Review: King Leopold’s Ghost

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

Le roi, la loi, l’esclavage: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

 

Though they may not have intended it, the people who designed the course of the Brussels marathon could not have picked a more fitting finale to the race than a grueling climb up Avenue de Tervuren. This broad avenue was financed with wealth plundered from the Congo, a land that was made profitable, as Adam Hochschild brilliantly describes in his engrossing book, thanks to decades of suffering that would have made a marathon seem like a walk in the park – the nearby Cinquantenaire Park, for example, adorned with a mighty arch that was also financed by stolen Congolese riches.

King Leopold's GhostThe story of Belgium’s colonisation of the Congo and the human catastrophe that followed begins with a web of greed spun in Brussels and discharged to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and, ultimately, the vast territory that lies atop the Congo river. As diverse as the locations is the set of characters: Henry Morton Stanley, a “harsh and brutal taskmaster” and the most famous explorer of his age; George Washington Williams, an African-American activist, whose tall tales were matched only by his radical achievements; modest, unswerving Edmund Dene Morel, whose Congo Reform Association, “roiled the political waters.” Bound to them all, at the centre of the web, is the man whose stupendous personal ambition brought death and destruction on a scale that has only recently (and, as Hochschild points out, reluctantly) been revealed – King Leopold II of Belgium.

Spanning several decades and drifting between Europe, America and Africa, Hochschild’s compelling story resembles the Congo river: at times calm and restrained, the narrative suddenly accelerates like the rapids that were such an obstacle to Leopold’s ambitions. The characters are described in rich detail: we learn of Stanley’s obsessive self-aggrandisement and his awkwardness with women; a chapter is spent on the time spent in the Congo by a young Konrad Korzeniowski, later to become Joseph Conrad; and we are provided with accurate records of the number of severed heads collected by one of the more notorious Belgian officers in the Congo, Léon Rom (widely regarded as the inspiration for the wild villain in Heart of Darkness). Looming throughout is the pointed nose and impeccable white beard of Leopold.

With the family values of Henry VIII (he denounced his three daughters and almost undid himself in his later years by becoming infatuated with a 16 year-old French girl), the venomous paranoia of Josef Stalin and a fondness for architectural megalomania that would make Dubai look like a Quaker colony (along with the aforementioned Arc du Cinquaitenaire and Avenue de Tervuren, he financed numerous other projects), Leopold’s reign was at times extremely tenuous and unpopular, especially in Belgium (though in Flanders this was mostly because he refused to learn Flemish). That he not only survived but also never had to account for his crimes was thanks to a skill that would today be all-too familiar to British readers: media manipulation. That and some astute political maneuvering. Seeking international recognition of his nascent colony, Leopold turned first to the United States. It is a great irony of history that the US should be somewhat hoodwinked into becoming the first country to recognise Leopold’s Congo and thus accelerate the establishment of a much more brutal system of slavery than that which had been abolished following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the year Leopold ascended the throne.

How brutal was it? As Hochschild points out, ‘Even children were not spared the rigours of Leopold’s regime.’ The first to try and expose it was the colourful Washington Williams. It may have caused a firestorm in Belgium when it was published in 1890, but his Open Letter to Leopold, detailing the scale of kidnapping, slavery and murder taking place in the Congo, merely scratched the surface. Indeed, the misery he described was modest compared to what was to come; later that year Dunlop began producing the first rubber tyres. As demand for the precious material soared, the locals were subjected to a new and terrifying tactic — hostage taking:

Sometimes the hostages were women, sometimes children, sometimes elders of chiefs. Every state or company post in the rubber areas had a stockade for hostages. If you were a male villager, resisting the order to gather rubber could mean death for your wife. She might die anyway, for in the stockades food was scarce and conditions were harsh.

The most shocking and grimly iconic method of all was the severing of hands. Some were cut off in crude medial procedures after having being slowly withered by overly tight chains. Most, though, were removed in the pursuit of profit:

If a village refused to submit to the rubber regime, state or company troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone in sight, so that nearby villages would get the message. But on such occasions some European officers were mistrustful. For each cartridge issued to their soldiers they demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, not “wasted” in hunting or, worse yet, saved for possible mutiny. The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse.

Of the unfolding horror (to borrow the well-known term from Heart of Darkness) Leopold was only dimly aware. The closest he came to experiencing life in his colony was while visiting a grotesque exhibition in what is now The Africa Museum in Tervuren, just outside Brussels (end-point of the aforementioned Avenue de Tervuren). Here a Congolese family was put on display during the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1897. When the exhibit closed for the day they slept in the royal stables.

Having brought to life the pantomime villains of Stanley and Leopold, Hochschild then introduces the dynamic but doomed duo that would shine a light on the cruelty of the Congo. The two men, Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, were everything Stanley and Leopold were not: modest, kind and, in the case of Morel, happily married.

By the turn of the 20th century their Congo Reform Association had begun unpicking Leopold’s web of deceit and destruction. Against the onslaught Leopold fought them tooth and nail. Using lobbying, quiet diplomacy and an array of political tricks he batted away the criticism with one hand while discrediting his opponents with the other. Hochschild develops this battle to a jaw-dropping climax, one that seems plucked from ‘Yes, Minister’ or ‘The Thick Of It.’

In 2008 the French artist Théophile de Giraud mounted a large statue of Leopold II in central Brussels and poured red paint over the kingdom’s most controversial king. It was, the Frenchman explained, a symbol of the blood Belgium has on its hands from its time as a coloniser. Though he gained a brief flare of publicity, de Giraud would have done better to simply hand out free copies of Hochschild’s mesmerising book.


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