King of the severed hands #cbr6

I am taking a graduate course on the history of human rights (yes, for the fun of it) and hope to write book reviews (depending on time). If you are interested you can see those reviews under the human rights tag. More to come.

Monument in Arlon. It says "I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilisation and for the good of Belgium." CC 2.0 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Monument_%C3%A0_L%C3%A9opold_II_.jpg

Monument in Arlon. It says “I have undertaken the work in Congo in the interest of civilization and for the good of Belgium.” (cc 2.0 by Olnnu)

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild is one of those books I always wanted to read, but had trouble getting around to. Honestly you know it isn’t going to be an “easy” book, so it was difficult to make the time. When I saw it on our supplemental reading list as a book on which I could give a required presentation, I jumped on it. I’m very glad I did.

This work describes King Leopold II’s land grab of the Congo River area during the scramble for Africa of the late 19th century, which led to the deaths of 8 to 10 million Africans, the destruction of their societies, and the devastation of the area’s wild rubber plants. Each chapter takes on a different character or episode through the history. Starting with Stanley’s quest to find Livingstone and journeying through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hochschild does a fabulous job telling this brutal story through the eyes of people who lived it. He also tries as much as possible to bring African voices into the narrative. Of course this is not easy considering the oppression of the regime and the lack of historical interest in those voices.

Along with other books in our class, Hochschild points out Leopold II’s need to couch his colonial conquest in humanitarian terms. (Polemical Pain, which I will review later, makes a similar argument using the American pro-slavery rhetoric). Of course this “humanitarian effort” is patronizing, based on “moral uplift”, scientific progress, and stopping the Arab slave trade. To do this Leopold creates a Geographical Conference in 1876 and humanitarian shell organizations. All of these efforts are used to bolster his ambitions to create his colony in Africa.

Ultimately though, the story’s main focus are the people who tried to bring attention to the brutal regime in the Congo, including George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, Reverend William H. Sheppard, and Sir Roger Casement. In various ways all of them contributed to what Hochschild calls the first international human rights movement of the 20th century. It is humbling to read about the sacrifices each one of them made to bring attention to the brutality of Leopold’s colony. While it is the Africans who suffered, these people gave up quite a bit, in some case their lives, to stop that suffering.

The only major criticism is that Hochschild’s tendency to psychoanalyze his characters can be a bit much. He describes Stanley as “one part titan of rugged force …; the other a vulnerable, illegitimate son of the working class.” King Leopold II whom for good reason he is much less kind seems like a ball of evil enveloped in aristocratic clothing. While it makes the book more readable, he never goes into enough depth about their psychology (except maybe Stanley) to understand their motivations. Statements like — “the adventurers who carried out the European seizure of Africa were often not the bold, bluff, hardy men of legend, but restless, unhappy, driven men, in flight from something in their past” — feel trite and cliched in comparison to the weighty history he is describing. Instead, I would prefer that he stick to contextualizing their actions in the society, economics, and culture of the day than to try to “understand the man.” But, psychoanalysis makes for more engaging popular history. 

My minor criticism is that I would have loved more maps … or any maps. Granted I can grab my phone and google the Congo River, but I love a good map to guide me along. I wish more authors could appreciate that. Hochschild is an excellent narrator who describes the surroundings well enough to imagine, but any work with such a strong connection to geography needs some maps.

This is an important work and required reading for anyone interested in colonialism, human rights or Africa. While it isn’t an easy topic, Hochschild is a kind narrator and writes extremely well. Don’t wait like I did; just go ahead and read it!