King Leopold II of Belgium held the vast lands that are now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo as his own personal possession from 1885 to 1908. When he was eventually forced to hand them over to the Belgian parliament, he kept the furnaces burning continuously for eight days in his palace, destroying all his records of the period. “I will give them my Congo,” the king is reported as saying, “but they have no right to know what I did there.”
Hochschild’s authoritative history, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, is an attempt to record and reveal exactly what he did do there. The story begins with the figure of Leopold himself, who, frustrated by the limits of the constitutional monarchy, and by the small size of his own country, wants to acquire a colony. The Belgian parliament does not support the scheme, so Leopold eventually has to claim the Congo in his own right, not as a colony, but as his own private business venture.
It was widely believed in Europe during this period that Leopold’s venture existed primarily to end the slave trade, and to ‘civilize,’ and the King was therefore lionized across the continent. His downfall, most unexpectedly, began with a lowly shipping clerk, ED Morel, who was employed to inventory ships travelling to the Congo. Ships returned from Africa full of rubber, but left Europe without any money to pay for that valuable rubber; instead, they contained arms and ammunition. In Morel’s own words: “These figures told their own story . . . Forced labour of a terrible and continuous kind could alone explain such unheard-of profits . . .forced labour directed by the closest associates of the King himself . . I was giddy and appalled at the cumulative significance of my discoveries. It must be bad enough to stumble upon a murder. I had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman.”
Morel was a poor man, with a large family to support, but he immediately left his job and began a one-man campaign against Leopold’s government. He proved adept at managing the media, and was able to get missionaries (including some trail-blazing African Americans) to give him their stories and photographs, which told a terrible tale. In essence, Congolese men were forced to collect rubber, with women and children held hostage, until huge amounts had been provided. Local people died in huge numbers, as a result of this massive overwork, of starvation (there was no time to farm while rubber needed to be collected), and of new diseases brought from Europe. Of course, there were also many deaths that were simply outright murder; one of the most feared rubber company employees, and a possible model for Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, had a line of human heads on stakes around his house. Estimates vary, but Hochschild puts the death toll at an almost unbelievable ten million people. Hochschild makes an interesting parallel here with the Holocaust, both in the scale of the murder, and in the systematic way in which it was instituted.
Photographs were a powerful part of Morel’s campaign. In order not to waste ammunition, soldiers had to account for every bullet they used with a human hand, to prove they had indeed shot someone. One particularly terrible picture, reproduced in the book, shows a man seated on a missionary’s verandah, looking at the hand of his five year old child. Morel’s campaign gained ground fairly quickly in Europe and America, and is in fact widely regarded as the first modern human rights campaign, forcing Leopold eventually to hand over his lands.
In my opinion, the only weakness in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is a tendency to oversimplify people and their motives. Thus, Leopold and Henry Morton Stanley are entirely pantomime villains, ED Morel very nearly a saint, and though the fact that many Congolese assisted in the enslavement and murder of their countrymen is frequently mentioned, no attempt at all is made to understand this complicated behaviour. This is however a relatively minor complaint; overall, this is a powerful, carefully researched book, which gives a clear account of one of the darkest periods of the continent’s history.
Sarah Norman is a Zimbabwean who splits her time between Harare and Nairobi. She documents her reading life in the blog White Whale (www.booksof2010.blogspot.com)