My grasp on world history is somewhat lacking, and I’m always looking for good books so that I can fix that – Wikipedia tends to be too dry for me. I’d vaguely heard of King Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo, and I thought it was something I needed to know more about, so I was excited to find King Leopold’s Ghost a few months ago in the clearance section at Half Price Books.
If you’ve heard of King Leopold II of Belgium, I don’t need to tell you what this book is about. If you haven’t, he was the second monarch of Belgium, and at one point, the sole owner of the Congo (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
How did that happen? Belgium was surrounded by countries that held vast colonies in the Americas, Asia and Africa, and Leopold badly wanted a colony of his own. However, all around Europe, monarchs were losing power to parliament, and colonialism was losing favour. After looking all over the world and attempting to buy colonies from every major power, he set his sights on the unexplored parts of Africa, and shrewdly declared his interest as purely humanitarian and scientific. For more details, you’ll have to read this book (or some other account.)
This is a very well-written and readable book – Hochschild did an admirable job of sketching out the characters of the major players involved in the story of the Belgian Congo. I really felt like I got to know every one of them – I despised King Leopold for his avarice and ostentation, I admired Casement’s sheer passion and Morel’s determination, I rooted for Sheppard. Even though the things that happened were unspeakably horrific, it was never forceful or melodramatic. Hochschild states the facts and quotes accounts and lets you draw your own conclusions.
Hochschild clearly does have a few biases – his tone is sometimes a bit too moralistic for my taste. For instance, although King Leopold seems like an intensely loathsome person, I think his part was a result of apathy rather than an actively evil personality.
I wish I’d read this before I read The Poisonwood Bible – it would’ve given me some much needed context. Highly recommended.