King Leopold’s Ghost

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King Leopold’s Ghost Prologue Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
For centuries, Europeans have fantasized about the land that lies south of the Sahara Desert. Writers told stories about the exotic, wealthy civilizations south of the Sahara, and the brutal, “savage” African kings who ruled them. But it wasn’t until the middle of the 15th century that Europeans had the maritime technology to travel south along the coast of Africa. In the 1480s, a Portuguese captain named Diogo Cào led an expedition down the coast of Africa. He was amazed to see that the sea itself was changing color—eventually, it turned a dark, brownish-yellow. Cào had stumbled upon the mouth of a huge, silt-rich river—the Congo River. He led his expedition through the mouth of the river, and landed a few miles inland. Cào claimed the land surrounding the river—soon to be known as the Congo—in the name of Portugal.
The late 15th century marked the dawn of the modern age of European imperialism. Armed with unbeatable weapons—guns, cannons, swords, etc.—and maritime technology, Europeans had a huge advantage over the native peoples of Africa and the Americas. For a thorough explanation of why Europeans developed these technologies first (and a thorough refutation of the old, racist lie that white Europeans are superior to other people), consult Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Themes
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Cào soon discovered that there were people living in the Congo. As many as three million subjects lived under a king, who greeted the Portuguese warmly. It has been suggested that the king at the time, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, welcomed Cào’s expedition because he wanted Cào to help him subdue a rebellion in his kingdom. In the following years, the Portuguese helped Affonso subdue his own people, and began building schools and churches in the Congo.
Hochschild emphasizes the seemingly trivial detail that Cào noticed millions of people living in the Congo. As we’ll see later on, Cào’s observations about the population of the Congo contrast with the attitude of later European colonizers, who sometimes pretended that there were no native peoples whatsoever in the Congo.
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The Portuguese learned about Congolese culture. They discovered that the people of the Congo practiced polygamy, and had their own system of slavery. In Congolese slavery, slaves often earned their freedom within a few years, and it wasn’t uncommon for slaves and free people to marry. When the Portuguese arrived in the Congo, however, they found that the Congolese king was willing to sell them thousands of slaves. Within a decade, slavery had become the primary reason for the Portuguese presence in the Congo. Portugal sent people to the Congo to build schools or teach religion or language to the Congolese—but these people (even some Portuguese priests) quickly realized that they could make more money buying slaves. When European explorers arrived in the Americas it created a vast new market for Congolese slaves. Many of the slaves from the Congo were shipped to the Americas, especially the American South, Brazil, and the West Indies.
It wasn’t long before Portugal introduced an international system of slavery to the Congo. It’s important to recognize that the Congo already had a slave trade—as, indeed, did many of the territories of sub-Saharan Africa. However, as Hochschild explains, slavery in sub-Saharan Africa was very different from slavery as the Portuguese practiced it. Before Portugal’s colonization, Congolese slaves often gained their freedom after a few years, and didn’t have to contend with the racial and moral stigmatization of being a slave. Portuguese slavery, by contrast, was harsh, race-based, and lasted a lifetime. Portuguese colonialists needed lifelong slaves to work in the Americas.
Themes
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Affonso I, as the Congolese king came to be known, played a decisive role in the history of the Congo. He cooperated with Portuguese colonialists, studied Portuguese language, and even agreed to be baptized as a Christian. He wanted to use European science and technology to strengthen his country, and thought that cooperating with explorers was the best way to do so. His efforts at Europeanizing the Congo were selective, though: for example, he tried to keep European legal tradition out of the Congo.
Affonso is a tragic character in many ways. He was a talented, intelligent man, but he committed a huge tactical error by thinking that he could be selective in Westernizing his kingdom. Affonso tried to import European science but preserve his own royal power over his people—within a few decades, however, the Portuguese had taken all the power in the region, ending the monarchy forever.
Themes
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Affonso I was a slave-owner, but he seemed not to have realized how profoundly the European slave trade would reshape his kingdom. Late in his life, he wrote about being horrified by the sight of tens of thousands of his people being kidnapped and taken away from their country. Affonso I tried to end the slave trade by sending emissaries to speak with the Pope in Rome, but Portuguese soldiers prevented his emissaries from reaching Rome when they landed in Lisbon.
Affonso I could never have realized how greatly the Portuguese slave trade would change Africa. Like most Congolese people, Affonso I seems to have thought of slavery as a temporary, non-racialized practice., The Portuguese quickly began to conduct lifelong, racialized slavery on a massive scale, which altered the face of the Congo forever.
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After Affonso I’s death, the Congolese state quickly lost its power. Other European powers, such as Britain, France, and Holland joined the slave trade. In 1665, the Congolese king assembled an army in a desperate attempt to defeat the Portuguese forever. The army was defeated, though, and the king was executed, spelling the end of the Congolese state.
The Portuguese colonial experience set a strong precedent for Western imperialism. Inspired by Portugal’s example, and its new economic power, other European countries, such as England and France, participated in slave trading as well. The power vacuum that destroyed the Congolese state after Affonso’s death also echoes many conflicts to come.
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Affonso I’s letters and speeches are some of the only surviving writings about early Congolese slavery from the perspective of the Congolese themselves. However, 20th century Congolese oral historians describe the Congolese people’s fear of the early European explorers. 16th century Congolese people seem to have been obsessed with the idea that the Portuguese were cannibals—much as, later on, Europeans became obsessed with the notion of African cannibalism.
Hochschild makes an effort to include African accounts of the imperial experience whenever possible. Affonso’s descriptions of the Portuguese colonialists (and the descriptions that have survived in oral history) suggest that the Congolese viewed the Portuguese as frightening, intimidating figures.
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Although European powers continued to kidnap Africans and sell them into slavery in the Americas, it would be more than 400 years before European colonialists ventured up the Congo River toward the center of the African continent. The river flowed outward into the ocean at a rapid rate, and the land surrounding the river was steep and rocky, which meant that sailors had no easy way to explore the central African interior. In the 19th century, however, the invention of the modern steam engine gave Europeans the power to travel upriver. In 1816, some of the earliest English explorers to attempt to travel up the Congo coined the phrase “the Dark Continent” to describe Africa. This phrase says more about the English than about African people.
For a long time, Europe lacked the technology to explore the inner parts of Africa, so Portuguese colonialists and their successors restricted their movements to the coastal areas of the continent. To Europeans, then, the mystery of the interior of Africa coupled with their imaginary ideas about the strange, exotic, and even dangerous (cannibalistic) Africans, led them to coin the phrase “the Dark Continent.” Clearly, this phrase has everything to do with European ignorance and mythology about Africa, and nothing to do with the African experience of Africa.
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Racism and Human Rights Theme Icon