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Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

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On 30 June 1960, Belgium's King Baudouin arrived in Leopoldville to end 80 years of colonial rule in the Congo. In his speech, the king described the Congo's independence as "the crowning glory" of his ancestor, King Leopold II's work, and declared that Belgium's finest had delivered the land from slavery while creating a modern, civilised society.

Congolese listening to this might have had cause to wonder whether the king had lost his mind. For, as Adam Hochschild relates in King Leopold's Ghost, the true story of Belgian rule in the Congo is one of deceit, greed, and mass murder.

Hochschild charts the sorry history of colonialism in the Congo, starting in the 19th century with Leopold II's vainglorious campaign for a place in the sun. Using his legendary charm, Leopold persuaded the world that his intentions towards the vast area surrounding the mighty Congo river were purely philanthropic. A committee established to manage the colony was swiftly sidelined, and by claiming it in his own name, Leopold by-passed the Belgian parliament altogether. Once in control, the king was free to plunder the Congo's resources and enslave its people as he pleased.

All of this was done by proxy; Leopold never visited the domain that was 76 times the size of his own kingdom. He saw no need to set foot in a territory that was bringing forth precious goods, such as ivory and rubber, to finance his grand building projects at home. While his hand-picked officials were handsomely rewarded, the Congolese natives barely had enough to eat.

Dominant though his presence is, Leopold is not the only memorable figure in the Congo story. King Leopold's Ghost is enlivened by other characters, vividly portrayed by the author. Henry Morton Stanley, for example, (best known for his famous encounter with David Livingstone), is depicted as hot headed and frightened of intimacy. But the great explorer's loyalty to Leopold was a crucial component in the colonisation of the Congo. In contrast was Leopold's nemesis. A hurricane in human form, Edmund Morel unleashed a firestorm of opposition to the king's stewardship of his colony. With mounting horror, Morel uncovered the true nature of Leopold's place in the sun.

It's now thought that between eight and ten million people died during Leopold II's catastrophic stewardship of the Congo. Most were Congolese natives, many of them murdered as part of a sadistic programme of forced labour. Those unwilling to work in the rubber plantations were liable to be mutilated or beaten to death with a hippo-hide whip.

Morel's campaign against the atrocities spread far and wide. His cause was aided by a report from another fascinating character. Roger Casemount, an Irish official in the British consular service, journeyed to the region, and his first-hand account of the pitiful conditions and brutality inflicted on the people of the Congo turned public opinion against Leopold.

When he knew the game was up, Leopold made a desperate attempt to cover his tracks. It’s said the furnaces in Brussels burned for eight full days to destroy his Congo archives. But even in handing over his colony to the Belgian government, Leopold emerged a winner: for a handsome sum, he sold the Congo to his own country.

Occasionally, the author points to parallels between colonial rule in the the Congo and the tyrannical regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. But Hochschild steps back from describing Leopold's rule as genocide: for the colonialists, mass murder had more to do with personal enrichment than with ethnic cleansing. However, he isn't so reticent about pointing the finger at the track records of other colonial powers. The pitiful conditions in the Belgian Congo were replicated in colonies administered by the French, British, Germans, and Americans.

After Leopold's death, and even post-independence, things got no better for the Congo. Hochschild chronicles the country's miserable record of corruption, coups d'etat, war, and poverty. The region that has more hydroelectric potential than all the lakes and rivers of the United States and which produced the lion’s share of uranium for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs is as poor today as it was when Stanley first arrived.

In the book’s latest edition, a fascinating afterword recounts the extraordinary impact Hochschild’s story has had. Especially interesting was the reaction in Belgium. The country seemed to undergo a national re-examination of conscience, and at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels, the first steps were made to give a more truthful version of the Congo’s history.

Hochschild doesn't hide his frustration that he was unable to unearth more testimonies from the Congolese natives. The accounts by Morel and Casemount go some way to uncovering the story, but there is no substitute for the personal stories of those on the receiving end of tyranny. Even those fighting in the natives' cause did not think their views worthy of record. However, Hochshcild’s afterword includes some hopeful instances of those wrongs being righted.

After King Baudouin had finished his patronising speech, at last an African voice was heard. The Congo's new prime minister Patrice Lumumba rose to respond,and began reeling off a list of humanitarian crimes committed under Belgian rule. Far from being gifted their freedom, Lumumba declared, the Congolese had won independence by fighting for it.

"We are proud of this struggle, amid tears, fire and blood, down to our very heart of hearts, for it was a noble and just struggle, an indispensible struggle if we were to put an end to the humiliating slavery that had been forced upon us."

As a rejoinder to King Leopold’s appalling regime, Lumumba’s eloquence has yet to be surpassed. But as a record of the lasting damage caused by colonialism, Hochschild’s book may well be seen as definitive.

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