Monday, February 10, 2003

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa

by Adam Hochschild

The rarely told, indeed deliberately forgotten, tale of the greed of King Leopold II, who through hypocrisy, false promises, obfuscations and outright lies, took possession of the Congo.  Under his rule, which he tried to depict as beneficial to the natives (bringing the savages the ennobling light of civilization, the typical Victorian delusions), a sadistic form of slavery was the order of the day.  Leopold’s reign, officially endorsing mutilation, whipping, massacre and kidnapping, oversaw the killing of fully half the Congo’s population, a figure Hochschild estimates at ten million deaths.

This is a chilling book, written as an indictment without a single false step.  The pacing is deliberate, the charges made plain, the research thorough.  It’s a harrowing tale, and Hochschild peoples it with villains and heroes (the great pioneers of the human rights movements that challenged Leopold’s self-serving catalog of lies).  Hochschild never manages to secure absolute evidence that Leopold knew of the atrocities, but given the detail-obsessed, controlling personality that emerges from the book, it seems that the king had to know at least most of what went on.  An indispensable work of history.

five stars