KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild. 366 pages, illustrated. Mariner paperback, $15
Before the massacre of the Armenians, before the collectivization famine in Ukraine, before the Shoah, there was Congo. It lasted longer than all three of those put together and killed more people than any of them.
It was capitalism in its purest form. Possibly that explains why it is never included in lists of the great modern atrocities.
Adam Hochschild drops right in, without any background about how Congo got to be the way it was when Leopold II, king of the Belgians, first cast his eye upon its investment possibilities. But it is worth pausing to note that Congo was, for its era, a stable, orderly, centralized polity until the Portuguese arrived with their Catholicism and firearms in the 15th century. The African ruling elite adopted Catholicism and Portuguese names and, like European Christian kings, set about ruining the peasantry for the greater glory of their lines.
Leopold and most of his family were head cases, but the motivation for his Congolese business appears to have been mere house envy. As king of a rich but small country, his income would not support the splendid palaces of the other kings.
Congo had ivory. Later rubber would be the main attraction but the bicycle and the automobile had not yet been invented when Leopold started. Leopold, a modern man, set up a corporation to exploit the resources.
Over 25 years, the series of interlocking corporations attained a byzantine complexity that researchers have never been able to completely untangle, but the key point is that they were private businesses. The government of Belgium had no interest in or control over what went on, and the area did not become the Belgian Congo until 1908, when a dying Leopold, under pressure from international public opinion, sold his businesses to the government.
In most times and places, capitalist enterprises are tempered somewhat by competing interests of government, religion, custom, other ventures or – it may be in some cases – the humanity of the capitalists. None of these factors operated in Leopold’s Congo. Maximizing profit was the only goal.
There was no civil service or government department involved. Leopold’s managers recruited whom they pleased, including Joseph Conrad, who left as soon as his contract allowed. Later, he reported what he saw in “Heart of Darkness.” Kurtz was based on a real person.
However, complete vertical integration (and thus secrecy) eluded Leopold. In those days, Britain controlled half the world’s merchant marine. Leopold’s managers had to use British shippers. Into that chink stepped E.D. Morel, an English shipping clerk who handled the Belgian business because he knew French.
Morel noticed that the ships going out contained lots of rifles and ammunition but nothing – no cloth, pots and pans or canned herring – that could have been used to pay for the ivory and rubber that came back. The king was stealing the produce of the country.
The methods his agents used had already been observed, by the silent Conrad and also by a few reporters, missionaries and other visitors. But they had not been heard, in part because Leopold hired big PR names like Henry Stanley to tell lies about his businesses.
Morel, with nothing but an inexhaustible energy in writing letters, set out to expose Leopold. It took years but it worked. He was helped because, as Hochschild says, “It was the first major atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera.” (Hochschild, not a specialist in history, is in error. The Bulgarian massacres were the first. From time to time Hochschild reveals he is not in complete command of his material, as when he says, “Bismarck wanted colonies in Africa” which is incorrect.)
The story is astonishing and deserves to be famous for that alone, notwithstanding its implications for understanding just where the organized violence of the modern era got its start.
Hochschild errs when he says hardly any Americans have ever heard of this event. The best-known actor in the story, Roger Casement, a consul who went on the ground to confirm what Morel was saying, later was shot as an Irish patriot, so millions of Irish-Americans have heard, at least generally, of how Casement was knighted for his work in Congo.
But although the scandal was a sensation in the early years of the 20th century, the details of how Leopold organized his businesses were not well known then. Surprisingly, the documents were preserved and another brave nobody, a retired civil servant, exposed them two generations later.
Conrad, the eyewitness, captured the essence without knowing the financial arrangements back in Brussels. He called it “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience.”