King Leopold of Belgium might have started his rapacious pillage of the area that is today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1885 but was not until 1897/1898 that the central character in the resistance of Leopold’s evil regime had his eureka moment. Standing on the dock of the port at Antwerp in Belgium;
Edmund Dene Morel saw an exchange that awakened his spirit to the evil that was going on in a distant land and hence began a long-winded resistance that lasted over a decade and well beyond the demise of King Leopold. King Leopold’s Ghost is an expertly chronicled and well-researched account of King Leopold’s greed and terrorism against the innocent people of Congo and the heroism of men like Morel and even lesser lauded persons who struggled to not only stop Leopold but the system that sustained the evil colonialism that wrecked Congo.
My interest in this book was piqued by two completely unrelated events. Firstly, the very excellent Bury the Chain by the same author which I read last year. I had never read a history book that well written and easily accessible (my major grouse why I have not read much history in the past). Afterwards, I checked up other history books by Adam Hochschild and ended up with King Leopold’s Ghost. Secondly, I have got a close friend who never fails to end every football discussion that involves Vincent Kompany or/and Romelu Lukaku with the rhetoric question – “I wonder how and why they chose to play for Belgium after all that country did to their country of origin?” He repeated it enough times for me to want to know how Belgium decimated Congo.
While the comparison of evil is often pointless, it helps to highlight why the case of Congo is slightly different than the systemic colonial destruction of African states. In Congo’s case, King Leopold sat in Brussels and laid claim to a completely unrelated part of the globe nine thousand kilometres away. When you factor in the fact that Congo is over eight times the size of Belgium and almost as big as the whole of western Europe, you begin to get a feel of the size of greed and theft that was effected by not a country but a single individual.
In a previous review (if you can call it that), I had noted how excellently Adam Hochschild writes; history written in such easy prose that the narration of evil almost feels like thriller fiction. Fair handed, devoid of an exaggeration but unwilling to call a spade by any other name. Beyond these, what stands out in King Leopold’s Ghost is the great lengths the author has gone not just to authenticate the heroes who resisted Leopold’s evil theft of Congo and its resources but the author strove to give voices to the locals who served as critical allies to the likes of Morel, Casement and Sheppard in their work. The prevalence of oral history above written history has been a bane of African history that persists to this present day and this has denied the likes of Congolese resistance leaders like Kandolo, Mulume and Niama a voice till now but in this book, they are rightly positioned no matter how limited the narrative for obvious reasons.
Reading this book with all the Trump noise in the background, a salient point from the book is this – Congo might have been a private estate of Leopold but there was a system that enabled him and remained largely intact even after King Leopold died in 1909. The Belgium government might not have been as brutal as Leopold but that does not mean that it did not have its knees on the neck of Congo while it continued to cry out as it suffocated. The subsequent history of Congo up until Patrice Lumumba and beyond is a valid pointer to how the system thrived even after Leopold and some may argue still thrives till this day.
Now that I have finished the book, I clearly understand my friend’s rhetoric question after every Lukaku/Kompany conversation. However, I am unsure what the answer to such a question is. King Leopold’s Ghost is highly recommended. I am not even apologizing for the endless excerpts below😃.