59 pages 1 hour read

Adam Hochschild

King Leopold's Ghost

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost offers a substantial overview of the period from 1895 until 1908 when King Leopold II of Belgium ruled the Congo—or at least the very large territory around the Congo River basin that he claimed as his own. The book also addresses the years leading up to Leopold’s acquisition of the Congo and those following the colony’s transfer to the control of the Belgian government. Though much of the book is devoted to Hochschild’s historical account of Leopold’s life and the lives of the men who helped him create and administer the Congo—as well as the lives of the men who helped to wrest the Congo from Leopold’s control—the title phrase, “King Leopold’s ghost”, is apt, as it is the legacy of European imperialism and colonialism that most concerns Hochschild. Unlike the hero of his book, E.D. Morel, Hochschild recognizes that on a very important level, the subject of the Congo is only one of many possible vehicles for examining the long-ranging effects of the European colonization of Africa. In other words, the Congo is not unique in its experience of European colonialism—practically the whole African continent was carved up and parceled off to Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and, to a lesser extent, Italy and Spain. The legacy of this large-scale and violent takeover of Africa is the “ghost” that lingers, and while King Leopold is a convenient and deserving symbol of these troubling effects, he is not the only man who should be held responsible.

While Congo was not unique in being colonized by a European power, it was unique in being colonized by one man, rather than by a country. This is what makes the story so interesting and important to tell; that and the fact that as late as the 1970s, hardly anyone outside the country had any idea of the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo under Leopold’s rule. Even the Belgians, who gained control of the Congo after Leopold sold it to them in 1908, had no collective cultural memory of the mass murder enacted there under the direction of their own king. Hochschild himself admits to having known nothing about the Congo, despite his own professional interest in human rights history, and the book he writes is a deliberate and explicit contribution to uncovering what he calls one of the “silences” of history.

The book has both an Introduction and a Prologue. In the Introduction, Hochschild gives an overview of the major characters of the book, beginning, not, as one might expect, King Leopold, but with Edmund Morel, because Morel is the book’s hero, while King Leopold II is clearly its villain. Hochschild also provides an overview of the book’s purpose and themes, before moving further back in history in the Prologue to provide an account of the first contact between the people of the Congo and Europeans in the late fifteenth century. This early contact, and the slave trade it engendered, Hochschild illustrates, is the foundation for later, nineteenth-century colonialism, as it significantly weakened the ability of the African peoples in that area to fight back against European incursions.

The rest of the book is organized into two parts that divide the narrative into the period leading up to Edmund Morel’s arrival on the scene, and the time he spends undermining Leopold’s hold on the Congo. In Part I, entitled “Walking into Fire,” we meet Leopold himself, the Belgian King, and Henry Morton Stanley, the African explorer who built the foundations of Leopold’s Congo by establishing the upriver stations and overseeing the building of the railroad. We also meet “the first heretic,” George Washington Williams, a black American who was the first person to publicly criticize Leopold’s administration of the Congo; William Sheppard, the first black American missionary to the Congo; and a young Joseph Conrad. Part I ends with the story of how Morel came to realize there was something wrong with Leopold’s Congo and that he “’had stumbled upon a secret society of murderers with a King for a croniman’” (181).

Part II, entitled “A King at Bay,” documents the struggle between Morel and Leopold over the fate of the Congo. While Morel attempted to expose the truth about the Congo, Leopold tried to manipulate the public, and the government, into believing that he was a paragon of humanitarianism whose interest in the Congo was purely philanthropic. In this section, we get a fuller sense of Morel’s challenges and methods, and we also meet some of his major allies—first and foremost Roger Casement, but also Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, John and Alice Harris, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Arthur Conan Doyle. This section describes some of the king’s successes in handling the media storms that the revelations about the Congo provoked, as well as his major missteps, which included taking a sixteen-year-old prostitute as his mistress when he was sixty-five, hiring the wrong man to do his lobbying in the U.S., and sending out a supposedly sham Commission of Inquiry which uncovered the same atrocities revealed by his critics. 

The penultimate chapter concludes the individual stories of Morel, Casement, and Sheppard, and raises questions about the success of Morel’s reform movement, given that a system of forced labor remained in effect in the Belgian Congo well past the Second World War, and considering that so much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, in the rubber-producing regions in particular, continued to be brutalized by European powers.

The book ends with an explanation of how thoroughly this period in history was erased from the collective memory, even from the collective memory of the people who endured the worst of it. The last chapter also includes an account of how Congo has fared in the years after gaining independence from Belgium in 1960 and how the ghost of Leopold still lingers there. Finally, it includes a discussion of Morel’s legacy, noting that even though he did not truly achieve his goal for reform in the Congo, he “kept alive a tradition, a way of seeing the world” that was essentially a moral acknowledgement of basic human rights. This is the tradition Hochschild sees his own book participating in.