King Leopold’s Ghost isn’t just a work of history; it’s a meditation on historiography, the study of how primary sources are interpreted, reinterpreted, and shaped into a supposedly “true” version of the past. In the course of examining the history of the Belgian occupation of the Congo, Hochschild asks a series of important questions. First, which people from the era of the Belgian occupation had the luxury of writing down their accounts of what happened? Second, which accounts of the Belgian occupation have been preserved over the last century? Finally, how might the answers to questions 1 and 2 skew our understanding of the Belgian occupation?
Hochschild emphasizes that, for the most part, only Europeans and Americans wrote accounts of the Congo before the middle of the 20th century. The Congolese people themselves had no written language at the time when they first made contact with Europeans. Furthermore, very few Congolese people learned how to write during the Belgian occupation, because Belgian authorities actively deterred Africans from educating themselves in any way. The striking absence of native Congolese voices in the history of the Congo skews our understanding of history in two important ways. First, it underrepresents the brutality of the Belgian regime in the Congo (since the people who endured this brutality rarely got a chance to tell their stories), which makes the Belgians seem somewhat more benevolent than they were. Second, it portrays the Congolese people as victims, rendering them as suffering bodies without any personality or individuality. In this way, the historical record reinforces the “soft bigotry” of the Congo reform movement (see Racism and human rights theme).
Hochschild admits that his own account of Congolese history suffers from bias, due in part to the lack of Congolese voices. However, he tries to counterbalance his historiographical problems in two main ways. First, he reads between the lines in Belgian administrators’ accounts of Congolese uprisings in order to paint vivid portraits of the Congolese people who heroically resisted tyranny in their homeland. In this way, he offers a version of history that respects the Congolese for their bravery and intelligence, rather than simply depicting them as passive victims. Second, he gives a thorough, unmitigated account of Belgian cruelty in the Congo. This is possible because many Belgian officials didn’t try to censor their actions—on the contrary, they were proud of killing and torturing Africans. In order to write a thorough account of the history of the Congo, Hochschild spent years researching historical records, including documents that the Belgian government kept hidden from the public for most of the 20th century. King Leopold’s Ghost isn’t a perfectly authoritative account of what happened in the Congo (as Hochschild would be the first to admit). Nevertheless, Hochschild maintains that by understanding the main sources of bias and then working around them, it’s possible to write a history of the Congo that at least approaches the truth.
Historiography and Bias ThemeTracker
Historiography and Bias Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost
One problem, of course, is that nearly all of this vast river of words is by Europeans or Americans. There was no written language in the Congo when Europeans first arrived, and this inevitably skewed the way that history was recorded. We have dozens of memoirs by the territory’s white officials; we know the changing opinions of key people in the British Foreign Office, sometimes on a day-by-day basis. But we do not have a full-length memoir or complete oral history of a single Congolese during the period of the greatest terror. Instead of African voices from this time there is largely silence.
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.
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 I arrived in the Congo in 1948, my very first job was to go around and distribute medals to the village chiefs, who had gathered rubber for the government during the Second World War. You know they made everyone go back into the forest then, and tap wild rubber. I had to give decorations to about a hundred chiefs. I had a corporal and six or seven soldiers who went to all the villages with me. The corporal, he said to me, 'The rubber this time, that was nothing. But the first time, that was terrible.' only thirty years later did I understand what he was talking about."
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.