King Leopold's Ghost

Zachary Karabell reviews 'King Leopold's Ghost' by Adam Hochschild

Published September 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In "King Leopold's Ghost," journalist Adam Hochschild chronicles the depredations of Belgian rule of the Congo (today's Zaire) between the 1880s and 1909, when Leopold, the king of Belgium, died. During this period, 5 million to 10 million people were killed, or died of starvation, disease and being worked to death. All of this for rubber, harvested from the thick vines that contained that precious gelatinous sap. Hochschild understandably wanted to know why so few of us have ever heard about the atrocities of Leopold's rule.

Even today, travel in the Congo basin is excruciatingly difficult -- 100 years ago, it was usually fatal for those who attempted the journey. In 1874, Henry Stanley became the first Westerner to get to the interior of the Congo basin and survive to tell the tale. At the time, the competition for colonies was intense; in the late 19th century, such colonies were to a European state's power what market share is for corporations today. Sitting in his immense palaces in tiny Belgium, King Leopold finagled his way into gaining control of the Congo basin. Within a decade of Stanley's journey, Leopold ruled a territory bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined.

By all accounts, Leopold was a narcissistic, sleazy, greedy man. He was also a master manipulator who used the vainglorious Stanley to convince the rest of Europe that his motives for wanting the Congo stemmed solely from a desire to put an end to "Arab slavery." Having rescued the Congolese from that non-existent threat, Leopold proceeded to enslave them himself.

In time, a few European and American visitors to the Congo began to publicize the whippings, murders, rapes and other humiliations visited upon the Congolese by Leopold's administrators. Some of these visitors were American blacks, whose reports were discounted. Not until a group of Englishmen made exposing the injustices of Leopold's rule their own private crusade did the general public become aware of what was happening.

Hochschild, co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, presents the story as a parable of human rights abuses stemmed by activism. While it would be reassuring to believe that Leopold's violence stopped as a result of intrepid crusaders, Hochschild doesn't make a convincing case. Yes, the reformers spoke at hundreds of meetings, letters were written, commissions heard testimony and governments disapproved. But the violence started to ebb only when the population declined to the point that labor got expensive and killing people by intent or neglect meant less profit.

Hochschild prefers to see the Congo as a sorry tale that is in the end redemptive. Unfortunately, redemption in this case can only be found by distorting history. Viewed through a less idealistic lens, the Congo's history tells us that evil isn't only banal; it can also be profitable, and it often goes unpunished. Not an uplifting moral, but the harsh light of history often exposes aspects of humanity that most of us prefer not to see. Hochschild has written about a terrible period that we have tried to forget. It's a shame that he tries to shield himself and the reader from recognizing the full dimension of the horror. Hitler committed suicide; the Japanese were routed after Nanking; but Leopold died in his bed, vastly enriched by the suffering of millions.

By Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

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