King Leopold’s Ghost
By Adam Hochschild
Review by Eleanor (History)
King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild is an account of the colonisation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium and the humanitarian disaster that followed. Hochschild offers a detailed account of the way in which Leopold turned a vast area around the Congo River into his own personal empire and thereby offers a very interesting insight into the nature of empire building in the 19th century.
In Leopold’s case, a humanitarian organisation, the International African Association, was created to front his activities in the Congo. What emerges from Hochschild’s book is therefore an international political context in which it was possible for a King to take over a huge chunk of Africa and use it as his own personal money-making scheme. Its scope therefore lies far beyond Belgium’s colonial history and it is of interest to anyone with a general interest in the colonial era. In fact, Hochschild even includes a more general analysis of systems of terror and offers a parallel between the actions of Belgian officials in the Congo and those of Nazi officers during the Holocaust.
However, what is truly fascinating about King Leopold’s Ghost is that it does not limit itself to a political history of colonialism told from the point of view of the colonisers. Hochschild attempts, as much as it possible, to recall as many African voices as possible. His study of rebellion against as well as cooperation with colonialists offers a more complex and nuanced view of the dynamics of imperialism. This makes it a challenging, but also a fascinating, read which pushes you to question any assumptions you might have about colonialism in Africa as well as African history more generally.
The book also offers and analysis of one of the first media campaigns against a humanitarian crisis. Led by ED Moral and Roger Casement a movement began in Britain, which then spread across Europe and to the United States, against the exploitation of the Congolese people. Much of the outrage stemmed from the practices of the rubber trade which essentially ran off slave labour with the vast majority of profits being illegally directed towards Leopold. Through this media campaign Hochschild is able to offer a reflection of how the British viewed their own Empire at the time and the issues that arose from this.
Finally, Hochschild’s book is particularly well-written and accessible making it an excellent history book to start off with. It has a good balance between the intrigue of individual characters and a wider analysis of an era combining murky political wrangling, the infectious world of explorers, and the power of journalism with the struggle of oppression.
King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild