Simon Smyth πŸ”– The primary reason I read  King Leopold's Ghost was due to Anthony McIntyre's recommendation, here on his blog The Pensive Quill. He spoke so enthusiastically about it I knew I would read it one day.


King Leopold’s Ghost is written by Adam Hochschild, an American journalist, who teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism, at University of California at Berkeley. The author uses an astonishing wealth of contemporary sources and aims this book at the layperson. I found the blurb on the front cover by Robert Harris "All the tension and drama that one would expect in a good novel" a little grotesque. I understand it is out of context and designed to sell books but the blurb smacked of insensitivity considering the subject matter and seemed to appeal to titillation.

The book begins by setting the scene in Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is discussed through to the main story of King Leopold II's personal colony and a discussion afterwards on other colonies and modern day power struggles which have nothing to do with protecting people but have everything to do with protecting Western interests which are primarily having unfettered access to raw materials and resources.

The story in King Leopold's Ghost is told thorough the interwoven stories of the main players. These include King Leopold II, Henry Morton Stanley (the explorer of "Dr Livingstone I presume" fame), lobbyists like Henry Shelton Sanford, George Washington Williams (lawyer, journalist, historian), Joseph Conrad (who captured the era in his novel Heart of Darkness), E.D. Morel (unlikely arch-nemesis of King Leopold II), Sir Roger Casement (human rights campaigner, Irish Republican, friend of Conrad and Morel), Hezekiah Shanu (awarded medal by the brutal regime) and Rev. William H Sheppard (Presbyterian missionary and explorer).

Those individuals' stories are adroitly woven together to depict a surprisingly clear, precise and easily read picture of barbarity, cruelty, inhumanity and genocide. The reader is never left wondering about unfinished themes which is a great strength in any book but a relief in a book as all-encompassing as this.

The depiction of heroes like Morel or the evangelical missionaries is skillfully done and by judging the standard of Hochschild's general work here you are left in no doubt why his job is teaching people how to write in such a prestigious university. I particularly like the way the book paints Casement, his slight character flaws only accentuating his wealth of personality, humanity, intelligence and appeal.

One individual said of Casement:

Figure and face, he seemed to me one of the finest-looking creatures I had ever seen; and his countenance had charm and distinction and a high chivalry. Knight errant he was.


In 1890 Joseph Conrad wrote in his diary:


Made the acquaintance of Mr Roger Casement, which I should consider as a great pleasure under any circumstances ...Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic.

A colleague wrote how Casement's "greatest charm was his voice, which was very musical." Another said "Casement doesn't talk to you. He purrs at you".

Morel's and Casement's approach to human rights work is still the 'facts and witness statement' approach we see today in that movement. The interplay between the heroes makes you like each of them even more.

King Leopold II's wealth came from slavery which exploited the Congo's resources (including ivory and then the highly profitable rubber which was tapped from lianas). The sparsity of African voices in the book is a flaw admitted by the author but unavoidable due to their lack of a contemporary voice.

Other colonies witnessed brutality at the same level but Leopold personally owned and ran the Congo for his own individual greed.

The propaganda effort of the Belgian king with its lies, censorship and spin to hide the real intent and events from public view mirrors the propaganda efforts in today's society. The exploitation of people and resources is a reminder that colonialism through Western economic interests, puppet dictators and modern-day slavery still carries on today.

The people in many developing countries gathering the super precious metals for hi-tech equipment, including the device with which I write this do not have the luxury of Western employment law or the standards of living we enjoy in the developed world. The arguments today that some form of employment is better than none, for those exploited peoples, echo those of King Leopold II over 100 years ago.

One example of interference the book gives is the early democratic leader, Prime Minister Lumumba of the free Democratic Republic of the Congo who was assassinated at the hands of the USA and Belgian government in 1961 because it was feared he might act in Africa's interests and not in the West's. The West's insatiable greed for raw materials and minerals sealed his fate and opened the door for Mobutu, the ally and dictator.

We were colonised ourselves but the money which built Dublin and Belfast came in great part from slavery or exploitation of less powerful nations. For example, Bank Buildings in Belfast was built using money from slavery. So was Trinity College, Dublin. Don't forget the Irish who joined the British Army in huge numbers prior to partition although they are few in number today.

This is a difficult book to read not by standard of writing but by its description of barbarism perpetrated by the white colonialists and to a lesser extent their proxies among the African people. Hochschild explains that black natives without power were often chosen by the white people with power to dish out the punishments. Those chosen were often tortured or killed if they didn't comply. This separated the white European physically from the horror of the acts, which in turn were easier to dish out.

The same grasp on one's humanity is lost in times of war as well. Vietnam War veteran and writer Karl Marlantes in A Rumor Of War explains how even the most amiable, caring and peaceable people carry out barbaric atrocities. The depravity you witness in war numbs you, you become more used to barbarity: and your actions, in turn, become more barbaric. This immunity to atrocity coupled with the delegating of punishment in the Congo led to horrors which only a skilled writer like Hochschild can get across.

Referring to those who organised the atrocities the author quotes Primo Levi:

Monsters exist. But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are...the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

We see this in practice: those who used whips, fashioned from hippopotamus skin, on men, women and children, those who murdered, tortured, raped, enslaved and cut off hands, ears, and genitals etc.

When the scorched earth policy was employed the bullets were counted and the same number of right hands had to be cut off to prove no bullet was wasted. Often, over a hundred right hands were brought back, (smoked to preserve them in the tropical heat) from a single mission, counted and then thrown in the river. A picture in the book of a man sitting, looking down at the severed hand and foot of his 5 year old daughter will stay with me forever. It was the man's punishment for not collecting enough rubber.

Hochschild explains how, despite the much pushed narrative of how colonialism was to bring democracy, culture and civilisation to foreign lands it actually did the opposite. The post-colonial legacy is the opposite also. Hochschild states that corruption, greed, terror and dictatorship are often the legacy for colonies who won their freedom because that is what they know, they learned it from the colonisers.

I disagree with Hochschild but understand where he is coming from when he says that it wasn’t strictly speaking a genocide, that the deaths were incidental and due to demand for labour. His arguments about the colonisers "not wanting to eliminate one particular ethnic group from the face of the Earth" is a strange one. The elements of what constitutes Genocide is more specific than that. Genocide wasn't a crime in international law until 1946 but the crimes in the Congo certainly match the criteria.

I would recommend this book as a highly readable, fascinating and informative reminder of how people suffered and why we, in the West, enjoy a disproportionate amount of the wealth today. The book is, in this sense, a strong critique on capitalism, Western interference and neo-colonialism.

I will leave you with the words which Casement quoted from an African proverb in reference to his humanitarian campaign in the Congo: 

A man doesn't go among thorns unless a snake is after him - or he's after a snake. I'm after a snake and please God I'll scotch it.


Adam Hochschild, 1999. King Leopold's Ghost. Publisher: Macmillan. ISBN-13: ‎978-0333661260

Simon Smyth is an avid reader and collector of books

King Leopold's Ghost

Simon Smyth πŸ”– The primary reason I read  King Leopold's Ghost was due to Anthony McIntyre's recommendation, here on his blog The Pensive Quill. He spoke so enthusiastically about it I knew I would read it one day.


King Leopold’s Ghost is written by Adam Hochschild, an American journalist, who teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism, at University of California at Berkeley. The author uses an astonishing wealth of contemporary sources and aims this book at the layperson. I found the blurb on the front cover by Robert Harris "All the tension and drama that one would expect in a good novel" a little grotesque. I understand it is out of context and designed to sell books but the blurb smacked of insensitivity considering the subject matter and seemed to appeal to titillation.

The book begins by setting the scene in Africa. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is discussed through to the main story of King Leopold II's personal colony and a discussion afterwards on other colonies and modern day power struggles which have nothing to do with protecting people but have everything to do with protecting Western interests which are primarily having unfettered access to raw materials and resources.

The story in King Leopold's Ghost is told thorough the interwoven stories of the main players. These include King Leopold II, Henry Morton Stanley (the explorer of "Dr Livingstone I presume" fame), lobbyists like Henry Shelton Sanford, George Washington Williams (lawyer, journalist, historian), Joseph Conrad (who captured the era in his novel Heart of Darkness), E.D. Morel (unlikely arch-nemesis of King Leopold II), Sir Roger Casement (human rights campaigner, Irish Republican, friend of Conrad and Morel), Hezekiah Shanu (awarded medal by the brutal regime) and Rev. William H Sheppard (Presbyterian missionary and explorer).

Those individuals' stories are adroitly woven together to depict a surprisingly clear, precise and easily read picture of barbarity, cruelty, inhumanity and genocide. The reader is never left wondering about unfinished themes which is a great strength in any book but a relief in a book as all-encompassing as this.

The depiction of heroes like Morel or the evangelical missionaries is skillfully done and by judging the standard of Hochschild's general work here you are left in no doubt why his job is teaching people how to write in such a prestigious university. I particularly like the way the book paints Casement, his slight character flaws only accentuating his wealth of personality, humanity, intelligence and appeal.

One individual said of Casement:

Figure and face, he seemed to me one of the finest-looking creatures I had ever seen; and his countenance had charm and distinction and a high chivalry. Knight errant he was.


In 1890 Joseph Conrad wrote in his diary:


Made the acquaintance of Mr Roger Casement, which I should consider as a great pleasure under any circumstances ...Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic.

A colleague wrote how Casement's "greatest charm was his voice, which was very musical." Another said "Casement doesn't talk to you. He purrs at you".

Morel's and Casement's approach to human rights work is still the 'facts and witness statement' approach we see today in that movement. The interplay between the heroes makes you like each of them even more.

King Leopold II's wealth came from slavery which exploited the Congo's resources (including ivory and then the highly profitable rubber which was tapped from lianas). The sparsity of African voices in the book is a flaw admitted by the author but unavoidable due to their lack of a contemporary voice.

Other colonies witnessed brutality at the same level but Leopold personally owned and ran the Congo for his own individual greed.

The propaganda effort of the Belgian king with its lies, censorship and spin to hide the real intent and events from public view mirrors the propaganda efforts in today's society. The exploitation of people and resources is a reminder that colonialism through Western economic interests, puppet dictators and modern-day slavery still carries on today.

The people in many developing countries gathering the super precious metals for hi-tech equipment, including the device with which I write this do not have the luxury of Western employment law or the standards of living we enjoy in the developed world. The arguments today that some form of employment is better than none, for those exploited peoples, echo those of King Leopold II over 100 years ago.

One example of interference the book gives is the early democratic leader, Prime Minister Lumumba of the free Democratic Republic of the Congo who was assassinated at the hands of the USA and Belgian government in 1961 because it was feared he might act in Africa's interests and not in the West's. The West's insatiable greed for raw materials and minerals sealed his fate and opened the door for Mobutu, the ally and dictator.

We were colonised ourselves but the money which built Dublin and Belfast came in great part from slavery or exploitation of less powerful nations. For example, Bank Buildings in Belfast was built using money from slavery. So was Trinity College, Dublin. Don't forget the Irish who joined the British Army in huge numbers prior to partition although they are few in number today.

This is a difficult book to read not by standard of writing but by its description of barbarism perpetrated by the white colonialists and to a lesser extent their proxies among the African people. Hochschild explains that black natives without power were often chosen by the white people with power to dish out the punishments. Those chosen were often tortured or killed if they didn't comply. This separated the white European physically from the horror of the acts, which in turn were easier to dish out.

The same grasp on one's humanity is lost in times of war as well. Vietnam War veteran and writer Karl Marlantes in A Rumor Of War explains how even the most amiable, caring and peaceable people carry out barbaric atrocities. The depravity you witness in war numbs you, you become more used to barbarity: and your actions, in turn, become more barbaric. This immunity to atrocity coupled with the delegating of punishment in the Congo led to horrors which only a skilled writer like Hochschild can get across.

Referring to those who organised the atrocities the author quotes Primo Levi:

Monsters exist. But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are...the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

We see this in practice: those who used whips, fashioned from hippopotamus skin, on men, women and children, those who murdered, tortured, raped, enslaved and cut off hands, ears, and genitals etc.

When the scorched earth policy was employed the bullets were counted and the same number of right hands had to be cut off to prove no bullet was wasted. Often, over a hundred right hands were brought back, (smoked to preserve them in the tropical heat) from a single mission, counted and then thrown in the river. A picture in the book of a man sitting, looking down at the severed hand and foot of his 5 year old daughter will stay with me forever. It was the man's punishment for not collecting enough rubber.

Hochschild explains how, despite the much pushed narrative of how colonialism was to bring democracy, culture and civilisation to foreign lands it actually did the opposite. The post-colonial legacy is the opposite also. Hochschild states that corruption, greed, terror and dictatorship are often the legacy for colonies who won their freedom because that is what they know, they learned it from the colonisers.

I disagree with Hochschild but understand where he is coming from when he says that it wasn’t strictly speaking a genocide, that the deaths were incidental and due to demand for labour. His arguments about the colonisers "not wanting to eliminate one particular ethnic group from the face of the Earth" is a strange one. The elements of what constitutes Genocide is more specific than that. Genocide wasn't a crime in international law until 1946 but the crimes in the Congo certainly match the criteria.

I would recommend this book as a highly readable, fascinating and informative reminder of how people suffered and why we, in the West, enjoy a disproportionate amount of the wealth today. The book is, in this sense, a strong critique on capitalism, Western interference and neo-colonialism.

I will leave you with the words which Casement quoted from an African proverb in reference to his humanitarian campaign in the Congo: 

A man doesn't go among thorns unless a snake is after him - or he's after a snake. I'm after a snake and please God I'll scotch it.


Adam Hochschild, 1999. King Leopold's Ghost. Publisher: Macmillan. ISBN-13: ‎978-0333661260

Simon Smyth is an avid reader and collector of books

2 comments:

  1. Great review Simon. This is one of those books that stays in the memory long after being read - on a par with Guerillas and Generals by Paul H. Lewis. I read it in Belfast and still recall the impact if not the detail! The savagery of the Belgians and greed of Leopold was well laid out. Casement's role in challenging what was going on there is considered by some to have played a vindictive part in the decision by the British to execute him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks very much Anthony. I haven't read Guerillas and Generals. Another one for the list.

    Casement's belief that self-government was every people's inalienable right was way ahead of its time and the British government, trying to hold on to the Empire, would certainly not have agreed. It wouldn't surprise me if this added to the decision to execute him. His actual diaries and forged ones as well were certainly used at that LGBT-unfriendly time to tarnish his reputation.

    Even today, both paying for same-sex relations and being a human rights activist can bring the ire of the British government. No chance for him then, in those dark days.

    ReplyDelete