Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Book 9: King Leopold's Ghost

I actually bought this book for two reasons - I was reading Hochschild's book Bury the Chains and was very impressed by his prose and research, and I vaguely remembered a piece regarding Belgium and World War I from Pajiba Storytellers.  While I couldn't quite remember the name of the king during Word War I, I was curious to read about this dark period in Belgium's past after having read the rather glowing story of its actions during the Great War (for anyone that remembers that piece, Leopold II was Albert's predecessor and uncle).
As the book begins, Hochschild tells the story of how Africa had already been exploited by whites for many years due to the slave trade, but people still tended to have very few ideas about the rest of the continent, and developed crazy ideas about what lay within.  The mid to late 1800s marked a time of exploration, followed by exploitation.  Meanwhile, Leopold II comes to the throne of Belgium, and he is always rather disdainful of his crown and country.  The power of the monarchy has been much reduced from the past, and Leopold sees Belgium as small - from the first days of his reigns, he wants a colony so he can compete with the other European powers, and basically feel important.  After he realizes that most of the rest of the world has already been spoken for (sometimes by natives, most of the time by other European powers despite previously existing nations), he sets his sights on Africa, or more specifically the Congo region from which the Welsh/English/American explorer Henry Stanley (the truth and what Stanley told people didn't exactly match - he presented himself as American but was Welsh, and extremely pro-English) had recently made headlines.  His adventure stories about his journeys through Africa drew a large audience, though only very few would critique his harsh treatment of the Africans that he either used as porters and guides to explore this country, or the ones that were in villages that he came across and "fought" as he invaded their land in the name of exploration.
Somehow, Leopold managed to sell himself as a great humanitarian in the midst of all this, and convinced several countries to acknowledge and agree with his claim to the Congo, drawing up lines and divisions.  Leopold set up fake corporations and groups that led to him being in charge of the colony.  As a result, Belgium wasn't involved per se: the colony reported directly to Leopold, not to the King of Belgium or the country of Belgium (eventually Leopold would put a clause in his will making Belgium his heir to the colony, though this too was calculated, and there were a few changes to this before his death).  Leopold exploited the Congo and made the profit, though he would never set foot in his colony.
Hochschild describes the brutal ways Leopold's agents exploited the Africans of the Congon region, including enforced servitude as porters, the ivory trade, and finally the rubber trade.  To motivate villagers to search and harvest wild rubber vines, agents would take women and children hostage, and not feed or release them until the quotas had been met.  There were some rebellions but they proved unsuccessful.  While there were missionaries in the area, only a few spoke out.  Others would offer witness later after others had already gotten the ball rolling.  Some of the first men to speak out were two African-American men but they didn't receive much notice, especially the first one, due to their own skin color.
It would be E.D. Morel that would finally truly begin the crusade for human rights in the Congo.  He worked for a shipping company employed by Leopold, and he began noticing the disparity between what went to the Congo and what came out.  There was no way that the Congo would supply as much as it did for as little as it received without the use of forced labor, or slavery.  Using cold, hard facts, statistics and witness statements, he began a movement that would eventually gain world attention, and cause Leopold much grief.
One major flaw or complaint that Hochschild mentions regarding his own research is the fact that African voices weren't recorded.  For the most part, the only voices that have survived are those of white men talking about the area and its population.  Blacks simply weren't deemed important enough to tell their story.  In fact, not even Morel was actually advocating self-rule - he was simply calling for a gentler, more humane rule by whites, painting King Leopold as a villain.  Hochschild has no problem showing his heroes' flaws: Morel may have been committed to this cause, but he also turned a blind eye to other colonies, and believed that whites should rule in the colony.  Leopold, on the other hand, has no redeeming qualities.  In addition to being a dictator and megalomaniac, he is a complete asshole to his family, and in Belgium.  In his conclusion, Hochschild also discusses why the Congo raised as much awareness as it did: other colonies were just as brutal on occasion, but it was the Congo that led to a huge campaign; partially this was due to the size of the area, but it also had to do with who the colonizer was.  King Leopold and Belgium weren't the superpowers that England and Germany were so they were rather safe targets in comparison to these other empires.  Basically, this was an amazing book.  Hochschild did a great job of painting the picture and portraying the horrific events that were happening in the Congo as well as explaining the politics in Africa and Europe so that it becomes clear how Leopold could gain all this control.  Hochschild also addresses the current situation a bit.  While he even states that not all of Africa's problems could be blamed on colonization, it certainly hasn't helped matters.  It's definitely worth the read, and his references to Heart of Darkness may put that piece into a whole different perspective for readers.  In a nutshell, people like Kurtz really existed in the Belgian Congo.

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