Imagine a young British businessman in the late 1890s. He’s a cocky, articulate person, even if he hasn’t been to the best schools. His name is Edmund Dene Morel, and he works for a Liverpool shipping line, a subsidiary of which controls all the cargo transportation in and out of the so-called Congo Free State.
The book begins with a description of a fairly ordinary-seeming person, Edmund Morel. Morel, like thousands of other young professionals, did work that put him in contact with people in the Congo. But unlike the thousands of other people in his position, Morel had the courage to recognize the injustice right in front of him, and speak out against it.
Like most Europeans, Edmund Dene Morel knows that the Congo Free State is owned by King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold is a popular, even beloved ruler, praised for being a great philanthropist and humanitarian. Journalists praise him for spreading Christianity to Africa, defeating slave-traders in the Congo, and spending huge sums of his own money on public works for Africans.
For most of the late Victorian era, Leopold II was an internationally acclaimed philanthropist and humanitarian. In reality, Leopold was a cruel, greedy monarch who used his reputation as a smokescreen to disguise his imperialist ventures in the Congo.
Morel, who speaks fluent French, goes between Britain and Belgium to supervise cargo transportation from the Congo. Over the years, Morel begins to notice things. He realizes that Belgium ships huge quantities of ivory and rubber from the Congo, but never seems to ship anything back. There is, in short, no trade between the Congo and Belgium. Morel concludes that this can mean only one thing: Belgium relies on Congolese slave labor.
Morel didn’t travel to the Congo, but he knew enough about business to recognize the truth: the only way that a country could import large amounts of ivory and rubber without exporting very much of anything would be for the country to rely on slave labor.
Within just a few years, Edmund Dene Morel has become one of the most important human rights activists in the world. He travels around the world, enlisting politicians, religious leaders, and writers in his cause: protesting Belgium’s use of slavery in the Congo. He succeeds in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of powerful people against King Leopold.
Morel’s discovery of the slave labor in the Congo led him to launch a vast, international campaign against the Belgian regime in Africa.
The Belgian intervention in the Congo is one of the great forgotten crimes of the 20th century. As many as ten million Congolese people may have died in slavery under King Leopold. Adam Hochschild, the author of this book, has been fascinated and horrified by Western intervention in the Congo for most of his adult life. When he was in the Congo in 1961, he overheard a CIA agent boasting about the recent assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Hochschild realized that the Western powers had been interfering in the Congo for hundreds of years. Furthermore, he realized that his main source of information about Congolese history was Joseph Conrad’s fictional novella, Heart of Darkness. Frustrated, Hochschild resolved to learn the truth about the Congo.
King Leopold’s Ghost isn’t just a book about the Belgian occupation of the Congo in the late 19th century; it’s about the legacy of the Belgian occupation, and the legacy of Western imperialism in general. Hochschild ties the death of Patrice Lumumba in the twentieth century to a history of (often violent) Western intervention abroad that stretches back centuries. This highlights the connection between the colonial era and the present day, in which many countries in Africa continue to suffer from political instability and economic depression as a legacy of colonial occupation. This passage also nods to the fact that historical writing must provide accountability for Western actions in the Congo—accountability that fictionalized sources, such as Joseph Conrad’s books, can’t give.
Hochschild brings up an important problem with studying the history of Western intervention in the Congo: almost all the history of the matter was written by Western historians. The Congolese had no written language when Europeans arrived there, meaning that 19th century Congolese history is almost always seen through Western eyes. It is striking that, in many memoirs about the Congolese slave trade, the authors are proud of the death and carnage that Belgium caused in the Congo—they boast about how many slaves died farming rubber and ivory. Thus, even if our understanding of Congolese history is somewhat biased toward a European perspective, we can still learn a lot about the horrific cruelty of Belgian colonialism from Belgian sources, because the Belgian colonialists themselves didn’t try to hide it. To begin our story, we must go back 500 years, to some of the earliest interactions between Europeans and Africans.
Right away, Hochschild brings up some of the historiographical issues involved in writing a book about the Belgian occupation of the Congo. Although few Congolese people of the era had a way of writing down their observations about the occupation, Hochschild will make an effort to depict the occupation from a Congolese perspective. As Hochschild suggests here, the tragedy of the Congo is that it wasn’t particularly secret—many of the Belgian officers who worked in the Congo murdered Congolese people in broad daylight, and bragged about their cruelty.