starlady: ((say it isn't so))
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.

I continue to think that Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild's second book, is one that everyone should read, and I've heard nothing but praise for this, his first. (I can't say the same for the third, unfortunately.) Given that I've taught the atrocities of the Congo Free State twice now, I wanted to understand them better, and this book certainly provides all the information, and all the justice-based critique, one could want.

The Congo Free State was in fact a more or less fraudulently established fictive entity created at the behest of King Leopold II of Belgium and for the express purpose of his personal glory and profit. After British explorer Henry Morton Stanley's exploration of central Africa, completed in 1876 ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), Leopold courted Stanley's aid as his personal agent in the Congo and representative in Britain and in Europe. After the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 sealed Leopold's de facto personal sovereignty over the area claimed for the Congo Free State (approximately the size of the entire United States east of the Mississippi), wholesale exploitation of the territory began--first for ivory, recorded by Joseph Conrad in searing detail in Heart of Darkness, published in book form ten years after the fact--and then, after 1895, for rubber. At the height of the rubber terror, from 1895-1903, it seems that the birthrate in the Congo was essentially flat; by the time worldwide public outcry forced Leopold to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium as a colony in 1908, perhaps ten million people or more had died, out of a total population on the continent of perhaps ninety million.

The mass action and agitation of the Congo Reform Association was principally responsible for that cession, and though Hochschild gives due credit to early critical voices such as George Washington Williams, who died in 1891 before he could fully make the atrocities of the Congo known, two of the most remarkable individuals in the book are Edmund Morel and Sir Roger Casement. Though bound no less by their time than by their circumstances, both of them took it upon themselves essentially independently to act against the injustice and slaughter they understood to be happening (Morel never even left Britain; he deduced, correctly, that the Congo Free State was essentially practicing slave labor and wholesale slaughter from the cargo manifests of the shipping firm he worked at in Liverpool), and began the work that formed the Congo Reform Association and together eventually enlisted people worldwide and many of the literary luminaries of the day. You can read Morel's most important book, King Leopold's Rule in Africa, online, as well as Roger Casement's "Report of the British Consul." Hochschild goes to great lengths to incorporate Congolese voices into the story--oral histories are dredged, and vast commission documents thoroughly combed for witness testimony--but too many people died, or were ignored, for this to be anything like a duovocal account.

Further discussion of genocide and mass death )

This is, overall, an excellent book, and it's interesting to see in it hints of both of Hochschild's next two books in passing. Particularly in light of the continued willful forgetting of the Belgian government and people over the origins of their former African colony, to say nothing of that of other people in former empires, this book should be a must-read for everyone.
starlady: Anna Maria from PoTC at the helm: "bring me that horizon" (bring me that horizon)
Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005.

I think this might be the best book I have read all year. it is certainly the most inspiring; at one point near the end I was moved to tears, and that is very high praise from me.

Hochschild, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley's, school of the same, offers a searing and inspiring history of the fight to end slavery in the British Empire, begun by 12 men in a printing shop in 1787 and ended at last by millions around the world, victorious, in 1833. To this story Hochschild brings an unabashedly and unapologetically contemporary perspective, never wavering in his conviction that democracy despite its faults is the best and most desirable form of government, that racism in and of itself is wrong, and that the same goes for the lack of women's and worker's rights in societies of the day worldwide. Equally salutary and crucially, he is clear on the fact that the abolitionist movement would never have succeeded without the input of slaves and ex-slaves themselves, who in writings (like Olaudah Equiano) described unvarnished the horrors they had survived and surmounted, and who in warfare and rebellion, like the slaves of the former St. Domingue and those of Jamaica 40 years later, made clear that they would not wait to be freed by the white man, but would seize those rights for themselves, with all the violence that had been visited upon them by their masters. (In one of history's more agonizing ironies, Haiti paid and has paid for the two hundred years since a terrible price for its denizens' unwillingness to lie quiet in their oppression.) He is also clear that the movement would never have been reignited without the uncredited goad and example of many women's antislavery organizations, under the leadership of women like Elizabeth Heyrick, who had no patience with the gradualist approach their senior male counterparts espoused. And finally, it is in many ways a testament to the unflinching, radically ethical nature of Quakerism even in the centuries before ideas of equality and human rights took root in discourse. Hochschild is also brilliant on the interconnectedness of slavery with virtually every social, economic and political institution in the empire, particularly the Royal Navy, and lays bare these connections with thoroughgoing zeal. It is a story peopled by characters who seem both larger than life (Thomas Clarkson, Toussaint L'Ouverture) and whose inability to make what seem to be obvious connections (William Wilberforce) are brought to vibrant, contradictory, puzzling life. His unwillingness to gloss over these everyday evils, as well as the sheer banal stupidity of monarchy and its scions, ought to shame many writers of historical fiction.

We live with that hope still.  )


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