on 7 January 2013
Civil war, rape, ethnic cleansing, modern-day slavery, savage bloodletting, and failed peace treaties. This is the stream of horrible news that we get from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It seems that Congo is the poster child for Africa's predicament; it is a place where all that ails the continent is vividly and uniquely expressed. Why? To answer to this question, I bought Adam Rothschild's King Leopold's Ghost'. I was not disappointed.
King Leopold's Ghost is an exemplary piece of historical writing. Mr. Hochschild's book is carefully researched, reflective, and illuminating. The book is complete with heroes, villains, victims, and, perhaps most importantly, the intellectual context in which these characters operated.
The main character in the tale is Belgium's King Leopold II. Mr. Hochschild describes Leopold as a visionary with an insatiable appetite for colonies. Hochschild does some amateur psyschoanalysis by examining the relationship between Leopold and his father. At a time when the Great Powers, Britain, France, and Germany, were carving up Asia and Africa, Leopold II - the king of a small, `none too important country' had to disguise his colonial ambitions. How could he lay claim to territory without arousing the suspicion of the Great Powers? To do so, Leopold II would rely on cunning, subterfuge and the second most important character in the story - the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley.
Stanley had done the impossible. He had traversed the continent by trekking from Zanzibar to the mouth of the Congo River. Luckily - for Leopold II - the Great Powers were uninterested in Congo. Leopold II then wooed Stanley to serve as his agent of conquest.
And conquer he did. Leopold established trading posts along the Congo River. The objective of these companies was simple: extract as much wealth as possible from the region. As the automotive industry boomed and demand for rubber increased, Leopold II happened upon another lucrative source of income: wild rubber. Leopold II would institute a savage extraction system based on slave labour. The natives were forced to tap wild rubber on the pain of death and destruction of their communities. Their families would be held hostage by white company men armed with machine guns (the overseers often took sexual liberties with the womenfolk). The punishment for failing to meet rubber quotas was gruesome. Leopold II's agents cut the limbs, ears, noses and mutilated the faces of the natives. The practice was conducted on an appallingly industrial scale (estimated ten million people were killed). Yet, Leopold painted his policies in the Congo with a veneer of humanitarianism. The Congo attracted many well-meaning missionaries who bought into Leopold II's `civilising' vision.
Enter E.D. Morel, a clerk for the company that had the monopoly on shipping to the Congo. Morel noticed that the enormous wealth being extracted from Congo did not match the imports into the country. Morel, an exceptional organizer, then championed a campaign to expose Leopold's extractive system. Hochschild chronicles the works of lesser known figures who helped Morel's campaign. They include the black American journalists William Shepard, George Washington William and the Nigerian-born businessman, Hezekiah Shanu.
Mr. Hochschild brilliantly explains the intellectual milieu of mid-nineteenth century Europe. The Victorian age assumed that white Europeans - regardless of their intellectual gifts - were inherently superior to non-white peoples. White Europeans then had a duty to civilize the unenlightened heathen. Therefore, it seemed logical to exploit natives of the Congo. Hochschild shows that though this assumption was widely held, it was by no means unquestioned. Hence, Leopold II was careful to paint his extractive system in humanitarian colours. Yes, he would set up a colony, but he would also introduced schools and hospitals. If only he did.
Morel successfully exposed the hypocrisy of the Leopoldian system to the governments of the great powers. This embarrassed the Belgian government. Leopold II was eventually forced to hand over the colony to his country. By then, he had extracted more than $1.1billion in wealth from the region. (He used this wealth to build gaudy palaces, parks, and museums in Belgium.) Leopold left a poisonous legacy of exploitation which the Belgian government cheerfully continued. They conspired to prevent Congo from preparing for the modern world with a deliberate policy of not educating native Congolese. Therefore, at independence in 1960, this country (the size of Western Europe) had only twelve university graduates. This is the greatest indictment of the Leopoldian system.
REFLECTIVE AND URGENT
King Leopold's Ghost is a reflective piece of history. Mr. Hochschild does not pretend to be objective (what does that even mean?). Instead, he carefully reflects on his sources and his biases. For instance, Mr. Hochschild makes the extra effort to document the native voices. He unearths a letter from King Affonso I, the first Christian - and literate king - of the Bakongo, to the Portuguese King in which Affonso I complained about the impact of the slave trade on his kingdom. Where possible, Mr. Hochschild relies on oral traditions of the native Congolese in order to give them voice. The author is acutely aware that the predominant sources of scholarship were written by Europeans and as such are not an accurate account of Congolese reality. In seeking the views of the voiceless, he knows to be skeptical of the din made by the voiced.
Hochschild's work demonstrates the influence of history on the modern world. We cannot hope to understand current events if we do not have a sense of history. The hand of history is heavy in the Congo. In the words of William Faulkner, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past' Yet, Hochschild also demonstrates that men are not slaves to history. Exceptional individuals in the book, like E.D. Morel, did not simply accept the assumptions of their day, but worked to change history. In his stand for justice, Morel embodied the finest tradition of the European Enlightenment: equality and universal human dignity regardless of skin colour or race.
According to Hochschild (pp 306): `At the time of the Congo crisis, the idea of full human rights, political, social and economic [championed by Morel], was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today'. I salute Mr. Hochschild for conducting painstaking, reflective research on a terrible historical episode and telling the story of Leopold's terror with depth and clarity. The Literary Review described `King Leopold's Ghost' as `urgent, vivid and compelling'. I could not agree more. The book deserves five glittering stars.