King Leopold’s Ghost: A Book Review

February 13, 2023

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial AfricaKing Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before reading this book, my knowledge of African history was scanty. I have read a few books on North Africa, but none on the history of the sub-Saharan continent. Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost, proved to be a startling introduction.

First off, the book has a reputation for brutality. Before I began, people warned me to prepare myself. I don’t think anything could prepare someone for the horrors perpetrated on the people native to Africa by the European colonizers. The term “colonize” sounds so innocuous that it masks the violence of the process.

Hochschild highlights King Leopold II, king of the small and relatively new country of Belgium. Leopold’s bottomless well of greed and ruthless ambition caused him to gain control, underhandedly, of the massive area of central Africa called the Congo. He didn’t share this wealth with his country. So, the people of Belgium didn’t even profit from any of his activities using slavery to gain riches from the sale of ivory and rubber at the beginning. This changed after the king died.

To make it clear that terror and exploitation are not unique to Leopold or Belgium, Hochschild talks about violence perpetrated by Africans on other Africans before the Europeans arrived. He also touches on inhumanity demonstrated by other countries worldwide, but primarily by Europeans in their colonization of Africa and theft of its natural resources. He takes pains to discuss the complicity of the United States in similar outrages within its borders.

People have told me that Hochschild cherry-picked his facts and that this book presents an unfair view of the place and the period. I find this difficult to believe. He provides his sources, and the sheer number of damning statistics, facts, and anecdotes cannot be denied. Though the story sickened me, I cannot discount it, and I am glad I read it. We need to know history, no matter how horrible it may have been. Looking at historical darkness in the heart of Africa should prompt us to search for traces of that darkness in ourselves because that’s the only way to ever rid ourselves of it.

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