Hochschild begins this history with a recalling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It would be impossible not to. For most people in the world, if they know anything about the slave trade, enforced labor, and violent atrocities that happened in the Congo under the reign of King Leopold of Beligum and then the Belgian government, they primarily know about it because of Conrad’s book. Conrad’s book occupies a tense space in English literature for a few reasons. One, his language, his ideology, and his story focuses exclusively on white European perspectives. Even though the atrocities of the Congo killed ten million Congolese inhabitants, and whose legacy led to the raise of Mobuto Sese Seko (with direct action of the US through the assassination of Patrice Lumumba) who continued the legacy of financial plunder, the story itself is not entirely well-known. So back to Conrad: the other part of the legacy of Conrad is that it is a truly amazing and important portrait of European colonial greed, cruelty, and evil. Conrad’s writing, which goes from one extreme of barely recognizing the humanity of the Black Congolese to the other of the near total condemnation of white expanionist greed. His focus though is on the soul degradation of those who commit cruelty, not the victims of the cruelty and their humanity. Both his book as a literary object and his book as an example of the kinds of things he’s describing have cemented it (for now) in the canon of English literature. But as Hocshild reminds us: it’s also a novel about a specific set of events and a specific place. There is universal ideas in Conrad, but the story is of Leopold’s Congo.
So this book details that history. Of a newly formed country in search of a King. Beligum didn’t have a king until the early 19th century, which feels pretty late in the game. In fact Leopold, the second king, didn’t even speak Flemish. Late to the monarch game, they were also late to the colonial game and looked to Africa, the same way Germany and Italy did, also late to both nationahood and colonialism.
In this scramble, Leopold allies himself with the newly famous explorer Henry Stanley, who made his fame “finding” Livingstone. Hochschild in a rare moment of humor notes the convenient death of Livingstone soon after meeting with Stanley, so Stanley’s multimedia 1000 page account of his adventures went without comment from Livingstone. Leopold’s alliance with Stanley helped to establish a financial control of the area of the Congo, using state funds to create essentially a private corporation of conquest. Initially, the primary resource obtained was ivory, which eventually gave way to rubber. Ivory was ecologically devastating to the elephants of course, and rubber was devastating to the landscape and the millions of people enslaved to harvest it. Not only were the inhabitants of the regions cruelly enslaved, beaten, and killed, many millions were also mutilated with harsh punishments.
One way this story becomes surprising at this point is that through the intervention and activistism of human rights organizations (more or less a new thing in the world) there was a huge media and activism campaign to expose these crimes. One reason that this was successful was that Leopold’s sole ownership of the colony gave them a dedicated villain. The colony was obviously more complex than that, and there was plenty of blame to go around, but in terms of public relations, this proved successful.
From there, we follow those human rights workers, Leopold, and Belgium into the 20th century, WWI, and other ventures, and we follow their various fates.
This book occupies a special place for me personally, because it was the first book of its kind that I ever read in college that opened up an understanding of history, academics, and understanding about the world. It taught me to approach history and ideas in multiple ways. For example, very early on Hochschild reminds us that the story of the Congo has been almost exclusively told through the eyes of white Europeans. This is partly because very few records exist of Congolese voices in comparison, but those that do, collected by the human rights workers, were purposely suppressed by the Beligan government until the 1980s. This means that not only was the history lost in a way, it was purposely hidden. There’s even a horrifying moment late in this book when there’s a Belgian outcry about WWI civilian abuses by Germany that is directly ripped from the atrocities committed by Belgians against the Congolese.