Reading Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost
by Jim Jones (Copyright 2010, All Rights Reserved)
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Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost (New York;
Mariner Books, 1998), is an account of the history of the Congo
Basin from the mid-19th century to the end of World War I, with
an epilogue that describes how Belgium and the world remembered
what happened there.
In brief, it describes the effort by a Belgian king to claim
a personal empire by invoking European opposition to the African
slave trade. He also took advantage of the relative isolation of
the Congo, European power rivalries, and the opportunities for
financing that came from industrialization and the rise of
This is also the story of how some ordinary people created an
international coalition to block this effort. In the end,
they were unable to prevent him from retaining his profits, but
they did put a halt to atrocities, strip him of his authority in
the Congo and set a precedent for international mobilization in
the name of human rights.
[Read a 1904
editorial from the Boston Herald about the causes of the
As you read King Leopold's Ghost, be aware of the
- Who was Edmund Dene Morel and why was he more successful
than George Washington Williams or William Sheppard?
- How did Henry Morton Stanley influence European ideas about
Africa in the 19th century? What role he play in the Congo?
- What influence did the issue of "slavery" have on the
history of the Congo?
- What effect did new inventions of the 19th century have on
the history of the Congo?
- How did King Leopold finance his Congo operations?
- What was the legal history of the Congo? Specifically, what
laws, decrees and/or treaties were enacted to give the Belgian
king power over millions of people and thousands of square miles
- What were porters and how did their use influence the
history of the Congo?
- Did Africans resist Leopold's efforts? If not, then why
not? If so, then how, and with what degree of success?
- Who was Tippu Tip and what role did he play in the history
of the Congo?
- What was the Force Publique and what function(s) did
it perform in the Congo?
- Why was rubber valuable and how was it obtained in the
- How many people died as a result of Leopold's activities and
policies in the Congo Free State?
As noted in the chapter "Journalists Won't Give You
Receipts," Leopold used the press to counter the charges made by
the Congo Reform Association. The following excerpts from a book
written by a British upper-class writer gives an idea of how the
public relations battle was fought. By the time that the author,
M. W. Hilton-Simpson, travelled to the Kasai region of the Congo
from 1907-1909, he was already known for his studies of Berber
culture in Algeria. He travelled with an expedition organized by
Emil Torday of Hungary, author of a number of articles for the
Royal Anthropological Institute. Regarding the influence of the
Kasai Company, one of the concession holders in the Congo Free
State, he wrote:
"Mr. Torday knew that we should require very large
quantities of trade goods ... which passes for money among the
natives, and in order to avoid the waste of money ... he
approached the Kasai Company with the request that we might buy
such goods as we required ... the Company [which stocked them]
for the purchase of ivory and rubber. ... The Kasai Company
kindly agreed to this proposal, and also consented to allow our
baggage and the collections we were to make to be conveyed in
their steamers. The Government of the Congo, which had been
requested by the authorities of the British Museum to further the
interests of our expedition, and which is ever ready to help
forward the efforts of the scientist or sportsman, agreed to give
us special facilities for collecting natural history specimens,
and to allow the cases we addressed to the Museum to come out of
the Congo unopened by the customs' officials."
Source: M. W. Hilton-Simpson, F.R.G.S.,
F.E.S., F.R.A.I., Land and Peoples of The Kasai: being a
narrative of a two year's journey among the cannibals of the
equatorial forest and other savage tribes of the south-western
Congo (New York: Negro Universities Press & Greenwood
Publishing Company, 1969 [orig. 1956]), vii.
The author explicitly stated his opinion about the stories of
atrocities in the Congo Free State:
"As my readers will observe, this book has no political motive;
it is intended merely to be a record of our journey, and they
will find in the following pages nothing about the atrocities
which we hear have been perpetrated in many parts of the Congo.
The reason for this is that we came across no brutality on the
part of white men towards natives during our journey in the Kasai
district. When I returned from Africa I made this statement to a
representative of the Press, with the result that I aroused such
indignation on the part of certain persons that I almost feel I
ought to apologise for my misfortune in having no atrocities to
Source: Ibid., ix.
Finally, Hilton-Simpson described how he and Torday acquired
their information about the Congo.
"As my readers may very possibly wonder how we obtained a great
deal of the information relating to tribal customs, &c., to which
I shall allude, I may here give some idea of how Mr. Torday
carried on his investigations. In the first place he never
accepted an item of information concerning the natives imparted
to him by a white man, but only recorded what was told to him by
members of the tribe concerned. Secondly, he used always to
select as his informants from among the natives men who had been
as little as possible in contact with the European, and who were,
therefore, still in a primitive state of culture themselves; very
often he obtained his data from chiefs. Thirdly, a working
knowledge of eight native languages enabled him almost always to
dispense with the services of that very unsatisfactory person, an
interpreter, and also allowed him to pick up from the natives a
lot of information and some legends which he was able to overhear
when they were being related by the people among themselves, and
not directly addressed to him."
Source: Ibid., x.
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