I just finished reading King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild, who I’ve now realised is the spouse of Arlie Russell Hochschild, one of my favourite sociologists.
King Leopold’s Ghost is a long and carefully-researched book that tells the story of how the Congo was plundered and its people enslaved by the shrewd, wily, ambitious and greedy King Leopold II of Belgium in the 19th century. Leopold felt that Belgium was “a small country of small people” and that he was entitled to be the sovereign of a mighty empire like some of his European cousins. He regarded Africa as “a cake” and helped himself to an enormous slice of it – an area 76 times the size of Belgium. Through a combination of deception, theft and brute force he made hundreds of African chiefs sign away all the rights to their land and amassed a terrifying army of soldiers to subdue the people of the Congo and loot all the ivory and then rubber that the region could yield.
In the course of this activity, Leopold was responsible for the deaths of 10 million people. Yes, you read that right. Ten million. Africans in the region of the Congo were shot, beheaded, drowned, beaten to death, worked to death, entire towns were burned down, infants were snatched from their parents, and too many other types of murder for me to recount here.
Added to this, Leopold’s agents cut off people’s hands. They did this for two reasons. First, to punish slaves who rebelled or who failed to deliver the required quotas of rubber. Secondly, because Leopold’s army, the Force Publique, was prone to mutiny. To prevent soldiers from hoarding bullets that could be used in an uprising, they were required to account for each one by presenting a severed hand of the person upon whom the bullet was used. Naturally, this system was destined to fail and led to many innocent people having their hands chopped off.
All the while, Leopold was advertising himself to the heads of state of Europe and North America as the world’s greatest humanitarian. Seriously. He borrowed money from everyone and rented out African land using the rationale that he was ending slavery in Africa (which he blamed on “Arabs”) and bringing a peace-keeping and civilising influence to a savage land that was unable to mind its own business. He said he was building schools, hospitals and railways and delivering Christianity to save everyone’s souls. In reality, the schools were colonies for training child soldiers for his own army, the hospitals were strictly for his white officers and thousands of enslaved Africans lost their lives building the railways that existed solely to transport valuable loot out of the interior of the Congo and to the coastal ports where it could then be shipped to Europe for Leopold to sell.
These are the things we all should know (don’t feel bad if you didn’t know; I didn’t until I read the book).
Now for some things that fewer people know. The story of Leopold’s Congo is clearly a horror story of terrible magnitude, it is a story of genocide. It is, then, an astonishing achievement on the part of Adam Hochschild that parts of his book are hilarious. When you look at some of the buffoonery of Leopold’s major players, you marvel at how they managed to get anything done, never mind slaying 10m people and making Leopold rich. Here are a few special moments.
According to Hochschild, Leopold as a young man was far from impressive. He was annoying, whiny and sexually repressed. Here he is in his youth with his wife, Marie-Henriette, whom he disliked.
Soon after his wedding, Leopold and his bride went to England to visit Leopold’s cousin, Queen Victoria. During the visit, Victoria and her husband Prince Albert surmised that the young couple had not consummated their marriage because apparently they didn’t know what to do. Albert had to take Leopold aside and explain to him how babies are made and how this concerned his sleeping arrangements. Leopold eventually caught on and later in life developed a fondness for teenage prostitutes, but this is not as funny so we shall gloss over it.
In other news, Captain Stanley was a lunatic. If you don’t know who I mean, this important-looking man is Captain Stanley.
He was quite a celebrity in Europe and the United States at this time. He was a famous explorer and Leopold sent him off to Africa to “discover” the Congo, which was ridiculous because there were already people living there in well-established societies, but they were black so they didn’t count. Stanley set off on a massive expedition through the region of the Congo, looting and burning villages and taking whatever he wanted, mapping a path from east to west and leaving a trail of destruction behind him. At the time, white people thought he was very impressive, but they didn’t know these fun facts.
He was insanely bad-tempered and would constantly throw tantrums and have screaming matches with his senior officers for no reason. Hardly the dignified pillar of Victorian society that his European fans looked up to.
He was an insecure man who couldn’t stand the thought of anyone on his team being better or smarter than him so he used to appoint totally unqualified people with no travel experience to take key roles in his expeditions. On one journey through the Congo, his right hand men were a hotel clerk and a chap whose best skill was playing the bugle.
As a result of these attributes, he regularly fucked things up. On another expedition, he was sent to a province in the Sudan to rescue a chap called Emin Pasha who was having a few problems with local Muslim rebels. In the course of this he managed to ruin a steamboat that he borrowed, lost his personal belongings down the river, lost most of the food that was supposed to support his 800-man entourage and turned up at Pasha’s place in a state of near-starvation and with nothing to offer his rescuee but a linen suit that turned out to be much too large. In any case, when he arrived, Pasha no longer needed his help and was doing fine – or at least he was until Stanley showed up with his army of starving men and upset the Muslim rebels again. So then Pasha had to allow himself to be evacuated out of trouble that Stanley himself had caused. Together they travelled all the way to the east African coast in what is today’s Tanzania, finally arriving at a German military post. A dinner was held to celebrate Stanley’s “success” in “rescuing” the Pasha, in the course of which Pasha had one too many glasses of champagne and fell out of a second-floor window, landing in the street where he was knocked unconscious. He spent two months in hospital and Stanley had to go back to Europe without him.
This is the sort of nonsense that used to go on.
I could say more. I could tell you about the behaviour of a European royal at one of Leopold’s anti-slavery conferences, who couldn’t have been less interested in the proceedings and sprang out of his chair every time a lady passed by in the street outside, so he could ogle at her through the window. I could tell you about Henry Shelton Sanford and his tragic attempts at business. However, I have to stop somewhere so I urge you to read Hochschild’s book instead. It’s the best thing I’ve read in the last several months; a real page-turner.
Oh – if you are wondering about the Congo. Eventually Leopold died. It took the Belgian government 14 years after his death to unravel his finances because he had buried his stolen money hither and yon. Belgium took possession of Leopold’s colony (which he regarded as his personal property) and ruled it for 52 years. Republic of the Congo finally achieved independence in 1960, which should have been the start of a brighter future. Unfortunately it then had nearly 35 years of being a totalitarian state under the warlord Mobutu, then there was genocide in Rwanda, a Congo war, then a second Congo war in which another 5.4m people died and which is Congo’s equivalent of WW2. The region is beset by conflict to this day. The next round of presidential elections is scheduled for April 2018. I hope it brings peace. People have suffered enough.
Further reading: Hochschild, Adam (1998) King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Mariner Books.