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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 consumerism.

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 Congo scandal.]

As you read King Leopold's Ghost, be aware of the following:

  1. Who was Edmund Dene Morel and why was he more successful than George Washington Williams or William Sheppard?
  2. How did Henry Morton Stanley influence European ideas about Africa in the 19th century? What role he play in the Congo?
  3. What influence did the issue of "slavery" have on the history of the Congo?
  4. What effect did new inventions of the 19th century have on the history of the Congo?
  5. How did King Leopold finance his Congo operations?
  6. 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 of territory?
  7. What were porters and how did their use influence the history of the Congo?
  8. Did Africans resist Leopold's efforts? If not, then why not? If so, then how, and with what degree of success?
  9. Who was Tippu Tip and what role did he play in the history of the Congo?
  10. What was the Force Publique and what function(s) did it perform in the Congo?
  11. Why was rubber valuable and how was it obtained in the Congo?
  12. 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 describe."

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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