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King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin, 1999

Reviewed by Eric Garcetti Co-Chair Young Advocates, California Committee South

In a passage at the beginning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow looks out from his ship near the sea-reach of the Thames and says:

"I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago. . . think of a decent young citizen in a toga. . . coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader, even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him, -- all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men."

Conrad, who wrote the Heart of Darkness after a chilling trip up the Congo River in 1890, recognized how yesterday's savages were tomorrow's paragons of civilization. He eloquently pointed out that European colonialists of the late 19th century were no more "civilized" than the "savages" they sought to rule in sub-Saharan Africa at the turn of the last century.

Writing a century later, Adam Hochschild revisits Conrad's Congo to tell the tale of Belgian king Leopold II's colonial savagery and his creation of a personal colony in the heart of Africa.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, under the pretense of a humanitarian mission to save Africans from slavery and alcohol, Leopold seized an immense swath of land (an area seventy-six times the size of Belgium) around the Congo River. Seeking political prominence and economic gain, Leopold had tried to purchase land in Latin America and Asia from several European powers. Unsuccessful, he turned to unclaimed parts of sub-Saharan Africa and employed Henry Stanley (of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame) as his personal agent.

In 1890, when John Dunlop's invention of the inflatable bicycle tire launched a worldwide rubber boom, Leopold found himself ruling one of the greatest stretches of wild rubber in the world. He immediately began to cash in, implementing a brutal system of forced labor to bring harvested rubber to Europe. Troops would enter a village, round up women and children and hold them hostage until the men brought back a quota of rubber. Torture, rape, murder, and widespread death from rubber harvesting halved the Congo's population within two decades while bringing Leopold a fortune of more than $1 billion (in today's terms).

Hochschild's purpose is not just to chronicle the brutality of Belgian colonialism, but also to tell the story of the courage of individuals who tried to uncover the scale of human suffering in the Congo. Edmund Morel, a clerk for the London shipping company that had a monopoly on transport to and from the Congo, was first to notice that the ships bringing ivory and rubber from the Congo returned loaded with weapons and soldiers. Leopold claimed that he was opening the Congo to free trade, but Morel realized that the weapons and soldiers meant the rubber was being harvested under conditions of near-slavery. Having no background in political activism, risking his family's security and giving up his own job, Morel devoted most of his adult life to uncovering and publicizing the savagery of the rubber trade in the Congo.

Morel is joined by a rich cast of human rights activists, among them William Sheppard and Roger Casement. Sheppard, an African-American Presbyterian missionary, escaped the discrimination of the Jim Crow south and was embraced by the powerful Kuba kingdom, to become one of the first non-Africans to travel to the Kuba capital. Casement, a British consul, became one of Morel's closest allies and collaborators. Hochschild also includes the voices of many Congolese who struggled to resist Leopold's voracious quest for rubber.

The book reads like a novel -- rich in anecdote and benefiting from Hochschild's sharp eye for detail. We learn that the "great" explorer Stanley was in fact an insecure, cruel, lying self-invented man who once cut off his own dog's tail, cooked it, and fed it to the dog when he was upset with it. We learn of the baroque perversities of Leopold's own family. Perhaps most troubling is to realize that without Leopold, someone else would have been there to implement a brutal and horrifying a system of colonial labor (indeed, the neighboring French Congo saw similar suffering during colonial rule). And yet, the courage, perseverance, and determination of individuals like Morel, Sheppard, and Casement revealed injustices that allowed the world, if only for a moment, to see who the true savages were.