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 Leopold’s 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, highlights the few who defied all to shine a light on the events, and hints at the wider reaching consequences.

Check out the full review on the book itself or read on for my notes on key takeaways from the themes and topics within.

Key Takeaways

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

[[!If you control the perception you control the event]]

  • The first modern media scandal in the age of the camera and telegram.
  • Shockingly modern and relevant today.
  • Uprisings, guerrilla warfare, and slaughter were routine but the ultimate battle which gave (and then wrenched) control of the Congo to/from Leopold was fought in the media.
  • An exercise in controlling perceptions, using false altruism, shell companies, purposefully confusing legal structures/naming, bribes, and outright slander campaigns.
  • Counter-media campaign by E.D. Morel was all about stirring up the public in response.

Ignorance is an active deed

  • “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
  • Detecting slavery from a world away. Morel never went to the Congo. That's not to mention the many visitors who were in the Congo. How many others could have noticed but didn't or chose not to raise their voice?
  • Bismark's note... people could guess if they looked close enough but chose not to (or not to intervene).

[[Fight the system, not a person]]

  • Anger/outrage is not enough.
  • There was no simple solution. Even once the media campaign 'triumphed' and the Congo was sold to Belgium, not much improved.
  • Leopold was just one man and easy to blame but there was an entire system in place that did not end with him.
  • Voices of missionaries were drowned out until Morel gave them a platform.

The value of outside perspective

  • Massive pressure from system and society not to respond. You could lose your job (like Morel), your respect, and more by speaking out. Easier to go with the flow. Everyone else was.
  • Took iconoclasts, African Americans, and Irish to call attention. Fellow colonized, oppressed, or just determined to uphold a moral standard others had forgotten.

Evil is unsustainable

  • Rubber production was going down as more labourers were killed and they hacked up trees to try and make quotas to save their loved ones.

The politics of ethics are fickle

  • Short attention spans
  • “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.”

Steps of a reign of terror

  • Slaughter and genocide do not happen overnight.
  • Starts with dehumanisation.
  • Removal of blame from self.
  • Propaganda and silencing of any who would speak out.
  • “…conquest by pen and ink so often confirmed the conquest by rifle and machine gun.”

Thoughtful insults are superior to swearing

  • Those Victorians knew how to insult.
  • Old school burns were so well thought out.
  • “wretched set of incompetent noodles.”
  • "In Vienna, one lady observed that this puzzling engagement was “between a stable-boy and a nun, and by nun I mean the Duke of Brabant.”"

Topics to Pursue

  • The Assassination of Lumumba #researchTopic #researchHistory
  • 1820, freed US slaves moving to soon to become independent Liberia #researchTopic #researchHistory
  • Old school insults #researchTopic #researchHistory
  • Primo Levi's experience at Auschwitz #researchTopic #researchHistory #researchPeople
  • [[E.D. Morel]] #researchTopic #researchPeople
  • Roger Casement #researchTopic #researchPeople

[[!Further Reading]]

  • Kevin Grant, A Civilised Savagery: Britain and the New Slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926
  • The Politics of Dissent: An [[E.D. Morel]] Biography #bookList


  • ==“...the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”==
  • "It was the first major international atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera."
  • "Just as Europeans would be long obsessed with African cannibalism, so Africans imagined Europeans practicing the same thing."
  • =="the phrase that says more about the seer than the seen: the Dark Continent."==
  • "...rebels captured and executed Maximilian [Leopold's brother-in-law]. His death was in glorious but not in elegant: he shook hands with the members of the firing squad, handed them all gold pieces, pointed to his heart, and said, “Muchachos, aim well.”"
  • "If he [Leopold] was to seize anything in Africa, he could do so only if he convinced everyone that his interest was purely altruistic."
  • "In return for “one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand,” they promised to “freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever . . . give up to the said Association the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories . . . and to assist by labour or otherwise,"
  • "...the king, he complained, had the “enormous voracity to swallow a million of square miles with a gullet that will not take in a herring.” But it was Stanley who made the big swallow possible."
  • =="Long before Stalin, who also edited writers’ manuscripts with his own hand, Leopold knew the uses of rewriting history."==
  • "By such sleight of hand, the entity that came to be recognized by a lengthening list of countries over the following year gradually changed from a federation of states under the benevolent protection of a charitable society to one colony ruled by one man."
  • "Bismarck, no fool, scribbled a comment in the margin beside this passage: “Swindle.” Beside a passage about a confederation of free states, he put “Fantasies.”" --> (Recognizing it does not put a stop to it)
  • "The Berlin Conference was the ultimate expression of an age whose newfound enthusiasm for democracy had clear limits, and ==slaughtered game had no vote==."
  • "Contrary to myth, the Berlin Conference did not partition Africa; the spoils were too large, and it would take many more treaties to divide them all."
  • "...his [Leopold's] new colony was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined. It was one thirteenth of the African continent, more than seventy-six times the size of Belgium itself."
  • "In later years, Leopold several times referred to himself — more accurately, for his main interest in the territory was in extracting every possible penny of wealth — as the Congo’s “proprietor.”"
  • =="His power as king-sovereign of the colony was shared in no way with the Belgian government"==
  • " a bid for public sympathy and funds he [Leopold] let it be known that to economize he was eating one less course daily at lunch."
  • "To the king’s great satisfaction, Brussels was chosen as the location, for eight months of intermittent meetings starting in November 1889, for an Anti-Slavery Conference of the major powers. The “humanitarian” king happily entertained"
  • "...brilliant linguist and an eccentric; besides trying to govern his province, heal the sick, and hold out against the Mahdist rebels, he was painstakingly gathering specimens of plant and animal life and assembling a collection of stuffed birds for the British Museum."
  • "By the time he went to the Congo in 1890, 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==."
  • " declared that all “vacant land” was the property of the state. There was no definition of what made land vacant."
  • ==""Monsters exist,” wrote Primo Levi of his experience at Auschwitz. “But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are . . . the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”"==
  • =="In any system of terror, the functionaries must first of all see the victims as less than human..."==
  • "For a white man to rebel meant challenging the system that provided your livelihood. Everyone around you was participating."
  • "“To tell the truth,” said Franz Stangl of the mass killings that took place when he was commandant of the Nazi death camps of Sobibor and Treblinka, ==“one did become used to it.”=="
  • "In such a regime, one thing that often helps functionaries “become used to it” is ==a slight, symbolic distance — irrelevant to the victim — between an official in charge and the physical act of terror itself.=="
  • "Just as terrorizing people is part of conquest, so is forcing someone else to administer the terror."
  • "“The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages.”" - [[!The danger of metrics]] Ivory commission higher on cheaper prices incentivised stealing and extorting it
  • "He was partly a prisoner of what Mark Twain, in a different context, called ==“the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”=="
  • =="...conquest by pen and ink so often confirmed the conquest by rifle and machine gun."==
  • "...the moral landscape of Heart of Darkness and the shadowy figure at its center are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy."
  • "In some military units there was even a “keeper of the hands”; his job was the smoking."
  • "From what he [[E.D. Morel]] saw at the wharf in Antwerp, and from studying his company’s records in Liverpool, he deduced the existence — on another continent, thousands of miles away — of slavery."
  • "Except for George Washington Williams, almost ten years earlier journalists who went to the Congo usually copied Stanley in celebrating the king’s regime."
  • "From his campaign against King Leopold, he [[E.D. Morel]] had nothing to gain, only a promising career at Elder Dempster to lose."
  • "Morel’s writing combined controlled fury with meticulous accuracy."
  • "The humanitarians, Morel wrote, emphasized “the atrocious nature of the deeds committed, while my endeavor from the first was to show that given certain premises [Leopold’s taking as his own the land and all its products] . . . those deeds must of necessity take place.”" [[!Systems create behaviours]]
  • "Sometimes missionaries sent Morel the names of the dead, and these, too, he published, like casualty lists in wartime. Nowhere else, of course, did these names ever appear in print.
  • ...we all on earth have a commission and a right to defend the weak against the strong, and to protest against brutality in any shape or form.” - Roger Casement"
  • "Casement quoted an African proverb: “A man doesn’t go among thorns unless a snake’s after him — or he’s after a snake.” He added, “I’m after a snake and please God I’ll scotch it.”"
  • " was as if his visible outrage gave them permission to act on stifled feelings of their own."
  • "In his diary he wrote that his superiors were “a gang of stupidities”; one in particular was “an abject piffler.” In a letter, he called them a ==“wretched set of incompetent noodles.”=="
  • =="Almost never has one man ([[E.D. Morel]]), possessed of no wealth, title, or official post, caused so much trouble for the governments of several major countries."==
  • "The pictures, ultimately seen in meetings and the press by millions of people, provided evidence that no propaganda could refute." --> (Compare to [[!Fake news]] photos and spread now)
  • "...where the vultures were so gorged that they were too heavy to fly."
  • "“Disease powerfully ravages an exhausted population, and it’s to this cause, in my opinion, that we must attribute the unceasing growth of sleeping sickness in this region;"
  • "His estimate is the same: between 1880 and 1920, the population of the Congo was cut “by at least a half.” [about 10 million]"
  • "Burned villages, starved hostages, terrified refugees dying in swamps, orders for “extermination” — even in crass, purely monetary terms, aren’t these inefficient means of doing business?"
  • "In the Congo, as in Russia, mass murder had a momentum of its own. ==Power is tempting, and no power is greater than the ability to take someone’s life.== Once under way, mass killing is hard to stop; it becomes a kind of sport, like hunting."
  • "Mountmorres assumed that any laws and regulations on the books were carefully followed." (they weren't)
  • "Much of the monologue is about Leopold’s media campaign. “In these twenty years I have spent millions to keep the Press of the two hemispheres quiet, and still these leaks keep occurring,” says Twain’s exasperated king." (The media war)
  • "“Compared with him [Kowalsky],” a reporter later observed when the portly William Howard Taft was in the White House, “President Taft is a top worker in a team of acrobats.”"
  • "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."
  • " his [Leopold's] horror what was intended to be a sham investigation had slipped out of his control and become a real one."
  • "With his modern sense of public relations, the king understood brilliantly that ==what matters, often, is less the substance of a political event than how the public perceives it. If you control the perception, you control the event.==" (He added fake/misleading summary to damning report and newspapers ran based on the summary instead of the actual contents)
  • "Vandervelde replied, “No man is a stranger in a court of justice.”"
  • ". . I do not agree with you that England and America are the two great humanitarian powers. . . . [They are] materialistic first and humanitarian only a century after.”"
  • =="It is always tempting to believe that a bad system is the fault of one bad man."==
  • =="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."==
  • "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."
  • =="The politics of empathy are fickle."==
  • "Conrad said it best: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”"
  • "“Self-government is our right,” he (Roger Casement) declared. “A thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself"
  • "Throughout the war, Morel stuck to his beliefs, as passionate and unyielding now, when all were against him, as he had been in the days of Congo reform, when much of the British establishment had been on his side."
  • "eerie experiences for a visitor to the old Soviet Union was strolling through the spacious galleries of the Museum of the Revolution on Moscow’s Gorky Street. You could look at hundreds of photographs and paintings of fur-hatted revolutionaries behind snowy barricades, innumerable rifles, machine guns, flags and banners, a large collection of other relics and documents, and find no clue that some twenty million Soviet citizens had died in execution cellars, in manmade famines, and in the gulag."
  • "The Congo offers a striking example of the politics of forgetting."
  • =="Forgetting one’s participation in mass murder is not something passive; it is an active deed."==
  • "History lies heavy on Africa: the long decades of colonialism, several hundred years of the Atlantic and Arab-world slave trade, and — all too often ignored — countless centuries of indigenous slavery before that. ==From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left to Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like Britain, France, and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder.=="
  • "Human rights groups today usually deal with results — a man in jail, a woman in servitude, a child without medicine. E. D. Morel talked, as well, about causes: above all, the theft of African land and labor that made possible Leopold’s whole system of exploitation. It was this radicalism, in the best and deepest sense of the word, that underlay the passion of the leading Congo reformers and that led Morel and Casement, after their battle for justice in the Congo, to Pentonville Prison."
  • =="At the time of the Congo controversy a hundred years ago, the idea of full human rights, political, social, and economic, was a profound threat to the established order of most countries on earth. It still is today."==
  • "colonialism could also be totalitarian — what, after all, was more so than a forced labor system? And under colonial rule, too, censorship was tight: someone living in the Belgian Congo had no more chance of advocating freedom in the local press than a dissident in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Colonialism was also justified by an elaborate ideology,"
  • =="Communism, fascism, and colonialism each asserted the right to totally control its subjects’ lives. In all three cases, the impact lingered long after the system itself officially died."==
  • "I’ve sometimes heard Congolese friends say, “We wouldn’t have so much trouble if we weren’t so rich.”"
  • "Despite the thievery of Leopold and his successors, it is wrong to blame the problems of today’s Africa entirely on colonialism. Much of history consists of peoples conquering each other. Yet, from Ireland to South Korea, countries that were once ruthlessly colonized have nonetheless managed to build reasonably prosperous and democratic states. ==The nature of the society that existed before conquest can have much to do with how well it recovers afterwards.== The countries that have done better after their colonizers departed often were those that previously had more economic development, a strong sense of national identity, a written language, or long-distance trading relationships. Other parts of the world have not fared as well, and this includes much of Africa. Several factors involved here go far beyond the colonial heritage. One is the abysmal position of women and all of the violence, repression, and prejudices that go with that. Another is the deep-seated tolerance and even hero-worship of strongmen like Mobutu. Finally, in large parts of Africa, the long history of indigenous slavery is still disastrously woven into the social fabric."
  • "And Africa is not alone in its heritage of slavery: Chekhov, knowing the weight of his own country’s history of serfdom, spoke of how Russians must squeeze the slave out of themselves, drop by drop. Russia’s continuing troubles show how long and hard a task this is."
  • "...including the deadly Thirty Years War, whose anarchic multisidedness and array of plundering outsiders remind one of Congo today. But Europe eventually managed to move beyond all of that, and I hope Africa can do so as well."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • Mare Tenebroso, the Sea of Darkness #locations
  • “as if this noble river had determined to try its strength in pitched battle with the ocean itself,” A river spirit at war with the ocean #fragments
  • The river that swallows all rivers #locations
  • According to myth, the founder of the Kongo state was a blacksmith king, so ironwork was an occupation of the nobility.
  • African tales from captain descending into hold of ship --> A hole into the ocean. An oceanic factory where sea sprites weave cloth. #locations
  • Crystal Mountains. Scrambling over great masses of quartz #locations
  • “the house that walks on water,” or, after its sound, as kutu-kutu (African name for steamboat) #locations
  • Oblivious general under seige. "Brilliant linguist and an eccentric; besides trying to govern his province, heal the sick, and hold out against the Mahdist rebels, he was painstakingly gathering specimens of plant and animal life and assembling a collection of stuffed birds for the British Museum." #characters
  • "the wood that weeps"
  • "In some military units there was even a “keeper of the hands”; his job was the smoking."
  • The ancient copper mines of Bah-el-Ghazal (inspired Bahr-el-Brun) #locations
  • Self aware, shameless, 300 lb lawyer. Backstabs briber. No scruuples, besides money annd pride. Uses his narcolepsy to his advantage. #characters
  • Breakstones