“King Leopold’s Ghost” is about the heart of darkness. The ghost, one can only conclude, is the apparition that haunts us through the centuries, the evil ghost that lurks in the dark corners of every powerful nation that desires to dominate and control others. At any cost. Belgian King Leopold destroyed millions of lives to achieve his goals. His ghost is the same as many others who preceded him and the “leaders” today who chart the same path in the name of “civilization.”
The heart of darkness, in the case of “King Leopold’s Ghost” is no coincidence. King Leopold’s Congo was the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s work. It was as the young seaman named Konrad Korzeniowski that Conrad first journeyed upriver, at first believing like many others that the Belgian work was noble and just. Something changed during Conrad’s six months in Africa. He told his friend, critic Edward Garnett, that before the trip he had had “not a thought in his head.”
If Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is about one man sinking into savagery, “King Leopold’s Ghost” is a non-fiction version of one man selling savagery to a whole continent and, for awhile, the world.
Adam Hochschild’s brilliant book was inspired by a footnote to a quotation by Mark Twain. The footnote referenced that the Twain quote was written “when he was part of a worldwide movement against slave labor in the Congo, a practice that had taken eight to ten million lives.” Hochschild said the footnote caught him by surprise—he had never heard of the mass slaughter. As Hochschild researched, he discovered the death toll carried “Holocaust dimensions.”
The book touches on issues of race, greed, human rights, international politics and what it takes to tell the truth about government and its actions.
“King Leopold’s Ghost” will pull you along. The narrative is straightforward and the accounts are riveting. In spots, they are hard to digest, such as when seven-year-old African boys are whipped for laughing in the presence of a white man.
“King Leopold’s Ghost” plays out on a global landscape and demonstrates (how many examples do we need?) how a government can dominate when it controls the story and manipulates impressions through the media. “Belgium’s lack of great-power status meant that Leopold was dependent on cunning, above all on his skill at manipulating the press. As he waged his countercampaign, the king showed himself to be as much a master of the media as his archenemy Morel.”
Morel is Edmund Dene Morel, a shipping-business worker turned journalist who mounts a relentless campaign of news stories about what’s really happening in Africa. A keen-eyed observer, Morel notes that the records he compiled for his employer, a shipping firm called Elder Dempster, “did not conform with the trade statistics that the État Indépendent du Congo announced to the public.” Arms were being shipped to the Congo on the return boats. Somebody was skimming profits, “to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in today’s dollars.” And the rubber and ivory was coming out of Africa with no apparent accounting for the cost of the labor involved.
Sparked by those observations, Morel’s launches a relentless campaign of enlightenment, of trying to tell the real story. Leopold counters—by trying to control the story. Travel writers are dispatched and their costs are picked up in order to best showcase the “territory’s delights.” Hostages are released and prisons are leveled before the travel writer lands in each town. Reporters from English and German newspapers are bribed. “Readers observed similar mysterious transformations in other German newspapers,” writes Hochschild. They “suddenly began publishing pro-Leopold Congo news items from ‘a most reliable source’ or ‘a Congolese source’ or a ‘well-informed source.’ The newspaper’s Brussels correspondent, not in on the take, sent home more critical reports, including a long piece that apparently got into the paper without first being read by the editor in chief.”
Morel wasn’t the first writer to attack. That credit goes to George Washington Williams, a black American journalist and historian. By the time the revolt of consciousness (of human rights) was in full swing, it had pulled in Mark Twain and Conrad, too, who called the mayhem in the Congo “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”
From beginning to end, “King of Leopold’s Ghost” fascinates. The narrative involves the shape-shifting Henry Morton Stanley and the dark jungle and its dense, inhospitable environment are very much main characters in the book as well.
But the flow never strays far from the manipulations of “King Leopold” and his greedy, manipulative and vicious plans for self-satisfaction. Ironically, it’s not the killing that does Leopold in. It’s his fascination with 16-year-old mistress Caroline—and his squandering profits on her—that finally leads to a huge drop in his popularity.
Hochschild’s narrative is gripping, powerful and memorable. You might read this for the details on King Leopold, but what will stay with you is thinking about his ghost and how the ghost continues to lurk.