Reviewed by Jake Okechukwu Effoduh (Assistant Director, CASADE).


King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) is a best-selling popular history book by Adam Hochschild that explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908, as well as the atrocities that were committed during that period. The book aims to increase public awareness of crimes committed by European colonial rulers in Africa. It was refused by nine of the ten U.S. publishing houses to which an outline was submitted, but became an unexpected bestseller and won the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for literary style. It also won the 1999 Duff Cooper Prize. By 2013, more than 600,000 copies were in print in a dozen languages.

 There is a common Congolese proverb that “Talks that are considered to be important must be made to drag on for so long so as to make even the deaf begin to hear it”. Colonialism is part and parcel of our history and should continually be made reference to in order to appreciate the past, understand the present day and plan towards the future. Adam Hochschild in the book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa retrieved the buried past of European colonialism but unlike other accounts, his work is unaffected by bias.

One man’s quest for riches and glory erased over ten million Africans from the face of the earth. This should bring one to imagine what other colonial masters would have scored in the different regions of Africa during the colonial era – reported or unreported, especially seeing that Leopold had to learn from his other colonial counterparts. This also shows that the concept of majority and superiority do not have to represent itself in numbers but in other means like political power, brutal exploitation, bargaining power, use of force, arms etc.

If Hochschild’s objective for writing the book was to show how profoundly European colonialism has shaped the world we live in, then I would agree that he has successfully achieved his goal because he gave an objective account revealing how colonialism developed Europe and underdeveloped Africa making same irreparable. Hochschild gives an exceptional account of 23 years in the colonial history of suffering and retrogression of the Congo Free State driven by accounts of individuals viz – King Leopold II, Roger Casement and Edmund Morel. Hochschild describes the richness of Africa and its resources before it became disvirgined by colonization under the disguise of humanitarianism by Leopold. The book is detailed and chronological, giving raw history and a human rights account of early African existence and European colonialism. Despite his praiseworthy illumination, the question is: has this changed the world today?

King Leopold II is still celebrated with monuments and effigies standing tall in today’s Belgium. Even after colonialism, Africa is still like it was just like Congo under Leopold – a continent where forced labour and neo-colonialism is guised with the sheepskin of foreign investment and aid; a continent where the western demand for chocolates, diamond, gold, rubber and ivory are still paid for with black blood. With globalization, Europeans may not see Africa as empty anymore or like ‘the place where people turn black in face as a mark of God’s vengeance’ but a perusal of my twitter timeline today shows me some mistaken belief by Europeans about Africans even in this 21st century. Some people believe that Europe is helping Africa “civilize” (even when history shows that civilization started in Egypt, Africa) and a university lecturer in Scotland tweeted that “it seems Africans have hard labour in their DNA” connoting that Africans are used to suffering.

While I praise Hochschild for bringing the truth to the fore, I humbly make three reservations:

First is the impression that slavery in the Congo was not relative to race but mostly to power. Europeans feel the pains of the victims of Hitler and Stalin because they were mostly European but in the case of Congo, Hochschild had to discover it in a footnote. Inasmuch as power was a chief wheel in the vehicle for Leopold quest for world domination and the expansion of his estate, race is key in the killings, mutilations and the ‘sacrifices’ of millions of Africans. Amongst others, it took two black men, George Washington Williams and Williams Sheppard to expose Leopold’s atrocities to the outside world because they understood discrimination and racial inequality first hand.

Second is the use of the Hollywood style of telling us this story: – no matter how evil a person is, he is portrayed in a light that will make people ‘understand’ the reason for his evil. Hochschild gives an account of Leopold’s challenging childhood;, the 17th and 18thcentury style of leadership and royalty at that time and the standard want of subjugating the world – making Leopold’s quest for world domination seem aspiring, even citing instances about his love life and the fact that he didn’t receive the love of his father. These excuses tend to give room for reasoning with Leopold on his countless records of cruel and inhuman treatments.

Third is the insufficient Congolese representation in the story, which Hochschild admitted as a flaw. Therefore, despite the shocking facts and estimated statistics we see in the book, this brings an indication that it may even be worse. In a rape case for example, of what estimation is a testimony from only the accused person? The colonizer?

King Leopold’s Ghost gives an appreciable view of European Colonialism and the state of Africa as it was then and shows the reason why Africa is the way it is today. Congo and my country Nigeria share similarities in their colonial antecedents: Both countries went through European colonialism, both countries lost millions of its indigenes to forced labour, slavery and unwarranted deaths, and both countries won independence in the year 1960 almost in the same manner. These facts cannot be overlooked especially as both states still share similarities in their present socio-political and developmental challenges directly linked to the effect of colonialism. He however stated that it is wrong to blame the problems of today’s Africa solely on colonialism. While that is arguable, there are indeed other factors to consider, but with only very little space left to make such considerations. However, I acknowledge the greatness of Hochschild’s effort – by saving a relevant gamut of African history from being swept under the carpet.

This has definitely shaped the world of today, dividing it into two. In order to help make some amends, we need to find that ‘Ghost’ evidenced to be lurking around in different aspects of human existence and exorcize it.