A discussion from Joan Denoo led me to read (in quotes, via Audible, unabridged) "King Leopold's Ghost".  by Adam Hochschild.  I've been reading the book for a few weeks, and now finished it.  

The story is amazing.  One of the greatest crimes in history, a horrible, greed induced genocide, death of 1/2 of the Congo, or 4 to 8 to 10 million human beings/  Hochschild gives the death toll as 10 million.  Torture, societal destruction, rape of the Congo for money.  Lies, political manipulation, public relations spin as modern as 2013.  Manipulation, blackmail,  and buying off, of the press.  Destruction by burning of whole buildings-full of records to cover up misdeeds, and continued cover up, to this day, by the govt. of Belgium.

This book is a story well told.  The story occurred in the 2nd half of the 19th century, into the early 20th.  The characters include:


Leopold II of Belgium.  An emotionally stunted, pitiful, but also heinous, greedy, virulently racist monarch, who manipulated world events to obtain, for himself, the region of the African Congo.  By the time his rule ended, he was a billionaire, Belgium had a lucrative colony and fabulous wealth extracted from central Africa, destroying nations and cultures, leaving half of the people of the Congo dead, countless others tortured, maimed, raped, and their histories erased.

Henry Morton Stanley, a self-invented explorer, opening the Congo and serving as Leopold's entrance to riches.  Stanley was a star self promoter (as in, "Mr. Livingston I presume?), who recreated himself almost from the ground up, including his nationality and his name.

George Washington Williams, the first to expose Leopold's atrocities.   American Civil War veteranministerpolitician and historian. Shortly before his death he travelled to King Leopold II's Congo Free State and his open letter to Leopold about the suffering of the region's inhabitants at the hands of Leopold's agents, spurred the first public outcry against the regime (Wikipedia).  Incredible story, and worthy of honoring today.

Rev. William Henry Sheppard,  missionary for the Presbyterian Church. He spent 20 years in Africa, primarily in and around the Congo Free State, and is best known for his efforts to publicize the atrocities committed against the Kuba and other Congolese peoples by King Leopold II's Force Publique.  (Wikipedia)  Also a one of the few to humanize, the dehumanized people of the Congo.

Roger Casement, investigated human rights abuses in the Congo, before there was such a concept as "human rights".  He delivered a long, detailed eyewitness report exposing abuses, which led to public outcry in Europe and the US, and was key in ending Leopold's reign of terror.    Wikipedia.  When the British executed casement for treason (aid for the Irish in rebellion), publication of his diaries of assignations with African and other men left no one who would defend him.

E.D. Morel, quoted in one source as one of history's great forgotten humanitarians.  Morel independently discovered the atrocities of Leopold's enormous system of slave labor, and took it as his great cause, publishing, fund raising, speaking, and campaigning, ultimately successfully, for an end to Leopold's hold on the Congo.  

File:Red rubber frontpage.jpgMorel's expose, "Red Rubber".

More minor in the story, but notable for their connection and presence in the events, were those who spoke in Casement's defense, pleading for clemency, including 

Arthur Conan Doyle, who collaborated with casement in his work on Congo Reform, and wrote the pamphlet "The Crime of the Congo" (you can download for free from Gutenberg project)  also here as pdf file.

Poet W. B. Yeats (not mentioned in the book), and 

Playwright George Bernard Shaw (not mentioned in the book)

In addition, 

Mark Twain wrote the pamphlet "King Leopold's Soliloquy", which Leopold felt compelled to respond to.  "The book mentions the critical report by the missionary William Henry Sheppard on an 1899 massacre of over eighty people by Zappo Zaps sent to collect taxes.[1] Leopold claims that his critics only speak of what is unfavorable to him, such as the unfair taxes that he levied upon the people of the Congo, which caused starvation and the extermination of entire villages, but not of the fact that he had sent missionaries to the villages to convert them to Christianity[2] Nothing, Leopold complains, can satisfy the English. (wikipedia)

Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness was the inspiration for the movie "Apocalypse Now", but the story was a fictionalized version of events in the rape of the Congo.  Heart of Darkness is one of the top 100 English language works of fiction. 

The people of the Congo, few of whom names are known, few of who are remembered except as brief tales almost always with death as the conclusion.

So strange this image represents "The Congo Free State", and Orwellian name long before the books of Orwell.


The book is subtitled, 'A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa".  I think it's much more than that.  It's also a story of amazingly modern mastery of public relations spin, of the much repeated theme of ethnocide for greed, of the legacy of racism that proves Europe, not just America, engaged in slavery into the 20th century.  It a story of a master manipulator of nations.   It's a story of many psychologically dysfunctional men as major characters, and women both whole and dysfunctional, as minor characters due to the era.   The story is a beginning for the concept of Human Rights, and individual actions, and forming organizations to fight for human rights that persist to this day.

This book was published in 1999.  For anyone who has not read it, I recommend this book.  I learned more than I expected.  It's fascinating, and a period piece that's also as modern as the last election.

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for the detailed summary.  You've definitely piqued my interest and I'll be adding this book to my reading list.  Sounds like an incredible story. 

Be prepared for some emotional pain. 

Daniel, You are a master at telling a terrible story. You offer just enough to entice one to follow up and read about that dreadful period in history. It says so much about our human history and the ways systemic problems go unnoticed. While it is easy to blame Congolese for their warlike nature, it is not they who were warlike, they were victims without a voice. You help give them voice.  You dear man. 

Thanks for the comments.


Here's a video trailor for the movie version.  I haven't seen it yet.  Movies can be good, but book stayed with me much longer than any movie can.


That was interesting - thanks!



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