King Leopold’s Ghost describes a period of history during which the Western powers—European countries, along with the United States—exerted an unprecedented amount of control over the rest of the world. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Western powers controlled huge territories in Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia, exemplifying a form of statecraft known as imperialism. These imperialist powers claimed to be the rightful owners of the territories they controlled, and they exploited their new territories’ natural resources, vastly increasing their own wealth and power at the expense of those who already lived there. King Leopold’s Ghost is about Belgium’s attempts to build an empire for itself in the Congo, but the book simultaneously serves as a general critique of imperialism.
The right to land ownership is at the heart of the imperialist project. The Western powers of the 19th century acted as if the land of Africa, South America, and other continents was their rightful property, rather than the property of native people. Over the course of the century, the Western powers offered many different reasons for their ownership rights: they claimed they needed the territory in order to spread the Christian religion, they claimed it was their “destiny” to own the territory, they claimed that the territory was deserted (even though there were native people living there), and they claimed that they wanted to help the native peoples by teaching them about civilization. In addition to these four reasons, Belgian administrators, commanded by King Leopold II, offered a further, even more basic justification: they legally owned the Congo. In reality, Belgian colonists swindled Congolese chiefs, many of whom had never seen written documents before, into signing contracts that granted the Belgian government permanent ownership of the region. Records show that Belgian administrators knew full-well that the Congolese chiefs didn’t understand legal contracts fully; there’s even some evidence that they got the chiefs drunk in order to ensure that they would sign contracts. The fact that the Belgian administrators would use trickery and manipulation suggests that they didn’t believe that they had any right to the Congo; they knew that the only way they could access the territory was by conning the native people.
Once Western powers had gained access to and justified their ownership of foreign land, they set to work exploiting the land’s resources. In the case of Belgium, for instance, Congo administrators enslaved native Congolese people to hunt elephants for ivory and extract rubber from rubber vines. Because Belgium did not pay for labor, and because it technically owned all of the Congo, the ivory and rubber industries yielded enormous profits at minimal cost. While Belgium was unusually brutal to the native people in the Congo, its basic procedure—gaining access to foreign land, justifying its presence there, and then using the natural resources to make money—was no different than that used by the other Western powers in their own imperialist ventures. By studying the history of Belgian imperialism and imperialism in general, Hochschild paints a bleak picture of people’s capacity for dishonesty and cruelty. Furthermore, he makes it clear that the legacy of imperialism hasn’t disappeared: the continued strength of Western countries in the 21st century is largely the result of 19th century imperialism and the theft of native lands and resources.
Imperialism Quotes in King Leopold’s Ghost
For Europeans, Africa remained the supplier of valuable raw materials—human bodies and elephant tusks. But otherwise they saw the continent as faceless, blank, empty a place on the map waiting to be explored, one ever more frequently described by the phrase that says more about the seer than the seen: the Dark Continent.
Underlying much of Europe's excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution, just as the search for raw materials—slaves—for the colonial plantation economy had driven most of Europe’s earlier dealings with Africa. Expectations quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds in South Africa in 1867 and gold some two decades later. But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives. The British, in particular, fervently believed in bringing "civilization" and Christianity to the natives; they were curious about what lay in the continent's unknown interior; and they were filled with righteousness about combating slavery.
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.
By the time Stanley and others working for the king were done, the blue flag with the gold star fluttered over the villages and territories, Stanley claimed, of more than 450 Congo basin chiefs. The texts varied, but many of the treaties gave the king a complete trading monopoly, even as he placated European and American questioners by insisting that he was opening up Africa to free trade. More important, chiefs signed over their land to Leopold, and they did so for almost nothing.
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.
By the time he went to the Congo in 1890, close to a thousand Europeans and Americans had visited the territory or worked there. Williams was the only one to speak out fully and passionately and repeatedly about what others denied or ignored. The years to come would make his words ever more prophetic.
In 1887, the king asked him to serve as governor of the colony's eastern province, with its capital at Stanley Falls, and Tippu Tip accepted; several relatives occupied posts under him. At this early stage, with Leopold's military forces spread thin, the bargain offered something to both men. (The king also contracted to buy the freedom of several thousand of Tippu Tip's slaves, but one condition of their freedom, these "liberated" slaves and many others quickly discovered, was a seven-year enlistment term in the Force Publique.) Although Leopold managed for most of his life to be all things to all people, the spectacle of this antislavery crusader doing so much business with Africa's most prominent slave-dealer helped spur the first murmurings against the king in Europe.
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.
Significantly, Morel's humanitarian political ancestors, unlike his socialist contemporaries, had firmly believed that improving the lot of downtrodden people everywhere was good for business … Such humanitarians never saw themselves as being in conflict with the imperial project—as long as it was British imperialism. … This was the tradition in which Morel felt at home, and it was a tradition that perfectly suited his organizational talent.
Because Shanu was a British subject, the Congo authorities did not want to risk an international incident by arresting him. Instead, they harassed him unremittingly, even rescinding the medal he had been awarded for his work for the state. They then ordered all state employees not to patronize his businesses. That guaranteed that these would fail. In July 1905 Hezekiah Andrew Shanu committed suicide.
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.
"I realized that I was looking at this tragedy [in the Congo] with the eyes of another race of people once hunted themselves."
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.
With the start of the Second World War, the legal maximum for forced labor in the Congo was increased to 170 days per man per year. More than eighty percent of the uranium in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs came from the heavily guarded Congo mine of Shinkolobwe. The Allies also wanted ever more rubber for the tires of hundreds of thousands of military trucks, jeeps, and warplanes. Some of the rubber came from the Congo's new plantations of cultivated rubber trees. But in the villages, Africans were forced to go into the rain forest, sometimes for weeks at a time, to search for wild vines once again.
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.
"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."
It is an oversimplification to blame Africa's troubles today entirely on European imperialism; history is far more complicated' And yet, consider Mobutu again. Aside from the color of his skin, there were few ways in which he did not resemble the monarch who governed the same territory a hundred years earlier. His one-man rule. His great wealth taken from the land. His naming a lake after himself. His yacht. His appropriation of state possessions as his own. His huge shareholdings in private corporations doing business in his territory. Just as Leopold, using his privately controlled state, shared most of his rubber profits with no one, so Mobutu acquired his personal group of gold mines—and a rubber plantation.
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.