King Leopold’s Ghost | Adam Hochschild

Summary of: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
By: Adam Hochschild


Delve into the dark, gripping tale of King Leopold’s Ghost, a book that exposes the chilling atrocities and calculated deception propagated by Leopold II, King of the Belgians, in his quest for power and wealth in colonial Africa. Through voracious exploitation of the African Congo for precious ivory and later, wildly profitable rubber, Leopold amassed an unimaginable fortune, while millions of Congolese people suffered under his brutal reign of terror. As you explore the intricacies of how Leopold manipulated both the African and European world to achieve his sinister goals, you’ll also discover the heroism of those who took up the cause to expose his deceit, igniting the first international human rights movement of the 20th century.

The Profit-driven Beginning of European Colonization in Africa

In the late 15th century, Portuguese naval captain Diogo Cão discovered a large river in Central Africa, marking its discovery for Portugal. The region, known as the Congo, was home to a wealthy African kingdom and a sophisticated political system. The Portuguese saw this as an opportunity for profit, and the preexistence of slavery in the region made it easier for them to buy and sell human beings. They generated vast profits from the slave trade and the trade of valuable raw materials. The Europeans were mainly driven by the urge to explore and make profits, laying the foundation for European colonization of Africa.

Henry Morton Stanley and the “Scramble for Africa”

The book tells the story of Henry Morton Stanley, a Welshman who discovered the source of the Congo River and became a prominent journalist in the 19th century. Stanley was a brutal and ambitious man with a sadistic streak that he inflicted on those under his power. This personality made him well-suited to Europe’s colonization of Africa, which was underway at the time. Europeans rationalized their actions as bringing Christianity and civilization to the “uncivilized” African people, but their true motives were commercial, as they sought valuable resources for the Industrial Revolution. Stanley was a celebrity for his exploration exploits, but he was infamous for the brutal treatment of his servants and the people he encountered on his travels.

Leopold’s Colonial Ambitions

Leopold II, the King of Belgium, was obsessed with acquiring a colony to enrich himself and saw the explorer Stanley as the key to his desire. Leopold launched a plan to establish himself as an antislavery crusader while Stanley saw the potential for commerce along the Congo River. Eventually, the two men reached an agreement, and Stanley worked for Leopold to set up stations along the river and collect treasure, masked by philanthropic associations. Despite their lack of knowledge about central Africa and its people, Leopold and Stanley believed there was no military threat, and their weaponry was superior.

Greed in Africa

In “King Leopold’s Ghost”, Stanley is shown as Leopold’s man, who was entrusted with the task of creating a European-style monopoly that would be legally defensible to the other colonial powers. To achieve this, Stanley coerces more than 450 Congo basin leaders to sell their land to Leopold at almost nothing and agree to assist his officers “by labor or otherwise”. Meanwhile, Leopold sets up the Congo Free State and installs himself as King-Sovereign, using modern tools like steamboats, railroads, and weaponry to maximize profit. The key takeaway from this snippet is that Leopold began squeezing the Congo for profit by any means possible.

King Leopold II’s Brutal Regime

In May 1885, King Leopold II declared the Congo Free State, making himself its absolute monarch. Pretending to help Africans, he established a brutal regime as a slave colony. By using his private army to enforce his monopoly and conducting forced labor, he made a fortune out of ivory and other goods. Africans who didn’t comply were punished with the whip known as chicotte. King Leopold II was exploiting the natives and justifying his actions as enlightening the “savages”.

Congo’s Humanitarian Crisis

George Washington Williams, a Black American pastor, lawyer, and historian went to the Congo in 1890 to assess it as a place where Black Americans could potentially settle. However, what he discovered was worse than he had imagined. The Belgian king was exploiting the land, abusing human rights, and using African women and girls as concubines. This led to the publication of a milestone in human rights literature and investigative journalism. Williams’ observations also inspired Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, which has since become the most reprinted short novel in the English language.

In 1890, Williams traveled to the Congo to explore the possibility of creating a place where Black Americans could reside without experiencing the discrimination and racism of the Jim Crow South. During this time, he rode a steamboat upriver, observing and taking note of what he saw along the way. Williams hoped to find a well-managed colony as described by Stanley and Leopold, but instead, he discovered a humanitarian catastrophe.

Williams was the only one among the hundreds of Europeans and Americans who asked Africans about their personal experience with Stanley. He wrote a shocking indictment, exposing King Leopold as a slaver rather than an antislavery crusader. Williams clarified the tactics used by Stanley to trick Congo chiefs into giving up their land, which included claims of white superiority and supernatural powers. He also revealed cruel treatment towards prisoners, including stockades, tight shackles, and the chicotte. Williams further exposed fraudulent claims made by the Belgian government that they were building schools and hospitals. Lastly, he reported state officials’ appalling behavior towards African women and girls, kidnapping them and using them as concubines.

After Williams’ pamphlet was published, it was widely distributed in Europe and the United States, primarily through France. The situation received a lot of backlash, and the furor reached the Belgian parliament in 1891, putting King Leopold on the defensive for the first time.

Williams was not the only one who was horrified by the atrocities happening in the Congo. Six months after working on a steamboat on the Congo River in 1890, Konrad Korzeniowski published a novel, Heart of Darkness, under his adopted name, Joseph Conrad. The book told the story of Marlow, the narrator, who sailed up a river and observed skeletons tied to posts, dead bodies in chains, and empty villages. Joseph Conrad said that the events of the book varied little from the facts of the case. This novel is now the most reprinted short novel in the English language.

In summary, George Washington Williams’ observation of the humanitarian crisis in the Congo led to a milestone in human rights literature and investigative journalism. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, inspired by Williams’ writing, sheds light on the Congo’s brutal realities.

The Dark Side of the Rubber Boom

The invention of the inflatable rubber tire sparked a demand for rubber that led to the Congo’s brutal slave colony. As the focus shifted from ivory to rubber, Leopold’s slave colony reached new depths of atrocity. Congo’s rulers kidnapped women, children, and elders and held them hostage until the required amount of rubber was collected. If anyone resisted, their families were subjected to brutal punishment. The Congo’s booming rubber industry relied on the forced labor of countless Africans who suffered greatly in the process.

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