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Posts Tagged ‘Leopold II of Belgium’

King Leopold’s Ghost; or Why There’s No Club Med in the Congo

Friday, March 19, 2010 @ 03:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only non-travelogue in this series of books taking us Around the World and Into the Past, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost is a history of Europe’s last major slave colony in Central Africa, where the devastating legacy of colonial exploitation continues even now. I have included it in the series because each of the books deals directly or indirectly with the European conquest of the globe, which colors American ideas of travel and shapes our experiences of foreign lands. Because it chronicles a slave empire so recently disbanded, and because the states that have followed in the colony’s wake in Central Africa continue to be war zones, King Leopold’s Ghost reminds us vividly of our own colonial and colonizing past, of the generations of exploration and violence that made today’s leisure travel possible, and of the ultimate sources of our disposable travel income.

King Leopold’s Ghost reads like a novel, with feats of derring-do, unlikely meetings and partings, and shocking revelations. The story of how King Leopold II of Belgium turned the Congo into his own private colony, this carefully researched book begins with the exploration of the Congo River by explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of “Livingstone, I presume” fame). It traces the subsequent employment of Stanley by Leopold as the king’s personal colonial emissary to Central Africa, explains the rise of the slave empire, and details the protest movement against Leopold led by E.D. Morel, whose coalition successfully brought international sanctions against Belgium and ended the king’s African fiefdom.

Briskly paced, Hochschild’s story includes the personal backstory of Leopold II’s early life, which led to the rapacious greed and corruption of his adulthood, explaining his lust for colonial wealth in context of his whoring, philandering and contempt for the Belgian state. Hochschild provides compelling evidence of the secret machinations of Leopold’s shady Congo dealings clearly and engagingly—no small accomplishment, given the millions of documents Leopold’s henchmen destroyed upon the king’s death—and he traces the very beginnings of Leopold’s idea of empire in the 1870s to its most gruesome success at the turn of the century and its final collapse with Leopold’s death in 1910.

Leopold’s network of dummy associations and foundations gave him sole private ownership of a territory as large as the United States east of the Mississippi—Belgium technically didn’t even have a Central African colony while Leopold was alive, because the king personally owned all of the Congo and personally kept all of its wealth.  Ultimately, this personalization of empire also makes him directly responsible for the 8 to 10 million Africans enslaved and murdered to fatten his bank account, a genocide that has largely been ignored in American school textbooks.

King Leopold’s Ghost hinges on the international protest movement against Leopold founded by E.D. Morel. Morel began his career as a shipping clerk for Leopold in the office of Elder Dempster, the bureaucrat largely responsible for cooking the books on Congolese exploitation. Dempster was responsible for making sure that the public accounts of Belgian trade with the Congo looked benign and that the profits were skimmed directly into Leopold’s pockets, and Morel simply couldn’t believe the truth when he saw it—of genocide, enslavement and corruption. He blew the whistle and his indefatigable efforts for over a decade around the turn of the twentieth century eventually drew President Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and a host of world leaders and internationally renowned authors to his cause. The pressure Morel brought to bear against Leopold made Leopold himself a pariah and caused no end of trouble for tiny Belgium, though in the end the King paid no real penalty for his abuses. Upon his death, the Congo became officially a Belgian colony and the worst of his abuses ended, though Belgian possession of the territory continued until 1960.

Morel’s movement was the first international human rights protest and laid the groundwork for subsequent organizations. It also helped shift public consciousness finally against violent colonial exploitation of the “Third World,” an important achievement just a generation after the end of slavery in the United States. But it did little real good for the people of the Congo.

Today, the hot and cold war that started in 1998 in Congo continues. It has claimed more than 5 million lives and directly involved eight African nations and 25 militia groups. The war has raged over a territory the size of Western Europe and troops have savagely butchered and raped civilians throughout the Congo, yet in America the conflict receives almost no attention. It is an inconvenient remnant of a failed colony and of a colonial past that the world would rather forget, and it seems to have little to do with America on its surface.

King Leopold’s Ghost appears in this series of travel books because it reveals a dark side of global adventurism that American and European travelers must always bear in mind when jetting off to “exotic” locations for pleasure. It reminds us that our forbears did not always have pleasure in mind when they set off to foreign lands and that, in many parts of the world, our faces still represent the face of death.

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