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[personal profile] starlady
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.

I want to say a word about genocide here. One of the best features of Hochschild's writing is his unapologetic contemporary perspective; in this case, he is excellent at pointing out, among many other things, how, even though they may well have thought it at times, Morel and Casement were constrained by their day from saying that the real alternative to colonizing the Congo was not colonizing the Congo. That would not have been possible; they advocated for, and achieved, better (because formal) colonization in the Congo, but deplorable policies and mistreatment of the Congolese people continued under Belgian rule (the chopping off of hands for the merest offense seems to have mostly stopped post-Leopold, at least, as well as much of the casual slaughter). The other thing to understand is that the Congo Free State was a limit case in the history of European colonization; although it was by far the worst, it was a difference in degree rather than in kind. European colonization throughout the 19thC was marked by casual mass slaughter; it was only when it came home from the colonies, in the form of World War I, that people started objecting to it: the empire could dish it out, but it couldn't take it. (This is a pattern that is discernible throughout the history of colonization, and of empires and violence.) Moreover, it's no coincidence that of the two men, the one who did eventually explicitly articulate an anti-imperial critique died a traitor's death in the Tower of London. (Casement's sexuality--he was gay--was clearly also part of the decision process that led to his treason and execution.) (To give credit where credit is due, however, Morel went to prison for his anti-war sentiments and was a staunch anti-war advocate to the end of his life, when he very nearly missed his chance of serving as Foreign Secretary.)

When teaching the Congo, I have to emphasize to the students that the atrocities there fail the modern definition of genocide in one, possibly two, ways. Most important, legally, is the question of intent; what happened in the Congo Free State is in some ways even worse, I think, for the fact that no one in the colonial enterprise deliberately set out to kill ten million people. The Congolese simply didn't matter enough to them for that; their deaths were incidental, casual, unremarkable. The mass slaughter in the Congo also seems to not have been systematic: i.e., the goal of the policies that killed people (not caring about food supply, overwork, inhumanly high production quotas, carte blanche to shoot and torture native people) was not to kill people but to profit the Congo Free State, for which read Leopold II. In many ways the fact that the mass death in the Congo does not amount to legal genocide highlights the paradoxical problem of the Genocide Convention: written using the Holocaust as its model, it arguably sets the standard for genocide too high, because the Holocaust was just that exceptional. (This is the point of the macabre crack about how the Genocide Convention mandates that "never again will the German state kill six million Jews in Europe.")

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.
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