Weekly Read: King Leopold’s Ghost

Yeah, I know, I should really start this feature out with a work of fiction, right?  But this is the last book I read and it was so powerful that I wanted to highlight it.  Besides, it could be worse – I could talk about a progressive rock album!

In 1877, Leopold II, king of Belgium, essentially bought what today is the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  For the next three decades, he ruled it like a fiefdom, exercising the kind of control he couldn’t in Belgium itself (pesky parliament!).  Along the way, he made a fortune exploiting the land and the native people, particularly once demand for rubber increased.  It’s estimated that half of the native population died, through direct violence, forced labor, and other means.

King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, traces the machinations of Leopold in obtaining the Congo and the international movement that sprang up to oppose his rule there.  It was one the first, if not the first, modern human rights campaigns, waging an international battle in the press and halls of politics on behalf of an oppressed group of people.  Hochschild also does a good job of highlighting the horrible abuses of the Congo (severed hands feature prominently) without falling into simply cataloging them.  There is such a thing as atrocity overload, after all.  Nor was it limited to the Congo.  As Hochschild points out in the end, a lot of what happened there happened, in various forms, in other parts of Africa and Asia.

One interesting thread that runs through the book is the impact of the United States on the Congo.  The US was the first nation to recognize Leopold’s claim on the Congo (although we might have been duped, somewhat) and, while the Congo reform movement was born and led from the UK, major players also came from the United States, including George Washington Williams, an African-American historian who had the bright idea to actually go talk to Africans about all this.  Sadly, the thread runs all the way through Congo’s colonial days to the birth of the modern DRC and includes a CIA backed assassination of the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister (too socialist) and the support of multiple presidencies (from Kennedy to at least Bush the Elder) for the military strongman who eventually replaced him.  Both the good and bad, then, of Congolese history is bound up with our own.

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