King Leopold’s Ghost

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Publicity and Mass Communication Theme Analysis

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.
Publicity and Mass Communication Theme Icon

In addition to detailing the history of imperialism, King Leopold’s Ghost studies another important aspect of late 19th and early 20th century political history: the rise of mass communication. Throughout the 19th century, newspaper circulation grew enormously, as did the literacy rate in the Western world. Furthermore, telegraph networks connected different parts of the world, ensuring that news traveled fast. At a time when international mass communication was a relatively new invention, some, such as King Leopold II, used the media to further their immoral ends, while others, such as Edmund Dene Morel, used publicity as a force for good.

Hochschild characterizes King Leopold II of Belgium as a master of public relations who understood that it was possible to control the way the international community perceived him, thereby using his international reputation as a smokescreen for his actions. In order to craft a useful reputation, Leopold II publicized acts of humanitarianism and generosity (such as making charitable donations and organizing conferences). As a result, word of Leopold’s generosity and kindness spread throughout European newspapers, until he had acquired an international reputation as a good man. The “good PR” that Leopold created for himself acted as a smokescreen for his real intentions: founding a for-profit colony in the Congo and enslaving the Congolese people in order to grow his private fortune.

Hochschild also shows how Leopold used mass communication to master another public relations technique: obfuscation (making information deliberately unclear or confusing). Leopold spent years establishing the International African Association, a group supposedly devoted to charity. Then, when he was preparing to annex the Congo, he gave his administrative group a nearly identical set of initials, which caused international confusion as to whether his intervention in the Congo was a charitable act. In general, Leopold used jargon and confusing language in order to mislead the international community and hide the brutal facts of his tyrannical regime in the Congo. Sadistic though he was, Leopold II was decades ahead of his time: he used cutting-edge media tools to wage a full-scale PR campaign, fooling Europe into believing that a mass-murderer was a great humanitarian.

Although Hochschild is highly critical of Leopold’s manipulative use of media publicity, he shows how sincere, deeply moral figures of the era used the same tools for good. Edmund Dene Morel, one of the first powerful Europeans to realize the truth about the Congo, used his own knack for publicity to wage a PR campaign against Leopold. He founded newspapers with enormous circulations and penned long articles condemning Leopold’s regime. Whereas Leopold relied on obfuscation and outright lies about the Congo, Morel had an important weapon on his side: the truth. His most effective articles were clearly-written attacks on the injustices of the Belgian regime in the Congo. As with Leopold’s charitable donations, Morgan’s PR campaign had a “trickle down effect”: it inspired other journalists and activists to join the Congo reform movement, gradually turning the tides against Leopold.

Hochschild argues that there is nothing inherently good or bad about publicity in an age of mass-communication: rather, publicity is a “neutral multiplier,” which can be used as a force for good or evil. Ultimately, however, Hochschild (who has spent most of his adult life writing about human rights causes around the world for newspapers and magazines) suggests that truth is more powerful than a PR campaign based on lies. Morel’s efforts to reveal and publicize the truth about the Congo resulted in some reform of the Belgian government’s human rights policies. Furthermore, Hochschild’s own book helps to expose King Leopold’s atrocities, furthering the cause of human rights.

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Publicity and Mass Communication ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Publicity and Mass Communication appears in each Chapter of King Leopold’s Ghost. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Publicity and Mass Communication Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost

Below you will find the important quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost related to the theme of Publicity and Mass Communication.
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 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.

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

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.

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 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.

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

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.