This book will tear your heart out. It’s extremely well-written and extremely difficult to read. The bad guy basically gets away with it. The human rights activists/heroes are indeed noble, but most suffer greatly for their cause.
It’s a terrible story, and it’s made more terrible by the fact that most people don’t know it even happened. In addition to, I think, the general lack of knowledge about Africa in the West, the efforts to forget Belgium’s atrocious history have been remarkable, effective, and ongoing. You can’t help but wonder how humans can even commit, ignore, or tolerate this sort of evil–and yet, we know that things like this happen today, right now.
This is the story of King Leopold, a selfish, shrewd man who ruled the tiny country of Belgium during the age of colonial expansion. Through impressive and despicable diplomatic sleight-of-hand and using his formidable PR instincts, he swooped in to claim the un-colonized lands in central Africa, soon to be known as the Belgian Congo.
He never visited, preferring to rule the Congo from afar, as his royal profit-making playground, free of interference from either his own citizens or the international community. He enslaved the Congolese people, exploited their natural resources–rubber, mainly–in truly astounding amounts, and used the profits to build monuments (to himself, of course) and keep his mistress in fancy chateaux. Charming, really.
Leopold used his Force Publique, a sort of colonial militia, to conscript Congolese to collect rubber from wild trees; wives and children, if not working to collect rubber, were held hostage or, often, worse: raped, maimed, killed, mutilated, forced to work without food or water, forced to abandon their homes and lands, forced to watch their family members suffer and die. If they failed to meet their quotas, which were by any standards unrealistic and ridiculous, they were punished with death or mutilation. And sometimes they were punished just because.
And Leopold did this all for years and years before anyone caught on.
Finally, a few brave men (and women, although their contributions are less documented, alas) saw through Leopold’s charade and figured out what was really going on. Missionaries, speakers, and writers started a dramatic and influential human rights campaign. Roger Casement and Edward Morel tirelessly led the resistance, sometimes at great personal loss. A notable black American missionary, George Washington Williams, spoke out about what he saw first-hand in the Congo. Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain contributed. A husband and wife photographer team shared their photos of Congolese children with amputated hands. Awareness was raised, and outrage soon followed. The fight for human rights is impressive and inspiring–humans (well, some of them, at least) have such capacity for good in the face of evil.
And it saw results, eventually, sort of, in one of the more heartening sections of the book. Europeans and Americans joined what could be argued was the first human rights crusade, and Leopold was forced to weasel his way around the implications of his actions, eventually selling the Congo to Belgium (!) before his death.
But we all know the story doesn’t end there. From the Belgian Congo to Zaire to today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, Leopold’s ghost is still claiming lives and livelihoods. Hochschild’s musings in the last chapter about Leopold’s legacy, human rights campaigns and awareness in the present day, and the future of the Congo are insightful and sobering.
Rating: 5/5. A wonderful book about terrible things. Highly recommended.