Giselle from Brixton’s Radical Readers Group reviews King Leopold’s Ghost
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is the story of Kind Leopold’s ‘Congo Free State’. A unique colony in its own right which did not follow the usual recipe of colonial structures and was rather, the Belgian King’s very own personal property from 1885 -1908.
The people of the Congo Free State, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo was known then, suffered great atrocities to keep the ‘King Incorporated’s project profitable. It is estimated that between 10 and 23 million people died during his reign of the Congo Free State.
King Leopold never understood why the Belgian state did not yearn to colonize other nations, like other European powers at the time. He took it upon himself, with the help of many African explores, to claim the territory as his own personal colony, under the auspices of humanitarian intentions. Resource extraction was his main interest, forest and mineral resources where grabbed to the maximum, with entire villages decimated. The real prize was rubber which was going to supply Europe’s insatiable demand for the booming tyre industry.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how King Leopold managed to secure European consent for his personal colony. In orchestrating the Treaty of Berlin in 1884, from behind the scenes, the King managed to see that the African continent was carved up amongst European powers, delineating borders randomly across different ethnic groups to the interest of Europe; something which is very much an underlying cause of many African conflicts today. No Africans were present at this conference and European powers, such as England, France, Portugal and Germany, got to claim their territories and approve Leopold’s own personal share of the pie.
The plight of the ‘Congo Free State’ became known to the world through various travellers and religious figures who witnessed it first hand and were appalled at what they were seeing. Eventually dark tales of murder, deceit, corruption and maiming started to reach Europe. This resulted in what has been deemed the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. The magnitude of the atrocities to meet rubber quotas, included cutting the hands off of peasants who did not bring their allotted share. At no point did the nation state of Belgium become responsible for the affairs taking place in the Congo, until public pressure had mounted so high the King had to officially hand over his toy to the Belgian state, who continued the expropriation and extraction of natural resources to their own gain.
The book illustrates in great detail what happened in the ‘Congo Free State’ and outlines more generally the ‘scramble for Africa’ incited by King Leopold himself. Until the 1880s’ tropical Africa was not a settler’s colony, as malaria impeded most Europeans from surviving there for long periods of time. It was not until the discovery of quinine that European settlers were able to live in tropical Africa, which changed the continent forever. This coincided with Leopold’s ventures and he was able to ensure that Europeans were in country to see to the success of his project.
The author laments not having more Congolese voices in his book, but this is a product of the lack of records on the African perspective at the time. It is a great book for those who would like to know the root causes of many of Africa’s struggles today. It captures the linkages between resource extraction, profiteering and greed and the impacts it has on human rights, something which we are still, unfortunately, struggling with today. It is the sad story of a country and a continent which has been pillaged and concertedly underdeveloped for the benefit of ‘others’. In this sense, it is a quintessential snapshot of the implications of colonial abuses, the results of which still bind many African countries today.