Feb. 12th, 2013

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.