King Leopolds Ghost by Adam HochschildIn the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million--all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopolds Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II. With great power and compassion, King Leopolds Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo--too long forgotten--onto the conscience of the West
Inside the world's 'last colonial museum' in Belgium
Leopold II of Belgium
Wikimedia Commons. For almost 30 years, rather than being a regular colony of a European government the way South Africa or the Spanish Sahara were, Congo was administered as the private property of this one man for his personal enrichment. Leopold II took the throne in and he ruled with the kind of soft touch Belgians expected from their king in the wake of the multiple revolutions and reforms that had democratized the country over the preceding few decades. Indeed, the young King Leopold really only ever put pressure on the senate in his constant attempts to get Belgium involved in building an overseas empire like all the bigger countries had. This became an obsession for Leopold II.
Leopold II and the Congo Free State
The game speaks to a lazy stereotype among Britons that Belgium is a country without history or character, lost somewhere between France and Germany. So they outsourced the task to Leopold, who used personal diplomacy to convince the European powers to grant him control of a large portion of the Congo basin. He promised to bring civilisation to the so-called dark continent. Comprised largely of unmapped jungle, it was initially a huge financial burden. But when worldwide demand for rubber boomed, Leopold cashed in. Congolese workers were sent out into the jungle to slash down vines and layer their bodies with rubber latex. Later they would scrape it off their skin — often taking flesh and hair with it.