Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: King Leopold's Ghost

I haven't written any book reviews for about two years. Partly because I have been reading fewer books (although probably more online material) than I did before and partly because I've been less interested in writing reviews of what I have read.

Here is a review of Adam Hochschild's book King Leopold's Ghost.. I am out of practice when it comes to writing reviews so forgive me if I ramble or repeat adjectives too frequently:
 A Forgotten Genocide

King Leopold's Ghost was written to remind the world of a forgotten atrocity- as such it is both highly accessible and informative.

The atrocities in the Congo included mass murder, enslaving the local population and working them to death and stealing and burning their. Much of the cruelty was officially sanctioned- with secret instructions to the authorities on how to enslave the natives. Some of it was done by individual sadists who were free to execute Africans for trivial offences or massacre villages at will if they refused to collect rubber.

One of the frustrations that Hochschild repeatedly refers to is that the tale largely has to be told from the point of view of foreigners, as the Congo's native population was not literate at the time and left few direct testimonies. However the records of the colonial authorities, missionaries, traders and diplomats are used to great effect.

The portraits of individuals involved in the story are well done, the story of ED Morel who initiated the international campaign against King Leopold's rule is particularly inspiring- a lowly shipping clerk who used his powers of deduction to realise that the Congo must be a slave state and then devoted his life to exposing it.

Whilst I was vaguely aware of the atrocities in the Congo I had not realised how much of it was the doing of King Leopold II personally. He was a deceitful, manipulative and immensely greedy man and his personal culpability in the genocide is established beyond doubt. He deserves to be considered along with Mao, Hitler and Stalin as one of the great monsters of the 20th Century.


banned said...

It is not news that King Leopold allowed appalling behaviour in the Congo, it is mentioned in passing in most studies of the Scramble for Africa as is the fact that it was taken off him by the Belgian State out of shame.
It does not get much coverage though simply because it did not affect the main issue in Africa which was conflict between Britain, France and, to a lesser extent, Germany.

Mark said...

The Belgian royals (Saxe-Coburgs BTW, and thus related to our lot)are a pretty disreputable bunch.

King Baudouin was probably the least bad, and he was a noted Anglophobe (he didn't bother to show up at Liz's coronation)who married a hardline, ultramontine Spanish Catholic. (The latter development causing him to abdicate for a day when asked to give his assent to an Act liberalising abortion- probably the high point of his reign).

A good primer on the general awfulness of the Belgian royals is Paul Belien's 'A Throne in Brussels' - which I'd strongly recommend if who wish to delve further into the subject.