King Leopold’s Ghost is an exploration into the mind of one of the central figures of modern imperialism, and how the influence of this 19th century mind reaches into the 21st century. This book is about “moral recognition”(1) of the atrocities that occurred in the Congo region of Africa under the imperial rule of Leopold II, king of the Belgians. Adam Hochschild, armed with and a BA from Harvard and a thesaurus, seeks to tell the narrative of the Belgian Congo and answer questions as to why the atrocities therein were largely unknown at the time of the book’s publication in 1998.
The book opens with the story of Edmund Dene Morel and the results of his sleuthing about the companies that facilitate ‘trade’ from the Congo Free State. Hochschild leads us through his questions about why goods like ivory and rubber are pouring into Europe from the Congo, but only weapons and soldiers are going out. There must be some sinfulness afoot, the reader concludes along with Morel. Hochschild then begins the sadistic love story of Leopold and Africa. He moves quickly through early European explorations of Africa and then slows down to set the scene for Leopold’s entrance into the theatre of the scramble for Africa. Much ink is devoted to Leopold’s development as an imperial tyrant. In one of the more interesting sections of the book, the reader is treated to the Machiavellian workings of this prototype villain as he acquires a “slice of the African cake” through politics, espionage, and coercion. The second half of the book is devoted to the actual workings of his rule on the ground and the slavery and slaughter suffered by the indigenous people unfortunate enough to live in Leopold’s private colony. The reader also gets a section on the events leading up to the end of Leopold’s regime, and how the word on his dirty Congo got out. The end of the book wraps up by answering questions as to why history textbooks forgot about the Congo. The wealth of information in the book makes clear that Hochschild did his homework on the subject, but the total lack of footnotes or bibliography of any kind makes the reader suspect that he perhaps he is a historian with a considerable capacity for fiction writing.
The greatest selling point of the book is Hochschild’s rendering of Leopold. The king of the Belgians is spun as an evil mastermind with an intriguing look at his development into a tyrant. The sections about Leopold read as if Lord of the Rings was told from Sauron’s perspective, or Harry Potter from Voldemort’s. The greater the evil, the more it attracts a strange fascination, the kind of fascination that sells books. The problem with this is the lack of named sources to give Hochschild’s indictment of Leopold some semblance of verity and the sort of fictional literary language employed bars this book from the shelves of true academic history. The author’s argument that ‘horrible things happened in the Congo and here’s why and how’ is basically sound but this reader found it undermined by the acidic demonization of Leopold and novelization of the story as a whole. While these things negate the historical utility of the work, it does make it an enjoyable read. The argument is persuasive to a reader who likes a sob story of heroes and villains. To analyze this book requires awareness of its genre as a work of pop history, and the purpose of a pop history book is to sell. This book sold and therefore it is a success, historical and academic reservations notwithstanding.
Hochschild sets out to tell the story of the Congo, and in the process he gives the reader a brand new Hitler or Stalin to vilify in the pantheon of history’s villains. As a work of storytelling, the book is enjoyable. As a work of history, the book is simplistic at best. The lives of many individuals are rendered in broad strokes more reminiscent of characters from novels than actual humans complete with complexities. If the story Hochschild tells is accurate, reading this book is an easy way to gain a great deal of understanding about the imperial colonization of the Congo and its contexts and consequences. In the broad narrative of imperialism, this book is able to fill a Congo-sized hole. This book does an excellent job of showing exactly how a single person or government can subjugate or ‘imperialize’ a whole country without ever setting foot there. I would not recommend this book to a friend. If someone wants real history, I’d recommend a scholarly work. If someone wants a story of heroes and villains, I’d recommend Lord of the Rings.