A Story of Silence

Thoughts on King Leopold's Ghost

“The vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”

I like me some good history books and King Leopolds Ghost is the best I’ve read in years. More than simply tracing the destruction in the Congo as Leopold II of Belgium’s personal project of extortion and murder, it looks at how this came to be and hints at the wider reaching consequences.

The History

“Lontulu laid 110 twigs on the commission’s table, each representing one of his people killed in the quest for rubber. He divided the twigs into four piles: tribal nobles, men, women, children. Twig by twig, he named the dead.”

Estimates range and there are so many factors (from sickness exacerbated by exhaustion and lack of food to the slavery and killings over ivory and rubber) but between 1880-1920, some sources estimate the population of the Congo was cut “by at least a half.” The book places that number around 10 million people and covers the atrocities in a matter fact manner, from the cutting off of hands for failing quotas to hostages to force Link test labourers and the working to death or murder of resistors. As a collection of tribes and independent peoples not unlike Europe, there could be no central resistance and many of the soldiers on the ground carrying out the orders of Leopold’s company forces were locals or recruits from other African colonies.

“Just as terrorizing people is part of conquest, so is forcing someone else to administer the terror.”

The Cast

Not only shining a light on this dark period in history which too often is relegated to fiction (I read Heart of Darkness in school but never knew the truth) or utterly forgotten, King Leopold’s Ghost is also an enthralling character study of a cast only real life could produce.

  • There’s Leopold himself, the disliked and powerless king at home and shrewd but obsessive colonial abroad: deliberately manipulating the world to gain personal control of a colony and bleed it dry (all while fighting to disinherit his daughters).
  • Stanley, the explorer who wrote his past like fiction and uttered the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”. He proved that distaste is nowhere near enough, helping Leopold stake out his claim on the Congo even as he complained about it (and everything else he could take his temper out on).
  • George Washington Williams, an African American journalist who travelled the Congo in 1890 and actually thought to ask the local inhabitants and interview them. By that time, “close to a thousand Europeans and Americans had visited the territory or worked there. Williams was the only one to speak out fully and passionately and repeatedly about what others denied or ignored.” He died soon after.
  • William Henry Sheppard, a missionary who spent 20 years in the Congo and raised the case in the US and among his fellow missionaries. He had a better reception than Williams but like him, Sheppard was African American and sadly seen as secondary.
  • E.D. Morel, a tenacious clerk who deduced the ‘secret’ slavery and extortion from his position documenting the cargo going to and from the Congo. With nothing to gain and everything to lose, he gave up his job and waged a war of words and politics to stop the atrocities without ever stepping in the Congo. “Morel’s writing combined controlled fury with meticulous accuracy” and he kept at it whether public opinion supported him or not.
  • Roger Casement, the wandering Irishman who befriended Morel and wrote the full, damning report on the conditions in the Congo for the British. From being knighted to charged with treason, he brought the perspective of a fellow colonised people and understood Leopold’s campaign was not much different from the many other colonies (including the British).

Each could merit a book of their own. And there were so many others, like the many missionaries who tried to spread the word but could not compete with Leopold’s censorship and media mastery until Morel entered the fray. Not to mention the many, many, locals who had no voice or any to listen to them and are lost to history. Sadly, while the story highlights those who spoke up, it is implicitly about the many more who did not and enabled and participated in a regime of terror and mass murder.

Beyond Leopold

“It is always tempting to believe that a bad system is the fault of one bad man.”

What King Leopold’s Ghost does best beyond its character portraits, is its level approach to such a difficult topic. Leopold is easy to cast as the central villain but the book goes beyond that, showing the system at work and brutal realities which don’t play out like the fiction we enjoy where the evil king is defeated and everything is good again. Likewise, to say everything is because of an evil king is overly simplistic and ignores what comes before and after. As terrible as Leopold’s rubber reign was, Africa already suffered from centuries of indigenous slavery, Atlantic and Arab slave trade, and now decades of colonialism. Alas, not everything changed when the media war was won and Leopold SOLD the Congo to Belgium. Other colonies were not necessarily better and even after that, leaders like Mobutu continued to echo the legacy of extortion.

“If you draw boundaries differently — to surround, say, all African equatorial rain forest land rich in wild rubber — then what happened in the Congo is, unfortunately, no worse than what happened in neighboring colonies: Leopold simply had far more of the rubber territory than anyone else.”

Overall

“An ancient English law made it a crime to witness a murder or discover a corpse and not raise a “hue and cry.” But we live in a world of corpses, and only about some of them is there a hue and cry.”

King Leopold’s Ghost lives up to its subtitle and remains a stunning account of greed, terror, but also heroism in colonial Africa. The entire atrocity played out in a time of cameras and the birth of modern media. The war was fought in newspaper reports and public uproar, senates and bribes, shell companies and trade agreements. While steeped in history, the story is also shockingly modern. Just as repercussions still echo today, the morals are equally relevant. The events painfully illustrate the old saying “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” but with all the weight of reality, where change can be fast and the history of violence does not have an easy start or end. All the same, good people did try and do something. Now the problem is that we so easily forget.

Highly recommended whether you are a history fan or not.

If you want to explore the themes and questions raised by the book, check out my full book notes: King Leopolds Ghost