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.
Publicity and Mass Communication ThemeTracker
Publicity and Mass Communication Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.