King Leopold’s Ghost

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Themes and Colors
Imperialism Theme Icon
Publicity and Mass Communication Theme Icon
Racism and Human Rights Theme Icon
Indifference and Activism Theme Icon
Historiography and Bias Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in King Leopold’s Ghost, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Indifference and Activism Theme Icon

Throughout King Leopold’s Ghost, Hochschild tries to answer a profound question: why did millions of educated, “civilized” people who had heard about the cruelty in the Congo sit back and do nothing? Hochschild offers many different reasons: the racism of America and Western Europe at the time, the “mythology” of imperialism, the sophisticated publicity maneuvers of King Leopold II, etc. In the end, though, Hochschild keeps coming back to the same disturbing truth: ordinary humans beings have the ability to ignore the suffering of other human beings.

Hochschild shows that many people—perhaps even most—are willing to overlook cruelty if it doesn’t concern them personally. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the history of the Belgian Congo is that thousands of Westerners visited the Congo in the 1880s and 90s, and almost none of them spoke out against the atrocities they witnessed. King Leopold’s Ghost further shows how human beings can be enlisted to do evil themselves. Most of the officers and soldiers who committed human rights atrocities in the Congo were young, idealistic Europeans who thought that traveling to the Congo was a good career move. While few of them had a criminal record or any history of cruelty, the fact that their superiors were ordering them to torture and kill Congolese people was enough to convince them to obey barbaric orders (a reaction that Hochschild compares with that of the genocidal Nazis who claimed that they had only been following orders). Bizarrely, many of the officers who tortured and murdered Congolese people claimed that they didn’t like hurting other people, or even said that they didn’t “feel like themselves” when they hurt their victims. This might suggest that human beings have the power to “dissociate” themselves from their own acts of cruelty, in effect ignoring their own evil deeds.

Edmund Dene Morel, one of the key crusaders against King Leopold II’s regime in the Congo, wasn’t a particularly extraordinary man either: he was a humble, working-class business employee who decided to stand up for justice rather than simply continue to follow orders. During his years with the Congo reform movement, Morel became increasingly supportive of African property rights, and, as an older man, he fought for a variety of great humanitarian causes around the world. Furthermore, Morel’s activism inspired other people around the world to stand up for human rights. This suggests that witnessing injustice can bring out ordinary people’s virtue and talent, as well as their indifference. In all, the history of the Congo reform movement paints an ambiguous view of human nature. On one hand, it is depressingly clear that human beings can be cruel and sadistic if pushed by their superiors. Furthermore, many humans will remain apathetic to cruelty, as long as the cruelty doesn’t affect them directly. However, Hochschild also shows that ordinary people can summon the courage to become activists and fight for their fellow human beings. In the 21st century, the world is full of cruelty and injustice—it’s up to us to choose whether we want to tolerate it or fight it.

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Indifference and Activism ThemeTracker

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Indifference and Activism Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost

Below you will find the important quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost related to the theme of Indifference and Activism.
Chapter 5 Quotes

As he was winning congressional support for Leopold’s claim to the Congo, Sanford discovered an unexpected ally. Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, a former Confederate brigadier general, was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Like most white Southern politicians of the era, he was frightened by the specter of millions of freed slaves and their descendants harboring threatening dreams of equality … Morgan fretted for years over the "problem" of this growing black population. His solution, endorsed by many, was simple: send them back to Africa!

Related Characters: Senator John Tyler Morgan, General Henry Shelton Sanford
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hochschild describes how Leopold II was able to get international recognition for his landholdings in the Congo. He sent one of his allies, Henry Shelton Sanford, to the U.S. to persuade Senator John Tyler Morgan to recognize the Congo under Leopold. Morgan, a white supremacist in an era when many American politicians were openly racist, was a strong supporter of the “back to Africa” movement—the proposal that African Americans move to African resettlement colonies, rather than continue living in the U.S. Sanford was able to use Morgan’s desire to send African Americans out of the country as leverage for Leopold’s own interests. Morgan believed that by supporting Leopold II now, he would have a place to send African Americans later on.

The passage shows how diabolically clever Sanford was in finding support for Leopold’s landholdings in Africa. In general, Leopold was a master of public relations and politics: he knew how to persuade other people that their interests aligned with his own. Furthermore, the passage shows that Leopold II cannot be scapegoated for the human rights atrocities of the Congo: Leopold only succeeded in gaining control over the Congo because of the enthusiastic support of the international community, including racist American politicians such as John Tyler Morgan.

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Chapter 7 Quotes

By the time he went to the Congo in 1890, close to a thousand Europeans and Americans had visited the territory or worked there. Williams was the only one to speak out fully and passionately and repeatedly about what others denied or ignored. The years to come would make his words ever more prophetic.

Related Characters: George Washington Williams
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 7, Hochschild discusses George Washington Williams, one of the first Westerners to criticize the Belgian administration of the Congo. Williams witnessed Belgian officers beating Congolese women and children, and he also saw Congolese adults being forced to work as slaves. As Hochschild notes, hundreds of Westerners had visited the Congo and seen the same things as Williams—however, none of them spoke out about what they’d seen.

Why was Williams the first Westerner to criticize the Belgians in the Congo? In part, Hochschild suggests, he did so because he was in a special position to sympathize with the Congolese. He was African American, and, therefore, he knew first-hand what it felt like to be treated as a second-class human being. In an era when many Westerners (even liberals) were openly racist and considered Africans to be subhuman, Williams was a steadfast believer in the humanity and dignity of the Congolese people. However, Hochschild also suggests that Williams spoke out about what he’d seen because he was a particularly daring, single-minded person. Disturbingly, most human beings choose to remain silent about human rights abuses when authorities sanction those abuses; Williams, however, was the rare kind of person who speaks out about injustice instead of passively accepting it.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Few Europeans working for the regime left records of their shock at the sight of officially sanctioned terror. The white men who passed through the territory as military officers, steamboat captains, or state or concession company officials generally accepted the use of the chicotte as unthinkingly as hundreds of thousands of other men in uniform would accept their assignments, a half-century later, to staff the Nazi and Soviet concentration camps.

Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hochschild analogizes the state of the Congo under Belgian occupation to the state of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. There were tens of thousands of young, idealistic Europeans working in the Congo in the 1890s; for the most part, these Europeans followed their orders and killed and tortured the Congolese people without question. In much the same way, many of the people who became Nazis in the 1930s and 40s were young, ordinary-seeming Germans who nonetheless proceeded to beat, torture, and kill Jews because their commanding officers told them to do so.

Hochschild’s point, in short, is that obedience to authority can be a dangerous thing. Few human beings would independently choose to hurt other people. However, many human beings would—and do—agree to hurt other human beings when they’re ordered to do so. Historians and philosophers have argued that atrocities such as the Holocaust and the Belgian occupation of the Congo would never have occurred had it not been for humans’ ability to obey without question.

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 9 Quotes

We do not know whether Rom was already acting out any of these dreams of power, murder, and glory when Conrad passed through Leopoldville in 1890 or whether he only talked of them. Whatever the case, the moral landscape of Heart of Darkness and the shadowy figure at its center are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy.

Related Characters: Joseph Conrad, Captain Léon Rom
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

In this short chapter, Hochschild discusses the life and career of Joseph Conrad, one of the most famous writers of the early 20th century. As a young man, Conrad worked in the Congo driving a steamship. As such, Conrad witnessed human rights atrocities—he saw Belgian soldiers beating and killing Congolese women and children. Later in his life, Conrad wrote a novella, Heart of Darkness, in which a man named Marlow travels to the Congo and witnesses human atrocities against the Congolese. Hochschild argues that Conrad’s novella, despite being a work of fiction, was based on actual events that Conrad witnessed during his time in Africa. For example, the character Mr. Kurtz, often considered the antagonist of the novella, may have been based on a real-life Belgian officer, Captain Lèon Rom. Rom was known to be an especially cruel, sadistic man, even by the standards of the Belgian occupation. He was said to enjoy collecting the heads and hands of murdered Congolese people—a trait that Conrad gave to Kurtz in his book. In all, Hochschild stresses the point that, although Heart of Darkness is often praised for its otherworldly, nightmarish tone, Conrad didn’t have to invent very much—most of the grisly passages in his book are based on real-life events.

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 14 Quotes

Significantly, Morel's humanitarian political ancestors, unlike his socialist contemporaries, had firmly believed that improving the lot of downtrodden people everywhere was good for business … Such humanitarians never saw themselves as being in conflict with the imperial project—as long as it was British imperialism. … This was the tradition in which Morel felt at home, and it was a tradition that perfectly suited his organizational talent.

Related Characters: Edmund Dene Morel
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Hochschild talks about the personality of Edmund Dene Morel. Morel was an undeniably important figure in the Congo reform movement: he was a master publicist, and knew how to turn the tide against Leopold II. However, Morel wasn’t perfect by any means: although he was sympathetic to the Congolese slaves suffering under tyrannical Belgian imperialism, he seemed not to object to the principle of imperialism itself. Indeed, Morel made many statements throughout his lifetime in which he praised British imperialism.

Unlike his socialist peers, then, who were interested in dismantling capitalism to create a radical vision of economic equality, Morel was interested in fixing important humanitarian problems without fundamentally changing the status quo. In other words, Morel was able to recognize that the exploitation of the Congo and the abuse of the Congolese people was a crisis, but he was not willing or able to identify and attack the political and economic structures that underlay this exploitation. Thus, by 21st century standards, Morel’s ideas about imperialism and race seem highly naïve. In all, Hochschild refuses to look at Morel through “rosy glasses”—although he has a lot of respect for Morel’s achievements as a humanitarian, he does not try to disguise Morel’s intellectual and moral flaws.

Because Shanu was a British subject, the Congo authorities did not want to risk an international incident by arresting him. Instead, they harassed him unremittingly, even rescinding the medal he had been awarded for his work for the state. They then ordered all state employees not to patronize his businesses. That guaranteed that these would fail. In July 1905 Hezekiah Andrew Shanu committed suicide.

Related Characters: Hezekiah Andrew Shanu
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

As Hochschild made clear in the prologue to his book, there is a temptation, when writing a history of the 19th century Congo, to emphasize the achievements of white Europeans and to marginalize the contributions of Africans. One reason this temptation is so strong is that the vast majority of the written accounts of the 19th century Congo come from Europeans (whereas many native Africans at the time had no written language, or were forbidden from writing about their experiences under colonial rule).

In this passage, however, Hochschild writes about the important contributions of Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, a Nigerian man who risked his life to pass information about Belgian human rights abuses to Edmund Dene Morel. For many years, Shanu sent reports on the Congo to European journalists; however, it was eventually discovered that he was an ally of Morel. Afterwards, the Belgian army in the Congo intimidated and harassed him, ultimately playing a major role in his suicide in 1905. The life of Shanu is an important reminder that white Europeans weren’t the only (or even primary) people who fought for Congolese rights in the 19th century; arguably the most energetic and important human rights crusaders of the era were the Congolese slaves themselves (many of whom died fighting for their freedom), followed by other African figures, such as Shanu, who risked their lives to inform journalists like Edmund Dene Morel of the truth.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Just as he had done in Britain, Morel smoothly shaped his message for different American constituencies. Most of his allies were progressive intellectuals like Mark Twain, but he was willing to sup with the devil to help his cause. He made shrewd use of Senator John Tyler Morgan, the former Confederate general who had helped to engineer U.S. recognition of Leopold's Congo twenty years earlier. Morgan, still thundering away about sending blacks back to Africa so as to make an all-white South, wanted the abuses in the Congo cleaned up with no delay. Otherwise, how could black Americans be persuaded to move there?

Related Characters: Edmund Dene Morel, Senator John Tyler Morgan, Mark Twain
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hochschild shows that Edmund Dene Morel, much like his nemesis, Leopold II, was a master of publicity—indeed, many of his political maneuvers mirrored those of Leopold himself. For instance, Morel was able to enlist the aid of Senator John Tyler Morgan of the United States, just as King Leopold had done ten years earlier. Morgan had previously supported Leopold’s occupation of the Congo under the supposition that the Congo could serve as a resettlement colony for African Americans. Now, Morel, knowing full-well that Morgan (a white supremacist) supported the “back to Africa” movement, persuaded Morgan that the only way to ensure that African Americans could be resettled in Africa would be to improve the human rights situation in the Congo.

While Morel didn’t agree with Morgan’s white supremacist views, he was able to convince Morgan that their needs aligned. In the end, Morel was able to manipulate Morgan into fighting on behalf of the Congo reform movement, demonstrating that Morel was a shrewd manipulator and a first-rate politician. It’s also worth nothing that the pervasive and convoluted racist ideologies of the time created bizarre alliances. Senator Morgan’s white supremacist inclinations led him to support Leopold’s “humanitarian” work in the Congo, as well as Morel’s attempts to correct Leopold’s wrongs, all in service of his desire to have a place to resettle African Americans. This speaks volumes to the ethical knots that racism and colonialism created, and the difficulty of untangling genuine humanitarianism and cynicism or bigotry.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Despite the report's critical conclusions, the statements by African witnesses were never directly quoted. The commission's report was expressed in generalities. The stories were not published separately, nor was anyone allowed to see them. They ended up in the closed section of a state archive in Brussels. Not until the 1980s were people at last permitted to read and copy them freely.

Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hochschild offers a particularly clear example of European bias in the history of the Congo. In the early 20th century, King Leopold II made a huge tactical error: knowing that the tide was turning against him and his Congo regime, he assembled an international team of judges and invited them to study the administration of the Congo. Leopold gambled that the judges’ language barrier would prevent them from learning much about the Congo; however, the judges spoke to many Congolese slaves, who told them about the horrors they’d witnessed under Belgian rule. Horrified, the team of judges compiled a lengthy report criticizing the Belgian occupation of the Congo in very strong language.

The problem with the judges’ report on the Congo, however, was that it included no first-person accounts by Congolese slaves. Instead of discussing individual victims of the Belgians’ authority, the judges preferred to speak in “generalities.” As Hochschild suggests, the judges’ report exemplifies the subtle racism of the Congo reform movement. Although the judges clearly wanted to help the Congolese people (and they clearly believed that the Belgians’ use of force was unjust), they seemingly didn’t trust or respect Africans enough to include their testimony in their report. Ultimately, the internal judges’ report confirms the point that Hochschild made in introduction to his book: it is difficult to write a history of the Belgian occupation of the Congo because the surviving written sources marginalize the stories of the native peoples of the Congo.

"I realized that I was looking at this tragedy [in the Congo] with the eyes of another race of people once hunted themselves."

Related Characters: Roger Casement
Page Number: 268
Explanation and Analysis:

Roger Casement, who collaborated with Edmund Dene Morel in the Congo reform movement, wrote that he felt an especially strong connection with Congolese slaves because he, too, belonged to a race of “hunted people.”

It’s not entirely clear that Roger Casement meant when he referred to himself as being hunted. It’s possible that Casement was referencing his Irish heritage; and indeed, Irish people were often discriminated against in England during Casement’s lifetime. Moreover, the island of Ireland could be considered an imperial territory—during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, England colonized Ireland by force, converting Ireland into a part of Great Britain. Later in life, Casement fought for Irish independence from Great Britain, eventually going to jail for doing so.

Another possibility is that Casement was referencing his homosexuality. During Casement’s lifetime, homosexuality was a serious criminal offense. Casement’s homosexuality would eventually come back to haunt him—after he was arrested for supporting Irish independence it was revealed that Casement was a homosexual, which discredited him in the eyes of many of his former allies. Left with few powerful advocates, Casement was sentenced to death for treason, and he was executed shortly thereafter. Regardless of what he meant, this quote underscores the point that the most vocal critics of Belgian rule in the Congo tended to be those who understood personally what it meant to be systematically mistreated by a society or empire.

Morel was locked in a double race against time: against the inevitable British recognition of the Congo as a Belgian colony, which finally came in 1913, and against the waning fervor of his supporters. Even Casement felt that "the break-up of the pirate's stronghold [was] nearly accomplished" and urged Morel to declare the campaign over. Despite some doubts voiced in his private correspondence, Morel decided to publicly claim victory. "I do not wish to paint the present in roseate hues. The wounds of the Congo will take generations to heal. But . . . the atrocities have disappeared. . . . The revenues are no longer supplied by forced or slave labor. The rubber tax has gone. The native is free to gather the produce of his soil. . . . A responsible Government has replaced an irresponsible despotism." The one major goal not achieved, he acknowledged, was African ownership of land.

Related Characters: Edmund Dene Morel
Page Number: 273
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Hochschild discusses the aftermath of Leopold II’s death for the Congo reform movement, which had cast Leopold as its sole villain. Emphasizing Leopold’s role in the Congo proved to be a tactical error, in that the reform movement found itself without momentum to fix the still-present atrocities once Leopold was gone. Morel recognized the truth—that the Congo reform movement needed to continue fighting for Congolese rights—but the public was convinced that, with Leopold gone, the troubles were over. In this instance, PR got the best of Morel—there was no way to undo the way he had, for decades, been framing the situation in the Congo as Leopold’s fault alone.

Ultimately, the Belgian parliament responded to the Congo reform movement by introducing some reforms in its colonial holdings. However, as Morel clearly recognized, these reforms were far from enough. Life in the Congo remained harsh for the native Congolese: they had to work long hours to support their families, and decades of Belgian cruelty had torn apart once-thriving families and tribes. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Belgian Parliament’s reforms didn’t address the root cause of the human rights atrocities in the Congo: the unjust ownership of Congolese land by European imperialists.

Morel’s frustration with the Belgian parliament suggests that, throughout his career as a human rights crusader, he’d become more radical in his thinking. Earlier in his career, Morel seemed not to object to the basic notion of European ownership of African land. By this point, it appears, he strongly supported African control of African land. Nevertheless, Morel decided to celebrate the Congo reform movement’s short-term victories, rather than continuing to press for more.

Chapter 18 Quotes

With the start of the Second World War, the legal maximum for forced labor in the Congo was increased to 170 days per man per year. More than eighty percent of the uranium in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs came from the heavily guarded Congo mine of Shinkolobwe. The Allies also wanted ever more rubber for the tires of hundreds of thousands of military trucks, jeeps, and warplanes. Some of the rubber came from the Congo's new plantations of cultivated rubber trees. But in the villages, Africans were forced to go into the rain forest, sometimes for weeks at a time, to search for wild vines once again.

Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 18, Hochschild discusses the century following the Congo reform movement, and attempts to answer the question, “What did the Congo reform movement really accomplish?”

To begin with, Hochschild makes it clear that the Congo reform movement didn’t end human rights abuses in the Congo, though it may have improved the human rights situation somewhat. Belgian administrators continued to control the native Congolese, shipping massive amounts of rubber, ivory, metal, and uranium out of the country and into the hands of European and American industrialists. Worse, the native Congolese continued to work in squalid conditions to support Western industry. The Congolese were paid for their work—but not very much. In all, the Congo reform movement succeeded in mitigating Belgium’s human rights atrocities in some important respects; nevertheless, it failed to address the root cause of the problem—European imperialism. This should be tied, in the reader’s mind, to the failure of many of the leaders of the reform movement to identify imperialism as the engine of human rights atrocity. Perhaps, had these reformers tried to treat the cause rather than the symptom, the twentieth century history of the Congo could have been different.

When these other mass murders went largely unnoticed except by their victims, why, in Britain and the United States, was there such a storm of righteous protest about the Congo? The politics of empathy are fickle. Certainly one reason Britons and Americans focused on the Congo was that it was a safe target. Outrage over the Congo did not involve British or American misdeeds, nor did it entail the diplomatic, trade, or military consequences of taking on a major power like France or Germany.

Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

Hochschild hypothesizes that the Congo reform movement attracted international attention for the simple reason that Belgium was an easy target. Although there were many Western countries engaged in brutal imperialist ventures around the world, most of these countries eventually joined together to denounce Belgium. Belgium was a relatively new and weak European country, which meant that England, France, Germany, and the United States could safely denounce Belgian foreign policy without any serious threat to their own economies or foreign policies. Considering that the economic interests and foreign ventures that these Western powers wanted to protect included some colonialist atrocities of their own, this move to criticize Belgium should remind readers of Leopold II’s criticism of Arab slave traders, which served to distract from his own slave trading. In this way, the international humanitarian outcry (which did result in some tangible positive effects on conditions in the Congo) could also be seen as a cynical mechanism by which Western powers sought to pacify the public while preserving other human rights violations occurring simultaneously around the globe.

Chapter 19 Quotes

At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, the idea of full human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today.

Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

Hochschild concludes his book with a powerful reminder of the importance of fighting for human rights in the 21st century. Although King Leopold II lived a long time ago, there are many powerful people alive today who, like Leopold, want to deprive other people of their rights in order to increase their own fortunes. Thus, instead of thinking of Leopold as a figure of the distant past, we should think of him as a highly relevant, modern figure (indeed, Hochschild has made an effort to portray Leopold as being exceptionally “modern,” both in terms of his public relations manipulations and his economic policies).

By the same token, Hochschild suggests that readers can learn from the achievements of people like George Washington Williams and Edmund Dene Morel, respecting both their strengths and weaknesses as human rights crusaders. Above all, Hochschild doesn’t want us to think of the Belgian occupation of the Congo as a distant, trivial historical curiosity; instead, he encourages us to learn from people like Williams and Morel and use the lessons to fight people like Leopold II in our own societies.