One 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 independent nation in 1830, after many years of war in Europe. Belgium was a small country, most of whose people spoke French. Though Leopold had an older brother, Leopold’s parents clearly preferred him, and, as a result, he studied politics and government from an early age in preparation for ascendance to the throne of Belgium. Leopold’s childhood was cold and austere—for example, he rarely saw his father. From an early age, Leopold struck people as a shrewd, cunning man. As an adult, he perfected his talents for deception and double-dealing, simultaneously serving as the king of a small, democratic country (Belgium had a monarchy as well as an elected Parliament) and as the totalitarian ruler of a vast African empire.
Leopold II is the primary antagonist of the book. Indeed, as Hochschild portrays him, Leopold II was so sadistically and diabolically evil that he seems more like a Shakespeare villain than a real human being. Leopold II was, in many ways, a very modern villain—he knew how to use the media and public relations to deceive other people into liking him. In general, Leopold was an intelligent, cunning man, and the fact that the Congo reform movement didn’t properly begin until the tail-end of the 19th century is a testament to Leopold’s talent for deception.
Leopold married the Archduchess Marie-Henriette; their marriage was, by all accounts, very unhappy. Leopold and Marie-Henriette hated each other, and seemed to have had nothing in common. Though they eventually had a child, Leopold spent more time focusing on his personal ambitions than tending to his family. In private, Leopold often described Belgium as a “small country, full of small people”—clearly, he wanted more power. He traveled through the Middle East, intending to buy land that could make him a rich emperor. At the age of twenty-six, Leopold traveled to Seville, where he researched the profits that Spain had made in the West Indies in the 16th and 17th centuries. The experience proved enlightening, because it put him in contact with a English lawyer and financier who offered him further advice on empire-building and land economization. For most of his twenties, Leopold invested in land in Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East, determined that “Belgium must have a colony.” Unlike many of the other empire-builders of the century, Leopold was uninterested in spreading Christianity or democracy to the “uncivilized races” of the world—his only goal was to make Belgium rich and powerful. In the meantime, Leopold invested large sums in Belgian building projects: he built beautiful parks, monuments, and palaces, modeled off of the great structures of France.
Leopold came of age in a time of rampant imperialism, but, because Belgium was a relatively new country, it “missed out” on the empire-building of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Thus, by the time Leopold ascended to the throne, he found that there was little land outside of Europe that hadn’t been claimed by a European power already, which required his imperial ambitions to be creative and shrewd. This also nods to the toxic competition for power and reputation among European states that was played out at the expense of the African continent. Also, notice that the monuments of Belgium—its palaces and museums, for instance—were paid for with Congolese slave labor. Indeed, the palaces of Belgium could be considered a symbol for the hypocrisy and deceptiveness of European imperialism in general—on the surface, they’re beautiful and majestic, but underneath, they’re morally repugnant.
Leopold had a sister, Charlotte, who later married a duke and was installed by Napoleon III as the Empress of Mexico. France’s “Mexican Empire” quickly fell apart, and Charlotte’s husband was executed. Charlotte, stationed in Europe at the time, became mentally unstable in the years leading up to her husband’s death, and Leopold arranged for her to be kept in a luxurious chateau, out of public life. Charlotte continued to believe that her husband was alive, serving as Emperor of Mexico. In spite of his brother-in-law’s experiences with empire-building, Leopold continued to try to build an empire of his own.
Evidently, Leopold got very little pleasure from his family life; his real pleasure in life was empire-building. Leopold was a cruel, callous person, and he seems to have had no sympathy whatsoever for his sister, even after she became more mentally unstable. His arrogance is also apparent in his refusal to learn a lesson from the death of Charlotte’s husband.
In the 1870s, Leopold learned of Henry Morton Stanley, who was then traveling through Africa to find Livingstone. Leopold realized that Stanley’s expeditions had become enormously popular in large part because Stanley had filled his dispatches with lurid descriptions of the “barbaric” Arab slave traders of Africa. If Belgium were to gain an empire of its own, Leopold realized, he would have to present its expansion in humanitarian terms, suggesting that Belgium was colonizing Africa for the Africans’ own good. Thus, in 1876, Leopold began to present himself as a great philanthropist. He met with priests and missionaries, and cultivated relationships with powerful aristocrats and politicians in London. Around this time, he learned about a large, unwanted area of land near the Congo River.
Leopold developed a diabolical scheme for advancing his colonial interests: he would present himself as a great humanitarian, whose only interests in colonizing Africa were charitable. Leopold also demonized the Afro-Arab slave trade in order to emphasize the “purity” of his own interest, and to convince other European powers to support his colonial interventions. Finally, Leopold realized that he would need a first-rate explorer, such as Henry Morton Stanley, to control Belgium’s new territory.
In September 1876, Leopold held a Geographic Conference with explorers and missionaries from across Europe. At the time, Stanley was still in Africa, but the conference formally recognized his work. Leopold flattered his guests by awarding them all the “Cross of Leopold” and housing them in a gorgeous palace. When Leopold delivered the welcoming address at his conference, he stressed that he had no ambitions of building an empire—his only concern, he claimed, was to encourage cooperation between European explorers and humanitarians. He also claimed that he wanted his guests to share their information about travel routes in sub-Saharan Africa, in order that Europeans could work together to end slavery in Africa. At the end of the conference, the guests voted to establish an International African Association (IAA) in Belgium, with Leopold as the chairman.
Leopold made clever use of public relations: he invited dignitaries and philanthropists from around Europe to the conference in order to give the impression that he was a great humanitarian. Leopold knew that impressing powerful people in other European countries could create a trickle-down effect: his powerful guests would tell their friends that he was a good man. Leopold’s “performance” as a do-gooder was so convincing that he succeeded in gaining valuable information about the geography of sub-Saharan Africa for free.
For the 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 it was difficult to claim African land using military force alone.; by claiming to be a great humanitarian, acting in the interests of the people of Africa, however, he realized that he could colonize the Congo with the full support of the European powers.
Leopold used his reputation as a charitable, kind-hearted monarch to disguise the truth: he just wanted to control the Congo in order to build his fortune and strengthen his country.