King Leopold’s Ghost

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King Leopold II Character Analysis

The titular figure of the book (and arguably its villain), King Leopold II was the longest-reigning monarch in Belgian history. During his reign, he amassed enormous landholdings in the African territory surrounding the Congo River. Determined to make Belgium a major international “player” (and amass a lavish fortune for himself), Leopold supported a series of policies that involved enslaving huge numbers of Congolese men, women, and children, and forcing them to gather ivory and rubber, which was then sold in Europe at an enormous profit. As Hochschild points out several times, Leopold II comes across as a Shakespearean villain rather than a real human being. He spent twenty years carefully establishing a reputation as a great philanthropist, in order to disguise his human rights abuses in the Congo. Even after he’d secured land in the Congo, he proved himself to be a master of public relations by manipulating politicians, journalists, and philanthropists to disguise any hint of wrongdoing on his part. His brutality and greed have left a horrific and enduring legacy in the Congo.

King Leopold II Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost

The King Leopold’s Ghost quotes below are all either spoken by King Leopold II or refer to King Leopold II. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Houghton Mifflin edition of King Leopold’s Ghost published in 2005.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Before the guests dispersed to their respective countries, they voted to establish the International African Association. Leopold magnanimously volunteered space in Brussels for the organization headquarters. There were to be national committees of the association set up in all the participating countries, as well as an international committee. Leopold was elected by acclamation as the international committee's first chairman.

Related Characters: King Leopold II
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In the early chapters of the book, Hochschild shows how cleverly Leopold II manipulated international opinion in order to position himself as a benevolent philanthropist. In private, Leopold wanted to make Belgium a major colonial power, rivaling France and England. However, he recognized that, if he tried to seize land in Africa, other European powers would stop him right away. So Leopold tried another approach—he hosted lavish international conferences on evangelism and philanthropy in Africa, strongly implying that he was interested in educating and civilizing the people of Africa rather than making himself rich.

As the passage suggests, Leopold’s public relations measures were wildly successful. He invited hundreds of rich, powerful people to Belgium, and succeeded in fooling them into thinking that he was a sincere humanitarian. The passage is an especially clear example of how Europeans of the 19th century used evangelism and charity as alibis for their real mission—making themselves wealthy. In a sense, Leopold’s plan to strengthen his country while pretending to be a “do-gooder” could be said to encapsulate the actions taken by much of Western Europe throughout the Industrial Revolution.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

The king raised some money through selling bonds, although far less than he had hoped. He wrote to the Pope, urging the Catholic Church to buy Congo bonds to encourage the spread of Christ's word.

Related Characters: King Leopold II
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

King Leopold was a skillful politician, and he knew how to manipulate his allies on the international stage to further his interests. Here, Hochschild shows how Leopold used his connections to the Catholic Church to convince the Pope to support his ambitions in the Congo. Leopold claimed that he was trying to spread Catholicism to the people of the Congo; therefore, the Pope believed it was his duty to buy Leopold’s Congo bonds and support the Belgian presence in Africa.

The passage is an especially striking example of how King Leopold managed to be “all things to all people.” A master politician, as well as an amoral tyrant, Leopold had no qualms about lying to the Pope about his intentions in the Congo; rather, he said whatever needed to be said to get the Pope on his side. Throughout his long reign, Leopold charmed hundreds of powerful religious and political leaders into supporting him; he could never have maintained control over the Congo if he hadn’t been such a charismatic liar.

Chapter 8 Quotes

In 1887, the king asked him to serve as governor of the colony's eastern province, with its capital at Stanley Falls, and Tippu Tip accepted; several relatives occupied posts under him. At this early stage, with Leopold's military forces spread thin, the bargain offered something to both men. (The king also contracted to buy the freedom of several thousand of Tippu Tip's slaves, but one condition of their freedom, these "liberated" slaves and many others quickly discovered, was a seven-year enlistment term in the Force Publique.) Although Leopold managed for most of his life to be all things to all people, the spectacle of this antislavery crusader doing so much business with Africa's most prominent slave-dealer helped spur the first murmurings against the king in Europe.

Related Characters: King Leopold II, Tippu Tip
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the 1870s, Leopold II gained a reputation as a great humanitarian, and a firm opponent of slavery. Leopold was able to gain such a reputation because he contrasted his own beliefs with those of “Afro-Arab slavers.” Arab slave traders were a convenient bogeyman, which Leopold used to give a sense of urgency to his “civilizing” project in the Congo—he claimed that he wanted to protect the Africans from falling under Arab control.

However, as the passage shows, Leopold II clearly didn’t believe that Afro-Arab slave traders were the enemy, as he’d always claimed in public. On the contrary, Leopold was 1) willing to enslave the Congolese people, and 2) willing to cooperate with Arab slave traders, such as Tippu Tip. For several years, Tip, one of the most prominent slave traders in sub-Saharan Africa, was Leopold’s loyal servant—a clear reminder of Leopold’s moral hypocrisy.

Chapter 10 Quotes

For Leopold, the rubber boom was a godsend. He had gone dangerously into debt with his Congo investments, but he now saw that the return would be more lucrative than he had ever imagined. The world did not lose its desire for ivory but by the late 1880s wild rubber had far surpassed it as the main source of revenue from the Congo.

Related Characters: King Leopold II
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

In the late 1880s, Western industry developed a need for rubber. The popularization of the bicycle created a need for rubber tires, and soon, manufacturers used rubber for wheels, steam engines, and other important machines. The international demand for rubber was a boon to Leopold II, because there was plentiful rubber in the Congo territory. Rubber sap, collected from rubber vines, could be converted into strong, firm rubber, and sold to European manufacturers for a hefty profit.

The passage is important because it conveys the relationship between Western industrialization and Belgian human rights atrocities in the Congo. The Belgians forced Congolese slaves to work long hours in inhuman conditions to harvest rubber that would feed Europeans’ “addiction” to industry. Much like the profits of the Congo funded Leopold’s palaces and monuments in Belgium, the profit motive fueling the rubber industry incentivized using slave labor in order to make Europeans’ lives more luxurious. While it’s easy to demonize Leopold II and personally blame him for the horrors of the Congo, the truth is much more disturbing: Leopold II was only able to enact horrific policies in the Congo because Western capitalism incentivized slave labor and Western economies turned a blind eye to the source of their raw materials.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Due to the missionaries, from the mid-1890s on Leopold had to deal with scattered protests, like Sheppard's articles, about severed hands and slaughtered Africans. But the critics at first captured little attention, for they were not as skilled at public relations as the king, who deployed his formidable charm to neutralize them.

Related Characters: King Leopold II, William Sheppard
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

As early as the 1890s, Western writers and journalists had spoken out against the Belgian administration of the Congo. However, as Hochschild notes here, it took a long time before anyone took these writers’ claims particularly seriously.

Why did it take so long for the Western world to heed the warnings of people like William Sheppard and George Washington Williams, both of whom visited Africa in the 1880s and witnessed the Belgian army’s cruelty to the Congolese people? In part, it took a long time because Sheppard wasn’t very good at public relations—he didn’t do a good job of reaching out to powerful people and telling them what he knew about the Congo. By contrast, Leopold II was a master of public relations; he’d spent more than a decade currying favor with Europe’s elite, so he had a lot of credibility with powerful people. Thus, when Sheppard denounced Leopold in print, few people took Sheppard seriously. It wasn’t until Edmund Dene Morel began criticizing Leopold II in the late 1890s that the Congo reform movement was able to build enough good publicity to turn the international tide against Leopold. In other words, in this instance it was more important to be savvy and well connected than to be right.

Chapter 19 Quotes

It is an oversimplification to blame Africa's troubles today entirely on European imperialism; history is far more complicated' And yet, consider Mobutu again. Aside from the color of his skin, there were few ways in which he did not resemble the monarch who governed the same territory a hundred years earlier. His one-man rule. His great wealth taken from the land. His naming a lake after himself. His yacht. His appropriation of state possessions as his own. His huge shareholdings in private corporations doing business in his territory. Just as Leopold, using his privately controlled state, shared most of his rubber profits with no one, so Mobutu acquired his personal group of gold mines—and a rubber plantation.

Related Characters: King Leopold II, Joseph Mobutu
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hochschild discusses the history of the Congo during the 20th century, arguing that the Belgian occupation of the Congo in the early 20th century set the country on a path of violence, chaos, instability, and economic depression that continues to this day. For example, in the 1950s, the Congo fell under the control of a U.S.-backed dictator named Joseph Mobutu, who ruled his country with an iron fist. He tortured those who opposed him, killed many of his political rivals, and robbed the Congolese people of their rubber, metal, and ivory.

Hochschild seems to be implying that Mobutu wouldn’t have risen to power, and ruled his country so cruelly, had it not been for the legacy of King Leopold II. First, it’s possible that Mobutu was directly inspired by King Leopold—Leopold was a role model for the young, megalomaniacal Mobutu. Second, it’s possible that the Western countries (including the United States) would not have been so willing to support Mobutu’s murderous policies had King Leopold II not already set a precedent for cruelty in the Congo.

Hochschild doesn’t have enough time to explore his hypothesis seriously. Nevertheless, he argues that King Leopold II’s legacy has been to weaken and fragment the Congo, paving the way for dictatorship.

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King Leopold II Character Timeline in King Leopold’s Ghost

The timeline below shows where the character King Leopold II appears in King Leopold’s Ghost. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction
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...most Europeans, Edmund Dene Morel knows that the Congo Free State is owned by King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold is a popular, even beloved ruler, praised for being a great... (full context)
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...in the Congo. He succeeds in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of powerful people against King Leopold. (full context)
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...century. As many as ten million Congolese people may have died in slavery under King Leopold. Adam Hochschild, the author of this book, has been fascinated and horrified by Western intervention... (full context)
Chapter 2
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...of the many people who had followed Stanley’s expedition to find David Livingstone was King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold was the new king of Belgium, which had only become an... (full context)
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Leopold married the Archduchess Marie-Henriette; their marriage was, by all accounts, very unhappy. Leopold and Marie-Henriette... (full context)
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Leopold had a sister, Charlotte, who later married a duke and was installed by Napoleon III... (full context)
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In the 1870s, Leopold learned of Henry Morton Stanley, who was then traveling through Africa to find Livingstone. Leopold... (full context)
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In September 1876, Leopold held a Geographic Conference with explorers and missionaries from across Europe. At the time, Stanley... (full context)
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...next few years, wealthy philanthropists and humanitarians sent large donations to the new IAA while Leopold prepared to claim the Congo for himself. Over the past decade, he had learned that... (full context)
Chapter 3
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In the months leading up to the end of the expedition, Leopold had learned a lot about Stanley. He read countless articles about Stanley’s travels, and decided... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Henry Morton Stanley traveled to meet King Leopold in June of 1878. At the time, Stanley was Europe’s leading expert on the Congo... (full context)
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When Leopold finally met with Stanley, Leopold was 43 years old, and a shrewd, experienced monarch. Stanley,... (full context)
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What did Leopold expect to find in the Congo? In no small part, he was excited by the... (full context)
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For the next five years, Stanley worked diligently on behalf of King Leopold. His men, some of whom were white Europeans, some of whom were Africans who lived... (full context)
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...began exploring the area surrounding the Congo. Afraid that he would lose his colonial holdings, Leopold instructed Stanley to work as quickly as possible to secure his Congolese landholdings. Stanley, backed... (full context)
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...Congolese land, and he’d built sturdy roads and buildings. Stanley complained more than once about Leopold’s greed, even though it was Stanley himself who allowed Leopold to realize his greedy ambitions.... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...Florida as the guest of General Henry Shelton Sanford, still the loyal servant of King Leopold II. Sanford was a longtime supporter of the Republican Party to which Arthur belonged, and... (full context)
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Throughout 1884, Sanford continued his work as a Washington lobbyist for Leopold’s cause. He wined and dined American politicians and businessmen, and found a powerful ally in... (full context)
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U.S. recognition of the Congo immediately strengthened Leopold’s position in Africa. Leopold scored another victory when he convinced France to formally recognize his... (full context)
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...which the leaders of Europe’s great powers met to discuss the division of Africa. King Leopold did not attend the conference, because, officially, the Congo was under the control of the... (full context)
Chapter 6
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During his years securing Congolese lands, Leopold’s family life fell apart. He had a series of affairs, and then married his daughter,... (full context)
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Leopold took advantage of European technology to secure his newly-official landholdings. He purchased steamships to travel... (full context)
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In 1889, Leopold was asked to become the honorary president of the Aborigines Protection Society (APS), a British... (full context)
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In the early 1890s, Leopold made an important deal with the Belgian parliament. While continuing to claim to be a... (full context)
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After Stanley finished securing the Congo for Leopold, Leopold kept Stanley as a consultant, for fear that Stanley would go to work for... (full context)
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...the region, asked for European support to defend the Sudan from fundamentalist rebels. Stanley begged Leopold for permission to travel to the Sudan to fight alongside Pasha. Leopold, sensing a great... (full context)
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...Humiliatingly, Emin turned down Stanley’s offer that Emin become governor of the new Congolese province. Leopold’s attempt to double his African landholdings had failed. (full context)
Chapter 7
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...White House, Williams was introduced to Henry Shelton Sanford, then lobbying for U.S. recognition of Leopold’s landholdings in the Congo. Sanford convinced Williams that the Congo could be a home for... (full context)
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...write articles about the possibility of an African American colony in the Congo. He interviewed Leopold, and was dazzled with what he perceived as Leopold’s magnanimity and Christian piety. Inspired by... (full context)
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In Williams’s earliest letters to Leopold, sent from the Congo, it is already clear that Williams is disturbed by the state... (full context)
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Williams’s letters on the Congo were published in the New York Herald, Stanley’s former employer. Leopold was furious with Williams, and told his contacts in Europe that Williams was a liar.... (full context)
Chapter 8
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By the 1890s, King Leopold personally controlled all the land in the Congo, thanks to Stanley’s intimidation policies in the... (full context)
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Throughout the 1890s, as Leopold issued edicts officially banning slavery, not one American or European visitor besides George Washington Williams... (full context)
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Leopold ordered that African children should be put to work in the Congo. He donated large... (full context)
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Around the same time, Leopold faced problems with his own family. His daughter, Stephanie, had married an Austro-Hungarian prince who... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...had surpassed ivory as the Congo’s main source of revenue. The sale of rubber made Leopold huge profits because he paid nothing for the labor of Congolese slaves. But harvesting rubber... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Even after he failed to annex the Sudan, King Leopold II continued to fantasize about building an African empire for Belgium. He spoke with William... (full context)
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Leopold ordered the building of a new railroad in the Congo for shipping rubber. The project... (full context)
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In 1895, Leopold faced his first real public relations challenge: reports of a Congo state officer who had... (full context)
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...gradually realized the truth: the Congo relied upon slave labor. As Morel realized this, “King Leopold II acquired his most formidable enemy.” (full context)
Chapter 12
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...going on in the Congo, few Europeans had spoken out about the truth of King Leopold’s territories. Most people simply praised Leopold for his generosity and greatness. From Morel, however, Leopold... (full context)
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...as a bribe for his silence; Morel refused. In 1900, he began writing attacks on Leopold, which he sent to British newspapers. Then, in 1903, he founded his own newspaper, West... (full context)
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Leopold II, furious with Morel, arranged for one of his representatives to meet with Morel and... (full context)
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...national outcry. British politicians, missionaries, and humanitarians wanted to solve the “Congo Question.” This alarmed Leopold, since Britain was the world’s leading superpower. For the time being, however, Morel couldn’t do... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...British consulate in the Congo. Before traveling to the Congo again, Casement dined with King Leopold, who asked Casement to tell him if he heard of any human rights abuses. Casement... (full context)
Chapter 14
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...to have thought of Africans as “noble savages.” And while Morel was outraged with King Leopold’s human rights abuses, he was silent, throughout his life, on his own country’s moral crimes:... (full context)
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...spite of the limitations of his political and racial views, Morel campaigned vigorously against King Leopold’s policies in the Congo. He enlisted businessmen in his cause, convincing them that Leopold’s monopolistic,... (full context)
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While Morel spread information about Leopold throughout Britain, Leopold began to monitor the situation in the Congo more carefully. He instructed... (full context)
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Around the same time that Morel was attacking Leopold in the press, a scandal came to light: Leopold, aged 65, had been having an... (full context)
Chapter 15
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It is time to ask a sobering question: what was the death toll in Leopold’s Congo territory? It’s difficult to answer such a question, because King Leopold’s policies continued for... (full context)
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...who cite information from missionaries, oral tradition, genealogical maps, etc. So it’s possible that King Leopold’s Congo regime claimed ten million African lives. (full context)
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It’s time to ask another unpleasant question: why did Leopold allow such brutal practices? Isn’t it bad business to kill one’s own workers? In fact,... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...In public, when asked about the atrocities in the Congo, he continued to support King Leopold. He died in 1904, before the attacks against Leopold became really vitriolic. (full context)
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By 1905, the backlash against Leopold had become truly international. Members of the Swedish Parliament signed a statement supporting Morel’s CRA,... (full context)
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In spite of Leopold’s efforts, the criticism of his regime in the Congo spread quickly, eventually reaching the writer... (full context)
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In America, Leopold tried to get powerful politicians and businessmen on his side. He met with congressmen and... (full context)
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Leopold made a huge blunder by hiring a man named Henry Kowalsky as his lobbyist in... (full context)
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Leopold tried to launch a new commission, the Commission of Inquiry. He sent three judges to... (full context)
Chapter 17
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The testimony gathered by the Commission of Inquiry finally caught King Leopold II “naked.” King Leopold himself had sent the three judges to the Congo, so he... (full context)
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...Belgian Parliament. William Sheppard, whose article ten years before had launched an international backlash against Leopold, argued that the sale of the Congo changed nothing—the local administrators would continue to exploit... (full context)
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In December of 1909, King Leopold, 74 years old, fell very ill, probably with cancer. He died a few days later,... (full context)
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...Parliament for three main reasons. First, Morel had done such a thorough job of tying Leopold to the cruelty in the Congo that, now that Leopold was dead, he had to... (full context)
Chapter 18
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The death of King Leopold II was widely seen as marking the end of an era of cruelty in the... (full context)
Chapter 19
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...a huge collection of Africana, almost entirely stolen from the Congolese during the reign of Leopold II. Nowhere in the entire museum is it stated that millions of Congolese people were... (full context)
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In short, “the Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting.” Leopold, and many of his successors in Belgian politics, worked hard to erase the records of... (full context)
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...Congo, Belgians wrote the school textbooks—for decades, Belgian and Congolese children grew up believing that Leopold II was a great leader. In many Congolese villages, however, the truth about Leopold II... (full context)
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...American presidents praised him as an honorable, reasonable leader. In many ways, Mobutu resembled King Leopold II: he was a tyrant, obsessed with money and power, and capable of incredible cruelty. (full context)