King Leopold’s Ghost, provides a historical account of economic and political systems in colonial Africa. It is a tale of greed and grave hunger for power as well as heroism in the midst of terror.
Adam Hochschild examines how the European drive for territories and possessions in the late nineteenth century justified the essence of colonialism. Hochschild presents why the “civilizing” mission of Europe in Africa was deemed the powerful as morally right.
Belgium’s King Leopold II, as the first secretary of the International African Association in 1876, defended colonialism by saying “To open civilization to the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over the entire peoples is, I dare say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.” (Hochschild, 1999, p. 44)
Saying colonialism is necessary in the realization of civilization and development, Leopold imprisoned Congo under his personal rule beginning 1885 until his death in 1908. Using a complex scheme of political ploys and corruption, bribes and lobbying, he obtained international recognition for his colony and established a system of virtual slavery and tyranny in Congo.
Leopold made Congo his private fiefdom and employed a barbarous system of forced labor and terror through out Congo. Five to eight million natives were killed during his time. Because of this, Leopold was shy of being compared to famous tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin. But the difference, writes Hochschild was that Leopold never saw the gore and smelled the blood of his actions: “…King Leopold never saw a drop of blood spilt in anger. He never set foot in the Congo.” (p. 4)
During his reign, Leopold grabbed lands, developed military dictatorship whose white officers he called the “Force Publique.” At its peak, there were some 19,000 conscripted African soldiers under only 420 white officers. He also ordered forced or slave labor starting from the “rubber boom” phenomenon in the 1880’s. This system would even outlive Leopold’s death. Forced labor, according to Leopold was “the only way to civilize and uplift these indolent and corrupt peoples of the Far East.” (p. 37)
Each laborer had a quota and to meet this, they would carry huge baskets of rubber on their heads for up to twenty miles a day. The laborer’s wives and children would even be kept as hostages until they produce the required number of rubber. Once they fail to meet their quota, death is bestowed upon them. And this was justified by saying hundreds of heads cut off is only meant to push the other laborers harder. An officer of Leopold once said, “My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people but that allowed five hundred others to live.” (p. 166)
So-called heroes emerged during this time. Political enemies of Leopold and journalists tried to end this culture of labor and terror. A Congo Reform movement was formed. Leopold tried to counter this by bribing editors and even using a pseudonym to write articles on his regime’s defense by himself. Towards the end of his reign, he destroyed the evidence and turned the Congo State archives into ash, hoping to employ the “politics of forgetting.”
Compared to other countries that were once under a “genocidal” rule, the Congo experience made little impact in popular consciousness. But nonetheless, the Congo experience was a telling account on how the powerful tried to achieve civilization and progress, ironically through barbaric systems. It is also a classic tale of how the powerful sugar-coated their real intensions of horror and lust for power with philanthropy and benevolence.
But over and above this, it tells the story of how heroes came into play and how the people of Congo, and other former colonies, struggled and survived the tests put up by their cruel and spiteful historical past.