King Leopold’s Ghost: A Book Rant

“King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa;” by Adam Hochschild; Houghton-Miflin Company; 1998. ISBN 9780618001903. $15.

Adam might have titled his book, a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, “E.D Morel, One Man’s Heroic Effort to Bring Down A King And Shame Western Society.”

Hochschild’s history of colonial Belgian Congo is more about E.D. Morel and his efforts to see all people treated as human beings, with respect and dignity, than about Leopold’s corrupt and horrific reign of terror throughout Central Africa.

Like any true crime account, Hochschild develops sets the stage for Leopold’s crimes against humanity. Many actors participate in encouraging Leopold, though few as remarkable as a name familiar to many Europeans, Henry Morgan Stanley. Not his real name, Stanley would become famous for his travels throughout Africa, including his encounter with the presumably lost David Livingstone. Stanley would encourage Leopold through his frequently published travelogues published in British papers. Nothing short of a liar and opportunist, Stanley relished the favored positioned his new relationship with the Belgian king granted him.

With Stanley’s initial guidance, Leopold was able to illicit Belgian financial and military support to initiate colonization of the Congo, a region about 1/4th the size of the coterminous United States. Military outposts were established along the Congo River. Trading posts were built along the Congo River to support commerce. Make no mistake though, the “commerce” was a one-way transaction. Rubber, gold, and diamonds were removed from Congo, and the only products brought in were more mercenaries, weapons, and ammunition.

I often hear people say, “I would never allow that to happen to my family. I’d kill their ass.” Especially after 9/11, when people talk about the planes hitting the Pentagon and the WTC, I hear people make fantastic claims about how he or she would have stopped the terrorists. I say, “Really? When the terrorist has a box-cutter to the throat of someone’s baby, or the throat of a little 4-yo boy, you would still rush the guy?”

People do not think to the end. People become consumed with their own thoughts and actions and emotion and do not consider the end-game. Additionally, people, especially politicians and governments, become full of bravado, self-righteousness, patronage, and self aggrandizement. Egos stretch beyond rational measures, and we feel we are all above dehumanizing behaviors.

We aren’t.

Adam Hochschild’s message of the poisoning of the Congo, and his treatise on E.D. Morel’s fight to restore humanity to a culturally scarred realm is completely relevant today.

The Force Publique, the mercenaries hired by Leopold and his corporate façade, the Anglo-Belgian Indian Rubber company (ABIR), were no different than today’s al-Qaeda. Using tactics no different than al-Qaeda, the Force Publique (FP) would cut hands and feet from women and children to ensure the compliance of men. The FP took hostages, shot Africans dead for not following rules, beheaded men, raped girls and women, murdered, and razed villages. The FP itself was comprised of Belgians, Germans, Americans, French, and other Africans who themselves were either hired or captured.

Sound familiar? The Sudanese government has been doing similar actions against the African clans in Darfur as recently as 2007. Somalia is home to such practices. The Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony and of recent notoriety, exists today in eastern Congo, northern Uganda, and southern South Sudan. In 1994, between 850,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in an ethnic war created, in part, by the influence of King Leopold and the later Belgian government. During the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1992-1994, Serbs carried out ethnic cleansing against non-Serbs, murdering, mass-killing, and rape.

One hundred years removed and Humanity still hasn’t learned anything?

The egregious crimes continue as E.D. Morel is excoriated as a villain attempting to seek fame and fortune by slandering the reputation of well-respected European king.

In other works, shoot the messenger.

Morel was a simple shipping clerk. Daily, his job was too manage the books for the shipping company sending supplies to the Congo, and accounting for rubber, gold, diamonds, and whatever else was brought back. The Europeans knew Leopold was active in the Congo. He hired publicists to tell stories of the churches and schools he was helping build, using $20 million dollars he had borrowed from the Belgian government. However, Morel, in doing the books, noticed that few philanthropic items were being shipped to the Congo. No books, no pencils, no Bibles. However, lots of rifles and ammunition and iron changes were going out. Plus, the numbers were not adding up. His books were not balancing, as if someone were skimming $1,000 of dollars from shipping revenues.

Morel was no idiot. He correctly surmised slavery, not philanthropy, was the chief economy of Congo. He then began a concerted effort to gather evidence, enlisting people of all accounts, missionaries, businesspeople, tourists and foreign dignitaries to provide stories and evidence of wrong-doings.

Eventually, King Leopold would be the chief source of his own wrong-doing. In the meantime,  Morel was able to mobilize enormous public support and support of Britain, France, the United States. Even the Belgium people go on-board, if not but to salvage their countries reputation.

Morel’s heroism was short-lived. Again, Hochschild’s story foretells events of today. Morel’s analog today is Wikileaks. In fact, newspapers of the early 20th century had no problem publishing details many governments would have preferred to keep secret. Julian Assange and his team could represent Morel and his team, as he did not act alone, either. In fact, one of Morel’s compatriots was jailed and executed as a traitor for publishing anti-war brochures and making them available in neutral countries. Roger Casement, are ardent ally of Morel, was also a homosexual and faced torture and humiliation prior to being hanged.

Where Morel went awry was after the death of Leopold, and outing of his atrocities in Congo. Morel turned his attention back onto his former benefactors, the British, the French, the Americans, and the Germans. Leopold was not alone in treating People of Color like animals. No, the Germans murdered thousands of Herero people in Namibia (then called German West Africa,) the French used murder, starvation, imprisonment in their own portion of the Congo; the British were murdering Aborigines in Australia, the Portuguese adopted the Belgian “model” in Cameroon,  and the United State was killing people in the Philippines.

You see, the mindset of the colonial period was:

“If you are not White and not Christian, then you have no right to your land or territory. Every thing now is owned by us. If you fight us, then we will maim you family as an example; if that does not change your mind, then we will kill you, you family, and raze your village until we achieve compliance.”

—Me, I claim this statement as my own.

Consider the following passage from the journal of one of Stanley’s officers. His recorded thoughts offer testimony to the minds of Europeans, and Americans.

It was most interesting, lying in the bush watching the natives quietly at their day’s work. Some women…were making banana flour by pounding up dried bananas. Men we could see building huts and engaged in other work, boys and girls running about, singing…. I opened the game by shooting one chap through the chest. He fell like a stone….Immediately a volley was poured onto the village.”

–Hochschild, KLG, pg 99

Europeans recognized Africans as some type of person, a human; I mean, the expeditions recognized men, women, children. Obviously, a cognitive dissonance existed allowing Europeans to see Africans as mere animals, to be slaughtered like cattle.

Morel lost his foreign leaders as allies. Not only did he lose them as allies, but now as he revealed horrific actions officially sanctioned by his former allies, he was now a target and an enemy of every state.

Again, Global Whistleblowers, such as Julian Assange, outing governments, policies, and people, is now the enemy of states. No one wants their dirty laundry made public.

Adam Hochschild’s book is emotionally challenging to read. I had to walk away for a couple months. Dealing with graphic images of children tortured I find hard to deal with, of having hands and feet amputated just to set an example for adults. Anecdotes of wheelbarrows of hands and feet delivered to supervisors to prove bullets had been used, or as punishment meted out for not meeting rubber quotas. Sometimes, human heads were used to decorate homes, gardens, or even sent back to Belgium for mounting, just like hunters do today with trophy animals.

Yet, in the 21st century slavery still exists. Real slavery, in the United States, in Southeast Asia, in India. Trafficking of people, women in Eastern Europe, especially in Belarus and Ukraine, in Russia. Trafficking of children in India, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and the United States. Indentured servitude can be found in every major city in the United States. Mail-order brides is a form of human trafficking.

Slavery, even with Twitter, Facebook, and social media to spread the word and combat such activities, continues, only with sexy graphics, HTML5, and opportunistic technology-savvy people to help.

Humanity has advanced considerably since the enslavement of the Hebrews, in terms of technology. Human culture has simply incorporated technology to streamline the continued exploitation of vulnerable people and cultures.


One thought on “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Book Rant

  1. Great read. Quite strange to read it, after just reading this
    A couple of weeks ago, I met the only other homeschooling family I know in this country. They are American. They start their day standing up with a US flag saying the pledge of allegiance. I was horrified because I am not keen on patriotism. We would never do this (in our family, we wouldn’t know which country of the great mixture we’re from, we’d pledge to anyway!) I believe in people, good people, wherever they are from. I wish more good people could move more freely across borders rather than be restricted due to an accident of birth. I think we should pledge to the ideals but not through any specific country let alone its leaders. Just a thought.


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