King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild – Reviewed by Guy Portman
The Belgian King, Leopold II, had grown envious of his European neighbours’ portfolio of colonies, and longed for a colony that he could call his own. After much deliberation Leopold set his heart on a vast tract of land in central Africa. British explorer Henry Morton Stanley was contracted to explore the interior, and to stake the King’s claim there.
Leopold cunningly alleviated concerns over the forthcoming land grab by claiming that the territory would be a free trade zone, and insisting that his interests there were merely philanthropic. The subterfuge proved successful, when in 1885 Leopold took control of an area of land nearly twenty times the size of his home country of Belgium. This personal fiefdom was erroneously named The Congo Free State.
Over the forthcoming years the territory’s army, the Force Publique, brought a reign of terror upon the various tribes, as they pillaged the land of its natural resources, initially most notably ivory. The barbarity was to escalate exponentially with the growing global demand for rubber in the early 1890s. Rich in wild rubber, The Congo Free State became a gold mine for Leopold, as his repressive state forces kidnapped, enslaved, mutilated and murdered in their efforts to harvest this valuable resource.
In the late 1890s, Edmund Morel, a young English shipping official working in Antwerp, noticed great wealth from the Congo arriving in the port, but little or nothing going out in exchange, except arms. Morel realised that the only rational reason for this was the enslavement of The Congo Free State’s population. This began a life long crusade against King Leopold’s totalitarian rule in the territory. Morel was not alone in his efforts; the book also outlines the role played by others in revealing the truth to the world, including a host of missionaries and a British consul by the name of Roger Casement.
King Leopold’s Ghost is a compelling and disturbing tale of corruption, greed, the injustices of colonialism, and the humanitarian crisis that it culminated in, the echoes of which continue to resonate in the region to this day.