrative history, told through the lives of the perpetrators and the handful of brave reformers who worked tirelessly to bring the exploitation of the Congo to an end.

The first character Hochschild introduces us to is John Rowlands, a young English boy abandoned by his mother and father who escapes a British workhouse to make a new life for himself in America, where he ends up fighting for both the Confederacy and the Union in the American Civil War. The world would come to know Rowlands under a new name, Henry Morton Stanley, one of the foremost explorers of the early 20th century. When King Leopold II, eager to secure a colony for Belgium, set his sights on the largely uncharted continent of Africa, it is Stanley who he tasks with leading his expeditions and setting up his bases. By this time, Stanley had an international reputation, and Leopold shrewdly realized that this man’s fame would shield his African exploits from scrutiny: “I’m sure if I quite openly charged Stanley with the task of taking possession in my name of some part of Africa, the English will stop me. If I ask their advice, they’ll stop me just the same. So I think I’ll just give Stanley some job of exploration which would offend no one, and will give us the bases and headquarters which we can take over late on.” Britain and France both had colonies in Africa, and Germany was renewing its interest; Leopold knew he had to act quickly to secure himself “a slice of this magnificent African cake.”

To legitimize his ownership, he needed land deeds signed by the appropriate local authorities, the tribal chiefs. As Hochschild describes it, “Leopold had hired an Oxford scholar, Sir Travers Twiss, to provide a learned legal opinion backing the right of private companies to act as if they were sovereign countries when making treaties with native chiefs.” In this way, Leopold could claim ownership of the Congo as a private citizen, rather than as a head of state, and thus, he hoped, continue to dodge the scrutiny of the international community. Leopold empowered Stanley to broker these deals, using goods like textiles and, in particular, alcohol, to ply the chieftains into signing. When Stanley was finished, more than 450 chieftains of the Congo basin had signed their kingdoms over to Leopold, and it’s worth looking at the terms of those treaties to understand the extent of the con:

The very word treaty is a euphemism, for many chiefs had no idea what they were signing. Few had seen the written word before, and they were being asked to mark their X’s do documents in a foreign language and in legalese. The idea of a treaty of friendship between two clans or villages was familiar; the idea of signing over one’s land to someone on the other side of the ocean was inconceivable. Did the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela, for example, have any idea of what they agreed to on April 1, 1884? In return for “one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand,” they promised to “freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever…give up to the said Association the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights of their territories… and to assist by labour or otherwise, and works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories… All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association.”

The documents allowed Leopold to maintain the fiction that his involvement in the Congo had a legal backing, but as the region’s rich natural resources were gradually uncovered, all pretences were dropped. Ivory and rubber were the principal riches of the region, and both required a great deal of manpower to harvest. Using his private army, the Force Publique, Leopold enforced a strict quota system, under which whole villages were conscripted to work. No remuneration was ever offered. Instead, the men of the village were rounded up with guns and leather whips while their wives and children were held captive, returned to the men only when the right quotas had been met. This was slavery, pure and simple, and the taskmasters were notoriously brutal, quick to whip a man to death for tardiness or starve women and young children in captivity.

Not all of the characters in King Leopold’s Ghost are villains, however. The immense natural wealth of the Congo brought the greedy and the cruel, but it also attracted missionaries and well-intentioned civil servants. A young Joseph Conrad worked as a steamboat captain in the early years of Leopold’s conquest, and the suffering he witnessed found forceful expression in his most famous novel, Heart Of Darkness. Two black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Henry Sheppard – a minister and a missionary, respectively – are among the earliest to cry foul, and the earliest reformers who bothered to speak to the indigenous peoples about their experiences under occupation. E.D. Morel, a shipping clerk employed by the company given a monopoly over all exports from Leopold’s Congo, managed to uncover discrepancies in the accounting that masked immense profits, and, together with his rather commonsensical observation that the ships bound for the Congo always left empty and returned fully loaded, he concluded that the only explanation was slavery. Together with a British diplomat and Irish nationalist, Sir Roger Casement, they founded the Congo Reform Association, which worked tirelessly to bring Leopold’s crimes to justice.

Despite the brave efforts of these men, however, the overwhelming response from the thousands of civil servants, explorers, missionaries, soldiers and businessmen who witnessed the atrocities of Leopold’s Congo was one of silence. Leopold himself, though he knew very well what was going on, never set foot in his colony, preferring to use the profits to buy up the French Riviera or build ever more elaborate castles for his mistress. And until very recently, Belgium has downplayed or denied the full extent of its involvement in the rape of Africa. King Leopold’s Ghost is a small but powerful effort to correct the record.