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Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

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Know anything about the history of the Congo? King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is Adam Hochschild's attempt at recreating the events of Belgium's takeover of the Congo in Africa in the late 1800s. Of course, this involves Belgium's ruler, King Leopold II, who wanted Belgium to have its own colony, as countries moved towards the practice of imperialism. Since Belgium was small, Leopold II figured that if he was able to obtain the Congo territory, he would be a major contender and rake in a lot of money. Hochschild details not only Leopold, but the entire history of the period, including the major players involved in the takeover and subsequent reforming of the Congo.

One of the things that strikes the reader is the fact that Hochschild has compiled an incredible fountain of resources for this book. Fashioning a rough estimate of the story by using available resources, Hochschild has attempted to make King Leopold's Ghost as fact-filled as possible, and succeeded heartily. The book, although only around 300 pages, is a plentiful trough of information on the subject. Whether it be people, places, deaths, or events, Hochschild has delved deep into the heart of the matter here and written a heavy, resourceful historical portrayal.

It would be commendable for Hochschild just to point out what happened in this era and leave it at that. But he goes further, presenting his own analysis on Leopold, his reign of evil over the Congo, and the reform groups that were established to rid Africa of the ruler. Hochschild makes reference to where good things went bad, where Leopold or the reformers made errors, where sources were destroyed. It makes the book all the more interesting, rather than a dry, "just-the-facts" approach.

Hochschild does not skimp on the heavier parts of the story. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter to pointing out the major causes of deaths in the Congo. This is not to say that Hochschild is reveling in the torture and terror that Leopold's regime inflicted on the Congolese; he is merely pointing out factual evidence that indicates how horrifying and terrible the Congo became under Leopold. The depth that Hochschild goes into on the chicotte, a whip-like device that was used to torture the Congolese, or the violence that is perpetrated on innocent citizens, are things that only the most twisted individuals could conceive of.

Hochschild makes good use of diary entries, journals, and other primary sources. Texts can get rather boring when much of what the author has to say is already said in the sources that they quote. However, when Hochschild uses a quote, it is normally to present a direct view of the Congo from someone involved within. They work nicely to highlight certain emotions that the reader can only get from someone who experienced the time.

King Leopold's Ghost is also rich in character. Hochschild gives life to the people involved in the Congo, whether it be the monsters who inflicted pain and suffering or the people who worked to evict Leopold and his terrible soldiers. We meet so many people with so many different views, and it is hard not to like the reformers who tried to end the whole ordeal. Hochschild laments about his inability to find the voices of the actual suffering Congolese, but I think that Hochschild has given them such a voice through his description and analysis of the times that we can forgive the missing facts.

When the book is finished, one finds a sense of relief: for one, that he or she did not live through this time period, either being a part of the Congo or knowing that this event was happening and having no power to stop it, and for another, that the story has been told. It is an important time in history, even if some do not want to remember it. It's also a scary thing to learn about: all of this torture and suffering has been happening all along — and probably still is today — without people to stand up and condemn the wrongs.

Hochschild has presented this story of the Congo, both to illuminate the past and to give insight about the future. For every wronged culture, there has to be the brave and willing few who will risk their lives to abolish it, and if there is not, evil is free to reign on. In King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild teaches all of us a lesson; we cannot stand idly by and let these immoralities continue. We must be strong enough, and knowledgeable enough, to protect what we know is right.

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  • King Leopold treated the Congolese unbelievably cruelly, and the horrors that he and his minions inflicted there should never be forgotten – indeed, it should be taught more often and become moe widely known.

    That being said, the Congolese are presently treating their fellow Congolese just as awfully. A bloody civil war has been going on there for a decade or so, and millions have been killed, thousands mutilated, and some even cannibalized. Barbaric stuff. Man’s inhumanity to man, and all that.

  • Very good point.

    This is something that Hochschild brings up in his afterword in the new prints of the book, and it’s interesting to see how the Congo has gone through one terrorizing period to another.


    All that should be blamed on Europeans.One time,they will have to pay for the tears of mother AFRICA.Big love AFRICA.