King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

by Adam Hochschild

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 "An enthralling story . . . A work of history that reads like a novel." — Christian Science Monitor
“As Hochschild’s brilliant book demonstrates, the great Congo scandal prefigured our own times . . . This book must be read and reread.” — Los Angeles Times Book Review

In the late nineteenth century, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium carried out a brutal plundering of the territory surrounding the Congo River. Ultimately slashing the area’s population by ten million, he still managed to shrewdly cultivate his reputation as a great humanitarian. A tale far richer than any novelist could invent, King Leopold’s Ghost is the horrifying account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who defied Leopold: African rebel leaders who fought against hopeless odds and a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure but unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust and participants in the twentieth century’s first great human rights movement.

A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547525730
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 09/03/1999
Sold by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 9,063
File size: 20 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

ADAM HOCHSCHILD is the author of ten books. King Leopold’s Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as was To End All Wars. His Bury the Chains was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN USA Literary Award. He lives in Berkeley, California.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

October 5, 1942

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Harvard College, 1963

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


On January 28, 1841, a quarter-century after Tuckey's failed expedition, the man who would spectacularly accomplish what Tuckey tried to do was born in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh. He was entered on the birth register of St. Hilary's Church as "John Rowlands, Bastard" — an epithet that was to mark the boy for the rest of his life, a life obsessively devoted to living down a sense of shame. Young John was the first of five illegitimate children born to Betsy Parry, a housemaid. His father may have been John Rowlands, a local drunkard who died of delirium tremens, or a prominent and married lawyer named James Vaughan Horne, or a boyfriend of Betsy Parry's in London, where she had been working.

    After giving birth, Betsy Parry departed from Denbigh in disgrace, leaving her baby behind in the home of his two uncles and his maternal grandfather, a man who believed a boy needed a "sound whipping" if he misbehaved. When John was five, his grandfather died, and the uncles immediately got rid of their unwanted nephew by paying a local family half a crown a week to take him in. When the family asked for more money, the uncles refused. One day the foster family told young John that their son Dick would take him to visit his "Aunt Mary" in another village:

The way seemed interminable and tedious.... At last Dick set me down from his shoulders before an immense stone building, and, passing through tall iron gates, he pulled at a bell, which I could hear clanging noisily in the distant interior. A sombre-faced stranger appeared at the door, who, despite my remonstrances, seized me by the hand and drew me within, while Dick tried to sooth my fears with glib promises that he was only going to bring Aunt Mary to me. The door closed on him and, with the echoing sound, I experienced for the first time the awful feeling of utter desolateness.

Six-year-old John Rowlands was now an inmate of the St. Asaph Union Workhouse.

    Records of life at St. Asaph's are generally covered by a veil of Victorian euphemism, but a local newspaper complained that the master of the workhouse was an alcoholic who took "indecent liberties" with women on his staff. An investigative commission that visited the workhouse in 1847, about the time John Rowlands arrived, reported that male adults "took part in every possible vice," and that children slept two to a bed, an older child with a younger, resulting in their starting "to practice and understand things they should not." For the rest of his life, John Rowlands would show a fear of sexual intimacy in any form.

    Whatever John may have endured or seen in the workhouse dormitory, in its schoolroom he thrived. For his achievements he won a prize Bible from the local bishop. He was fascinated by geography. He had an unusual ability to mimic someone else's handwriting after studying it for a few minutes. His own penmanship was strikingly graceful; his youthful signature was stylish and forward-leaning, with the stems and tails of the letters sweeping dramatically far above and below the line. It was as if, through his handwriting, he were trying to pull himself out of disgrace and turn the script of his life from one of poverty to one of elegance.

    One evening, when John was twelve, his supervisor "came up to me during the dinner-hour, when all the inmates were assembled, and, pointing out a tall woman with an oval face, and a great coil of dark hair behind her head, asked me if I recognized her.

    "'No, sir,' I replied.

    "'What, do you not know your own mother?'

    "I started, with a burning face, and directed a shy glance at her, and perceived she was regarding me with a look of cool, critical scrutiny. I had expected to feel a gush of tenderness towards her, but her expression was so chilling that the valves of my heart closed as with a snap."

    Adding to his shock was the fact that his mother had brought two new illegitimate children to St. Asaph's with her, a boy and a girl. Some weeks later, she left the workhouse. For John, it was the latest in a chain of abandonments.

    At fifteen, John left St. Asaph's and stayed with a succession of relatives, all of whom seemed queasy about sheltering a poorhouse cousin. At seventeen, while he was living with an uncle in Liverpool and working as a butcher's delivery boy, he feared he was about to be turned out once more. One day he delivered some meat to an American merchant ship at the docks, the Windermere. The captain eyed this short but sturdy-looking young man and asked, "How would you like to sail in this ship?"

    In February 1859, after a seven-week voyage, the Windermere landed in New Orleans, where the young newcomer jumped ship. He long remembered the city's fascinating array of smells: tar, brine, green coffee, rum, and molasses. Roaming the streets in search of work, on the porch of a warehouse he spied a middle-aged man in a stovepipe hat, a cotton broker, as it turned out, and approached him: "Do you want a boy, sir?"

    The cotton broker, impressed by John's only reference, the prize Bible with the bishop's inscription, took on the Welsh teenager as an employee. Soon after, young John Rowlands, now living in the New World, decided to give himself a new name. The procedure was gradual. In the 1860 New Orleans census, he is listed as "J. Rolling." A woman who knew him at this time remembered him as John Rollins: "smart as a whip, and much given to bragging, big talk and telling stories." Within a few years, however, he began using the first and last name of the merchant who had given him his job. He continued to experiment with the middle names, using Morley, Morelake, and Moreland before finally settling on Morton. And so the boy who had entered the St. Asaph Union Workhouse as John Rowlands became the man who would soon be known worldwide as Henry Morton Stanley.

    Stanley gave himself not only a new name; he tried for the rest of his life to give himself a new biography. The man who would become the most famous explorer of his time, renowned for his accurate observations of African wildlife and terrain, was a world-class obfuscator when it came to his early life. In his autobiography, for example, he tells of leaving the Welsh workhouse in melodramatic terms: he leaped over a garden wall and escaped, he claims, after leading a class rebellion against a cruel supervisor named James Francis, who had viciously brutalized the entire senior class. "'Never again,' I shouted, marvelling at my own audacity. The words had scarcely escaped me ere I found myself swung upwards into the air by the collar of my jacket and flung into a nerveless heap on the bench. Then the passionate brute pummelled me in the stomach until I fell backward, gasping for breath. Again I was lifted, and dashed on the bench with a shock that almost broke my spine." Stanley was then a vigorous, healthy fifteen-year-old and would not have been an easy victim for Francis, a former coal miner who had lost one hand in a mining accident. Other students later recalled no mutiny, much less one led by Stanley; they remembered Francis as a gentle man and Stanley as a teacher's pet, often given favors and encouragement and put in charge of the class when Francis was away. Workhouse records show Stanley leaving not as a runaway but to live at his uncle's while going to school.

    Equally fanciful is Stanley's account of his time in New Orleans. He lived, he says, at the home of the benevolent cotton broker, Henry Stanley, and his saintly, fragile wife. When a yellow fever epidemic struck the city, she sickened and died, in a bed curtained with white muslin, but at the moment of death "she opened her mild eyes, and spoke words as from afar: 'Be a good boy. God bless you!'"

    Soon after, her sorrowing widower clasped his young tenant and employee to his breast and declared that "in future you are to bear my name." What followed, Stanley claims, were two idyllic years of traveling on business with the man he refers to as "my father." They took river boats up and down the Mississippi, walking the decks together, reading aloud to each other, and talking about the Bible. But sadly, in 1861, Stanley's generous adoptive father followed his beloved wife into the next world. "For the first time I understood the sharpness of the pang which pierces the soul when a loved one lies with folded hands icy cold in the eternal sleep. As I contemplated the body I vexed myself with asking, Had my conduct been as perfect as I then wished it had been? Had I failed in aught? Had I esteemed him as he deserved?"

    A poignant story — except that records show that both the elder Stanleys did not die until 1878, seventeen years later. Although they did adopt two children, both were girls. According to city directories and census reports, young Stanley lived not in their home but in a series of boarding houses. And Stanley the merchant had an angry quarrel and permanent rupture with his employee, after which he asked that the young man's name never again be mentioned in his presence.

    Stanley's wishful description of his youth clearly owes something to his contemporary Charles Dickens, similarly fond of deathbed scenes, saintly women, and wealthy benefactors. It also owes much to Stanley's feeling that his real life was so embedded in disgrace that he would have to invent whatever self he presented to the world. Not only did he make up events in his autobiography, but he created journal entries about a dramatic shipwreck and other adventures that never happened. Sometimes an episode in his African travels appears in strikingly different form in his journal, in letters, in the newspaper articles he sent home, and in the books he wrote after each trip. Psychohistorians have had a feast.

    One of the more revealing episodes Stanley describes or invents took place soon after he arrived in New Orleans, when he was sharing a bed in a boarding house with Dick Heaton, another young man who had come over from Liverpool as a deckhand. "He was so modest he would not retire by candle-light, and ... when he got into bed he lay on the verge of it, far removed from contact with me. When I rose in the morning I found that he was not undressed." One day Stanley awoke and, looking at Dick Heaton asleep at his side, was "amazed to see what I took to be two tumours on his breast.... I sat up... and cried out ... 'I know! I know! Dick, you are a girl.'" That evening Dick, who by then had confessed to being Alice, was gone. "She was never seen, or heard of, by me again; but I have hoped ever since that Fate was as propitious to her, as I think it was wise, in separating two young and simple creatures who might have been led, through excess of sentiment, into folly."

    Like his Dickensian deathbed scene, this has an echo of legend — of the girl who disguises herself as a boy so that she can enlist as a soldier or run away to sea. Whether real or made up, the episode's emotional message is the same: Stanley's horror at the idea of finding himself so close to a woman.

    When the American Civil War began, Stanley joined the Confederate Army, and in April 1862 went into combat with his regiment of Arkansas Volunteers at the battle of Shiloh, in Tennessee. On the second day of fighting he was surrounded by half a dozen Union soldiers and soon afterward found himself in a crowded, typhus-ridden prisoner-of-war camp outside Chicago. The only way out of this miserable place, he discovered, was to enlist in the Union Army, which he promptly did, only to fall ill with dysentery and receive a medical discharge. After working his way back and forth across the Atlantic as a sailor, in 1864 he enlisted in the Union Navy. His fine handwriting got him a post as ship's clerk on the frigate Minnesota. When the ship bombarded a Confederate fort in North Carolina, Stanley became one of the few people to see combat on both sides of the Civil War.

    The Minnesota returned to port in early 1865, and the restless Stanley deserted. Now the pace of his movements accelerates. It is as if he has no more patience for confining, regulated institutions like the workhouse, a merchant ship, or the military. He goes first to St. Louis, signs on as a free-lance contributor to a local newspaper, and sends back a series of florid dispatches from ever farther west: Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco. He writes disapprovingly of "debauchery and dissipation" and the "whirlpool of sin" of the Western frontier towns.

    After an adventure-seeking trip to Turkey, Stanley returned to the American West, and his career as a newspaperman took off. For most of 1867 he covered the Indian Wars, sending dispatches not only to St. Louis but to East Coast papers as well. It did not matter that the long, hopeless struggle of the southern Plains Indians against the invaders of their land was almost at an end, that the expedition Stanley accompanied saw little combat, or that most of the year was devoted to peace negotiations; Stanley's editors wanted war reporting about dramatic battles, and this he gave them: "The Indian War has at last been fairly inaugurated.... the Indians, true to their promises, true to their bloody instincts, to their savage hatred of the white race, to the lessons instilled in their bosoms by their progenitors, are on the warpath."

    These dispatches caught the eye of James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the flamboyant, hard-driving publisher of the New York Herald. He hired Stanley to cover an exotic little war that promised to sell many newspapers: a punitive expedition the British government was organizing against the Emperor of Abyssinia. At Suez, on his way to the war, Stanley bribed the chief telegraph clerk to make sure that when correspondents' reports arrived from the front, his would be the first cabled home. His foresight paid off, and his glowing account of how the British won the war's only significant battle was the first to reach the world. In a grand stroke of luck, the trans-Mediterranean telegraph cable broke just after Stanley's stories were sent off. The dispatches of his exasperated rivals, and even the British army's official reports, had to travel part of the way to Europe by ship. In a Cairo hotel, in June 1868, Stanley savored his scoop and the news that he had been named a permanent roving foreign correspondent for the Herald. He was twenty-seven years old.

* * *

Now based in London, Stanley could hear around him the first rumblings of what would before long become known as the Scramble for Africa. In a Europe confidently entering the industrial age, brimming with the sense of power given it by the railroad and the oceangoing steamship, there now arose a new type of hero: the African explorer. To those who had lived in Africa for millennia, of course, "there was nothing to discover, we were here all the time," as a future African statesman would put it. But to nineteenth-century Europeans, celebrating an explorer for "discovering" some new corner of Africa was, psychologically, a prelude to feeling that the continent was theirs for the taking.

    In a Europe ever more tightly knit by the telegraph, the lecture circuit, and widely circulating daily newspapers, African explorers became some of the first international celebrity figures, their fame crossing national boundaries like that of today's champion athletes and movie stars. From Africa's east coast, the Englishmen Richard Burton and John Speke made a bold journey to the interior to find Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Victoria, the continent's largest body of water, and capped their adventure with a spectacle the public always enjoys from celebrities, a bitter public falling-out. From Africa's west coast, the Frenchman Paul Belloni Du Chaillu brought back the skins and skeletons of gorillas, and told riveted audiences how the great hairy beasts abducted women to their jungle lairs for purposes too vile to be spoken of.

    Underlying much of Europe's excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution, just as the search for raw materials — slaves — for the colonial plantation economy had driven most of Europe's earlier dealings with Africa. Expectations quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds in South Africa in 1867 and gold some two decades later. But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives. The British, in particular, fervently believed in bringing "civilisation" and Christianity to the natives; they were curious about what lay in the continent's unknown interior; and they were filled with righteousness about combating slavery.

    Britain, of course, had only a dubious right to the high moral view of slavery. British ships had long dominated the slave trade, and only in 1838 had slavery's vestiges been abolished in the British Empire. But the English quickly forgot all this, just as they forgot that there had been slave revolts in the West Indies and that economic factors had hastened slavery's end by making it less profitable. In their opinion, slavery had come to an end throughout most of the world for one reason only: British virtue. When London's Albert Memorial was built in 1872, one of its statues showed a young black African, naked except for some leaves over his loins. The memorial's inaugural handbook explained that he was a "representative of the uncivilised races" listening to a European woman's teaching, and that the "broken chains at his feet refer to the part taken by Great Britain in the emancipation of slaves."

    Significantly, most British and French antislavery fervor in the 1860s was directed not at Spain and Portugal, which allowed slavery in their colonies, or at Brazil, with its millions of slaves. Instead, righteous denunciations poured down on a distant, weak, and safely nonwhite target: the so-called Arab slave-traders raiding Africa from the east. In the slave markets of Zanzibar, traders sold their human booty to Arab plantation owners on the island itself, and to other buyers in Persia, Madagascar, and the various sultanates and principalities of the Arabian peninsula. For Europeans, here was an ideal target for disapproval: one "uncivilised" race enslaving another.

    Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Nonetheless, from Edinburgh to Rome, indignant books and speeches and sermons denounced the vicious "Arab" slavers — and with them, by implication, the idea that any part of Africa might be colonized by someone other than Europeans.

    All these European impulses toward Africa — antislavery zeal, the search for raw materials, Christian evangelism, and sheer curiosity — were embodied in one man, David Livingstone. Physician, prospector, missionary, explorer, and at one point even a British consul, he wandered across Africa for three decades, starting in the early 1840s. He searched for the source of the Nile, denounced slavery, found Victoria Falls, looked for minerals, and preached the gospel. As the first white man to cross the continent from coast to coast, he became a national hero in England.

    In 1866, Livingstone set off on another long expedition, looking for slave-traders, potential Christians, the Nile, or anything else that might need discovering. Years passed, and he did not return. As people began to wonder about his fate, New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett saw a great opportunity. In 1869, or so went the story Stanley would tell, Stanley received an urgent telegram from Bennett, his boss: COME TO PARIS ON IMPORTANT BUSINESS. A journalist, Stanley wrote with the self-importance that had now become part of his public persona, is "like a gladiator in the arena.... Any flinching, any cowardice, and he is lost. The gladiator meets the sword that is sharpened for his bosom — the ... roving correspondent meets the command that may send him to his doom." He dashed to Paris to meet his publisher at the Grand Hotel. There, a dramatic conversation about Livingstone climaxed with Bennett's saying, "I mean that you shall go, and find him wherever you may hear that he is, and to get what news you can of him, and perhaps ... the old man may be in want: — take enough with you to help him should he require it ... do what you think best — BUT FIND LIVINGSTONE!"

    This scene provided a splendid introduction for Stanley's first book, How I Found Livingstone, and it made Bennett, to whom the volume is dedicated, appear the far-sighted initiator of the great adventure. But nothing like this conversation seems to have happened. The pages of Stanley's journal for the dates around the alleged meeting with Bennett have been torn out, and in fact Stanley did not even begin looking for Livingstone until well over a year later.

    However inflated, Stanley's story of Bennett's dramatic summons to Paris sold plenty of books, and to Stanley that mattered. He was after more than fame as an explorer; his melodramatic flair made him, as one historian has remarked, "the progenitor of all the subsequent professional travel writers." His articles, books, and speaking tours brought him greater riches than any other travel writer of his time, and probably of the next century as well. With every step he took in Africa, Stanley planned how to tell the story once he got home. In a twentieth-century way, he was always sculpting the details of his own celebrity.

    To leave no clues for possible competitors in the search for Livingstone, Stanley carefully spread the word, as he headed for Africa, that he was planning to explore the Rufiji River. He first went to Zanzibar to recruit porters to carry his supplies, and from there wrote a stream of letters to Katie Gough-Roberts, a young woman in his home town of Denbigh. Theirs had been a brief, stiff, nervous courtship, punctuated by Stanley's many departures for journalistic assignments, but in his letters he poured out his heart to her, confessing the painful secret of his illegitimate birth. Stanley planned to marry her on his return from finding Livingstone.

    At last, in the spring of 1871, accompanied by a dog named Omar and porters, armed guards, an interpreter, cooks, a guide carrying the American flag, and two British sailors — some 190 men in all, the largest African exploring expedition to date — Stanley marched inland from the east coast in search of Livingstone, who by now had not been seen by any European for five years. "Wherever he is," Stanley declared to his New York newspaper readers, "be sure I shall not give up the chase. If alive, you shall hear what he has to say; if dead I will find and bring his bones to you."

    Stanley had to trek for more than eight months before he found the explorer and was able to utter his famous "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" The long search was shaped into legend by his stream of dispatches and Bennett's realization that his newspaper had one of the great human-interest scoops of the century. Because Stanley was the only source of information about the search (his two white companions died during the expedition, and no one ever bothered to interview the surviving porters), the legend remained heroic. There were the months of arduous marching, the terrible swamps, the evil "Arab" slave-traders, the mysterious deadly diseases, the perilous attacks by crocodiles, and finally Stanley's triumphant discovery of the gentle Dr. Livingstone.

    Livingstone was haloed in Stanley's prose, for he was the noble father figure the younger man had long been looking for and, to some extent, had actually found. According to Stanley, the experienced sage and the bold young hero became fast friends as they explored together for several months. (They sailed around the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, hoping to find the Nile flowing out, but to their disappointment found only another river flowing in.) The older man passed on his wisdom to the younger before they sadly bade each other farewell and parted forever. Conveniently for Stanley, Livingstone remained in Africa and died soon afterward, before he could come home to share the spotlight or to tell the story at all differently. Stanley cannily sprinkled his tale with picturesque chiefs, exotic sultans, and faithful servants, and he introduced it with the sweeping generalizations that allowed his readers to feel at home in an unfamiliar world: "The Arab never changes"; "The Banyan is a born trader"; "For the half-castes I have great contempt."

    Unlike the uncombative and paternalistic Livingstone, who traveled without a huge retinue of heavily armed followers, Stanley was a harsh and brutal taskmaster. "The blacks give an immense amount of trouble; they are too ungrateful to suit my fancy," he wrote while on the journey. Although they are softened by successive revisions, his writings show him given to explosive rage. He drove his men up hills and through swamps without letup. "When mud and wet sapped the physical energy of the lazily-inclined, a dog-whip became their backs, restoring them to a sound -- sometimes to an extravagant — activity." Only half a dozen years earlier Stanley had deserted from the U.S. Navy, but now he noted with satisfaction how "the incorrigible deserters ... were well flogged and chained." People in the villages that the expedition marched through may well have mistaken it for another slave caravan.

    Like many whites who would follow him, Stanley saw Africa as essentially empty. "Unpeopled country," he called it. "What a settlement one could have in this valley! See, it is broad enough to support a large population. Fancy a church spire rising where that tamarind rears its dark crown of foliage, and think how well a score or two of pretty cottages would look instead of those thorn clumps and gum trees!" And again: "There are plenty of.... Pilgrim Fathers among the Anglo-Saxon race yet, and when America is filled up with their descendants, who shall say that Africa ... shall not be their next resting place?"

    To him and to his public, Stanley's future was now firmly linked to Africa. On his return to Europe, the French press compared his finding Livingstone to Hannibal's and Napoleon's crossing the Alps. Even more aptly, given Stanley's boasts about shooting anyone who got in his way, General William Tecumseh Sherman met the explorer for breakfast in Paris and likened Stanley's trip to his own scorched-earth march to the sea.

    The British were more hostile. The Royal Geographical Society had belatedly sent an expedition to find Livingstone, and its members had been appalled to cross paths with Stanley in Africa just as he was triumphantly boarding a ship to return home. Between the lines of huffy statements from the society's officials was their exasperation that their native son had been found by someone who was neither a proper explorer nor a proper Englishman, but a "penny-a-liner," writing for the American yellow press. Furthermore, some in England noticed, Stanley's American accent tended to change to a Welsh one whenever he got excited. The rumors about his Welsh birth and illegitimacy worried Stanley deeply, because, writing for a jingoistic and anti-British New York newspaper, he was vigorously claiming to be American born and bred. (He sometimes implied that he came from New York; sometimes from St. Louis. Mark Twain sent congratulations to his "fellow Missourian" for finding Livingstone.)

    Stanley, quick to feel rejected, especially by upper-crust Englishmen, now found himself rejected also by his fiancée. During his travels, he discovered, Katie Gough-Roberts had married an architect named Bradshaw. Stanley was desperate to retrieve the letters he had sent her, particularly the one in which he had told her about his origins. But when he wrote to ask for them, she refused to give them back except in person. At a lecture he gave in Manchester, she and her husband were in the audience. Afterward, she came to the house where he was staying and asked the butler to tell him she had the letter with her. Stanley sent the butler back to the door to collect it; once again she refused to hand it over to anyone but Stanley. He would not go to the door, and she departed, letter in hand. His hurt pride remained like an open wound. Before long he would once again seek solace in Africa.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"An enthralling story, full of fascinating characters, intense drama, high adventure, deceitful manipulations, courageous truth-telling, and splendid moral fervor . . .A work of history that reads like a novel." Christian Science Monitor

"As Hochschild's brilliant book demonstrates, the great Congo scandal prefigured our own times . . . This book must be read and reread."—Neal Ascherson The Los Angeles Times

"A vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions." The New York Times

"King Leopold’s Ghost is a remarkable achievement, hugely satisfying on many levels. It overwhelmed me in the way Heart of Darkness did when I first read it—and for precisely the same reasons: as a revelation of the horror that had been hidden in the Congo."—Paul Theroux

"Carefully researched and vigorously told, King Leopold’s Ghost does what good history always does—expands the memory of the human race." The Houston Chronicle

Customer Reviews

King Leopold's Ghost 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 86 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Belgium is not very well known as an oppressive nation, England being the great colonial power of history. But the number of people it killed during its colonization of the Congo exceeded the European Holocaust! I'll leave it to you to buy the book and discover how much they really murdered and how. Another book that, as I like to say, will be the best time you ever had getting depressed!
Guest More than 1 year ago
If I believed in the innate goodness of human beings or a universal compassion for life that lives within us then - after reading this book - I feel like I was wrong. and naive. ignorant to the true nature of mankind. This book has filled me with a sadness that I'm not sure I have ever felt before... I turned each page with a hand that grew heavier and heavier and by the end it seemed like each page was filled with so much pain that I could hardly lift it up. Watching King Leopold II carefully create and control public perception and use his power to influence, manage and direct other governments, media and policy makes me acutely aware that the same thing is probably happining today. and always will. I feel overwhelmed and a little bit sick after reading this but I will recommend it to every reader I meet.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A beautifully, thoughtfully written face of history of human rights and nations' hypocrisies. An in depth presentation of true heroes and villains, and human weaknesses. Introduces, well know people from varied disciplines [Arthur Conan Doyle, Bertrand Russell, Elihu Root, TR, etc, on this stage. A panoramic masterpiece. Thoughtful quote, page 204: And yet the world we live in¿its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outburst of violence¿is shaped by less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.
stevesmits on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a remarkable history of events in colonial Africa that, though poorly known today, constituted one of the most horrific occurences of genocide and exploitation in modern history. It tells of King Leopold of Belgium's obsession to become a colonial power at the end of the nineteenth century. Leopold seized vast territory in central Africa in what is now Zaire. Unlike other western European states that played out their imperialist aims as nation states, Leopold, in his person, became the ruler of this vast territory. Leopold portrayed himself as the savior of African people against the predations of "Arab" slave traders (in the faux humanitarian and racially superior tone of the times), but was actually responsible for massive and devastating oppression of the native people to wrest riches of their lands from them (ivory and, later, wild rubber) through forced labor. It is estimated that up to ten million people died from this genocidal treatment.There is quite a bit of material on Henry Stanley, the famed explorer. Needless to say, he turns out not to be the heroic adventurer that popular myth portrays.Another theme of the book recounts the herculean efforts of a few people to expose and oppose this horror. Hochschild describes Joseph Conrad's travels in the Congo and his encounters with Belgian mercenaries that resulted in his masterpiece of the degradation of the era -- "Heart of Darkness". He identifies the officials that were mostly likely his models for Kurtz. Hoscschild also narrates the stories of American and British missionaries to the region who reported the malevolent treatment of the inhabitants. Two highly signficant instigators of the anti-Leopold movement were Sir Roger Casement, a British consul, and E.D. Morel. Morel was a shipping agent for a line that moved goods to and from the Congo. He noticed that huge quantities of valuable goods were coming from there, but returning ships there contained arms and worthless trinkets for trade. His investigations led to a life-long campaign against this massive exploitation that ultimately turned world opinion against Leopold. This book is a vivid portrayal of excesses of the colonial era by western powers and the havoc that this visited on people in the Congo and elsewhere. That this story is not told alongside the other genocides of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a real blind spot in a complete history of these times.
willmurdoch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Certainly the best piece of popular history about a little known criminal enterprise known as the Congo Free State of Leopold the 2nd, King of the Belgians, in the late 19th and early 20th century. A fascinating and readable book with many heroes including E.D. Morel and Sir Roger Casement; who later figure in the First World War and Hochschild's recent book on it. I recommend that book too!
grheault on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How the good king Leopold got away with slave labor, 'off the books' governance via private armies,the killing of millions of Congo black, long decades after slavery was banned, and how he was thwarted by good guy activists and journalists. The cast of characters is enticing in their familiarity: Albert & Victoria, Carlotta & Maximillian, Stanley & Livingstone, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain; and fascinating in their newness ( to some of us): black Americans William Sheppard & George Washington William, and UK activists Edmund D. Morel & Richard Castleton.The Leopold story was taught in the 1950's as an example of bad colonialism to children in British Commonweath countries, in contrast to the UK's 'good' colonialism. Author analyzes why the Belgian Congo became the focus of anti-slavery activism when similar sins were being committed by other European powers. And one still wonders, with Belgiums French/Flemish divide about the role of the Catholic Church in all this. Interesting characters, action, and analysis by the author. Great bibliography and notes for further reading.
flyladyNM More than 1 year ago
Born in Belgium and learning the Royals in history class. This is a different story. We learned about the missionaries helping the Congolese.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Everyone should hear this story. Well written piece of history that is still having an impact today. While the institution of slavery in the U.S. isn't something Americans are proud of; they own up to it. And yet European colonization was employing slave labor well into the 20th century. Conrad's Heart of darkness may be fiction but is so close to the truth of Congo colonization-makes one shudder.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my third book by this author. I am amazed. It is beautiful, poignant, angry, accusatory, terrifying, humiliating, disheartening, tragic, informative, enlightening...or maybe these are just my reactions as I read it...
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Best kind of popular history. Every African should read this.
cathyskye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
First Line: On January 28, 1841, a quarter-century after Tuckey's failed expedition, the man who would spectacularly accomplish what Tuckey tried to do was born in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh.Over a century has passed since the events depicted in this book, and the first thing I learned was that-- somewhere along the line-- I had fallen prey to King Leopold II of Belgium's public relations team. For quite a long time, Leopold was known as a great humanitarian. The real King Leopold was quite horrifying.In the 1880s while Europe carved Africa into colonies to harvest as much of the continent's natural resources as possible, King Leopold II (who scathingly referred to his own country as "small country, small people") was frantic not to be excluded from the feast. The vast colony he seized in 1885 as his private fiefdom included most of the unexplored basin of the Congo River.Leopold then proceeded to put in place a reign of terror that would end in the deaths of four to eight million people-- a genocide of Holocaust proportions. Those indigenous peoples who survived went to work mining ore or harvesting rubber while Leopold squirreled away billions of dollars in hidden bank accounts around the world.Although the king's ministers tried to keep a very tight lid on what was really going on in the Congo, the word began to get out and circulate to a wider and wider audience, due mainly to men willing to risk their jobs, their reputations and their lives in order to put an end to the atrocities. Their efforts to expose these crimes led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century.The strength of Hochschild's book is that he uses the wealth of information that can be found in actual eyewitness accounts. I have to admit that I had to read this book in short doses. Normally I am not squeamish, but as I read what Leopold sanctioned in order to reap untold wealth-- all the while painting himself as a great and wise humanitarian-- I became sickened.There are those who may read of the genocides in Africa in recent decades and think, "So what? It's just one tribe wiping out another tribe. There are plenty more to take their places. It's not as though white people are being murdered." Once again, a piece of forgotten history shows us that the indigenous peoples of Africa learned all about genocide... from the "civilized" whites.As painful as this book can be to read, I'm glad I read it-- and I hope you consider reading it as well.
Hantsuki on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Even though I started this book last month, it only took me three days to finish it. I actually had to read the first twenty pages in order to do well on a portion of my exam, but otherwise, I only spent three days reading this book because primarily, I had to finish all of it before my in-class essay in a couple of days and secondly, this book was rather hard to put down.The real plus side to this book is that it reads like a novel, and I can't begin to explain how much that helps a reader become interested in a book made up of historical facts. If I had to read another textbook, I don't think I would have finished on time, but because Hochschild has an eloquent writing style, his book wasn't painful to read at all.The other plus side was the fact that the author used many comparisons to explain a lot of the things he talks about (and of course, that helps the book sound like a novel). For example, when he talks about the imperialism in Africa, he compares it to the imperialism in the Philippines or in India. Plus, there are many characters in this book to follow. If you don't care about King Leopold, you can read about Stanley, or if you don't care about him, you can read about Morel or Casement or look forward to the chapter on Joseph Conrad. I feel like there's something in this book that would interest everyone.I also have to say, by the time I finished this book, I didn't feel depressed at all. I can't say I was feeling very horrified either, regretfully, although I'm sure the author meant for the reader to feel some horror after reading about what happened to the Africans subjected to colonialism in the Congo predominantly. Maybe it's because I've read Heart of Darkness several times. Anyway, I'm more fascinated by what I've read more than anything. After reading the Forward at the end where the author states that he was turned down by nine publishers because they thought no one would be interested in the history of the Congo, I thought to myself that I could understand why they thought that way, but I think everyone needs to read a little something they would naturally want to avoid. This book gives you something to think about anyway.
datrappert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
True horror story of the (at the time Hochschild wrote it) little known atrocities and genocide in the colonial Belgian Congo and the few people who sought to expose what was going on. it. Riveting, terrifying, and well-written, and especially interesting if you have read Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sadly, although hundreds of thousands of people have read this book and been awakened to a sad episode of history, there is still a great deal of denial as well.
trinibaby9 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A must read! I have no idea how this potion of history can be so overlooked!. It is terrible to see how human beings treat one another and what individuals are capable of. This is a must read if only for the fact that this atrocity must never be commited again. No human life is worth more than another, whatever the financial gains may be.
bernsad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Despite the rather horrible subject matter I found this an enjoyable read. Hochschild has obviously done extensive research but presents it in an easily readable style. He gives us a good picture of colonial Africa, specifically the Congo but probably applicable in general, not just to Africa, but a lot of the colonial territories. I think the most poignant part of the book is the photographs of people with hands cut off as punishment! Frightening, but probably still possible in some parts of the world today. We are not very far advanced from this mentality yet.
KendraRenee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazing, well-researched, informative book. My brother went to the Congo a few years ago to develop more micro-finance in the area, and some of the stories he told while there make so much more sense now--i.e. the strained relationship between blacks and whites, the current corruption in their government, the guerilla warfare, etc. There's a history of incredible, terrible repression, slavery, slaughter, and abuse that clearly made this country what it is today. Turns the stomach and makes one want to weep at the cruelty of mankind. The story of the people who fought to end this era of human rights abuses might have inspired me to join Amnesty International sometime soon.
veevoxvoom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
At the end of the nineteenth century African colonialism was at its height, and no more was this evident than in King Leopold of Belgium¿s personal scramble for the area known as the Congo. Adam Hochschild follows the development of the Congo under Leopold and its brutal, ruthless regime against the natives. But in his story of cruelty is also the story of those who opposed and rallied against Leopold.I was assigned to read this book as a study in colonialism during a first year university history course. I read only about half of it and then stopped; not because of lack of interest, but because exams and other distractions had started to dominate my time more. Two years later I¿ve returned to this book and now I feel embarrassed that I ever let it go. It is gripping, meticulously researched, and written more like a novel than an academic text, which makes it easy reading in style at least.The subject? Not so much. It¿s hard to read about such rampant genocide and not feel personally disgusted or moved, which was the case for me. History of African colonization is not a topic that I¿m well acquainted with. I don¿t think a lot of westerners are acquainted with it. It¿s not taught much in schools in any case, and I knew nothing about the Congo prior to this book. Now I feel like I¿ve made the first step in knowledge, although I¿m sure there¿s still a long way to go.The synopsis of this book calls the opposition to Leopold¿s Congo the first human rights movement of the twentieth century. I think this is a vital book for anyone who is interested in the history of human rights campaigns, or anyone in general who wants to know more about the world¿s darker, bleaker histories.
michaeleconomy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
read this in college, pretty good, covers history i would have never had any idea about otherwise
getupkid10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazingly detailed account of King Leopold's destruction of large swatch of land in central Africa, the murder of its people and the people in Europe and the United States that battled to end it. The story documents the roughly ten million people who were killed through starvation, murder, disease or infertility caused by the migration of forced labor with heart wrenching detail. Many stories, often given by missionaries working, tell the story of people being shot on sight for not bringing back enough rubber, people being forced in shackles from their villages to work deep into the jungles searching for rubber and villages brought to starvation as they are forced to provide food to gov't or rubber companies workers. Though it does cover the people of the Congo, the majority of It follows the work of Edmund Morel, a newspaper writer and author of books that published the atrocities perpetrated by Leopold and the concession companies in the Congo, William Sheppard, an American missionary who also wrote about the methods used by the Belgians and Roger Casement, British consul, who witnessed the atrocities and would work with Morel in bringing the events to the Western public. Hochschild does an amazing job covering this often forgotten moment in colonialism and one of the first battles for human rights in the twentieth century. No wonder this book is referred to by Bryan Mealer and Michela Wrong, both authors on the Congo, as "the definitive account of the rubber atrocities" and as "gripping, impeccably researched... [and] unbeatable.", respectively.
santhony on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having only a passing familiarity with the history of the European colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, I must admit to being somewhat shocked at the raw body count associated with Leopold's rape of the Congo. As many have asked, "How could the death of up to 10 million people become nothing more than a footnote to this historical era?" The subjugation and plundering of large areas of the region was certainly not an activity that began and ended with Leopold, however, the scope of his atrocities coupled with the other aspects of his pathetic life identify him as an utterly miserable excuse for a human being. That being said, however, it should be noted (as the author does at the end of his work), that in many ways, Leopold was a man of his times. If his body count was higher than that of French, German and English colonies, this was largely due to the fact that the rubber resource was more densely located in his area of control. What matter the body count if the value of the bodies were negligible? Even many of the "heroes" identified in the book, looked with disgust and abhorence at the subjects of Leopold's crimes against humanity. However, it is these very individuals, who took on at great risk the powers involved in the carnage that make up the story of this period. A willingness to protect the defenseless, at great personal sacrifice and with virtually no hope of either success or reward is what identifies the finest among us.
FicusFan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very compelling book. The story of how the king of Belgium ended up owning a huge swath of Africa as a private possession. The local people were never considered the owners of their land, or the masters of their own lives. Their possessions, land and animals were taken, their lives were often destroyed, their families were broken up, their bodies tortured, maimed and killed, and their culture was ground into the dust. All this was done in the name of educating them how to work, to be decent, clothes wearing, god-fearing people, but in reality they were made into slaves. The underlying reason was profit, and power for the Europeans.Leopold managed to keep reformers and even those in his own country from learning the full truth about how the place was run, how much money he extracted, and the cost in lives, and suffering. The sad thing is most didn't care about the suffering of the locals. They were not treated any better in the other colonies, but the Congo is the one that was in the spotlight in the early 1900s. Belgium was a small country and easier to make an enemy of than say, France, Germany or Great Britain, which also had colonies, with the same driving force.Many of the documents of the investigations that weren't destroyed by Leopold when he turned the colony over, were hidden away in the Belgium state archives, and access was refused. They have now been released, but only in French. The past has faded away in human memory and even in the history books. Many famous monuments, buildings and parks were purchased with African blood, but there is no mention or knowledge of it. The horrors of the past have set the patterns for today and the cycle of violence, poverty, terror and theft have continued. Now it is the Africans themselves who are perpetuating it. Though there is still western money and power in the background pulling the strings. Just a searing tale of how 10 -13 million people in one colony were killed, worked to death, or died of disease and/or starvation. And Africa was full of colonies.
LisaMaria_C on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you ask an educated American to name the worst despots and atrocities of the twentieth century, you'll immediately hear such names as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Very few would name Leopold II, King of the Belgians and absolute master of the Belgian Congo. I wouldn't have before reading this book, yet a man thousands of miles from a land he never visited is charged with instituting policies responsible for 10 million deaths in the course of a couple of decades, sparking the "first great international human rights movement of twentieth century." Hochschild tells us in the introduction that the book "is the story of that movement, of the savage crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it and of the way the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history." The first third of the book sets out the background--the explorations of the brutal Henry Morton Stanley of "Stanley and Livingston" fame, and the machinations of Leopold to gain a colony. The story of almost every monster of history seems to lie in a hunger for fame, glory or a twisted patriotism or ideology. With Leopold, as he's presented, the motive seems to be pure greed. The next third begins to set out how Leopold's military dictatorship used forced labor to meet demands for ivory and rubber. It explains how Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness was inspired by his own experience in the Congo. Finally, Hochschild tells the story of the protest movement, especially the story of Edmund Dene Morel, "an obscure shipping-company official" who became Leopold's most dangerous enemy. After reading this I certainly will never again be able to see Stanley as a hero or read Heart of Darkness in the same way. Given the material, this is an absorbing book--a five star in terms of the importance of the story, but not, I thought, in presentation. Hochschild, a former editor of the Marxist Ramparts and a co-founder of the far-left Mother Jones, often lets his socialist biases peek out. For instance, he bizarrely expresses his bewilderment over how a businessman like Morel with no attachment to socialism could be so passionate about fighting injustice! Even more than the intrusive socialist lens, I was left uneasy by the whiff of sensationalist journalism in his psychoanalysis and unsupported speculations about motives and actions and focus on scandal. I think in a lot of cases like that, less would have been more. And in the case of what happened in Congo, more would have been more. I felt I got a better sense of how Leopold conducted his affair with his teenage mistress than how he governed the Congo. Hochschild's chronology and evidence for the numbers he claimed killed in the introduction and analysis of what part could be pinned down as due to the direct effect of colonial rule felt sketchy, as did the exploration of Leopold's role beyond press relations and lobbying. (Admittedly, as Hochschild related, difficult precisely because so many documents were ordered destroyed by Leopold.) When I contrast King Leopold's Ghost to say Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I just can't rate Hochschild as impressive as a writer or historian.
dekan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
i'm not really sure what to say about this book. this is a book that everyone should read, historically. also because it was holicaustic. the population was cut more than 50% and estimated (minum 10-13 million dead). holy sh**. Leopold should be listed with stalin and hitler but this was a crime of many as well. i found some of the names involved interesting especially the most current and the involvement from our goverment now regaurding Lumumba and Mobutu (who i am familiar with, vaguely.) you stand amazed at those who still claim the holocaust never happened. yet here, they have succeed to unbelievable hights the ability for mass denial. it makes me sick. on the other hand i feel like i need to know more. that the book left you uninformed, at least as far as knowing more than the basics or general. when you read the book you'll see why but at the same time i didn't like the organization of the information, however i don't really know how i would change it. i also felt that being that there is a lack of info why it didn't focus more on leopold himself, again that was i'm sure due to the lack of info. don't get me wrong, i admire and think this book deserves a hugh standing ovation for even writting this book. i'm also impressed with the after publication information and more writters should be this aware. it also lets you know that the writter believes in the cause. i don't know how this review came out, my brain hasn't been working very well lately. i hope that it reads better than the flow of the book but i'm thining this is worse. you should read it. he is up there with hitler and stalin and was bringing the congo close to extinction. i couldn't help wondering why he never just killed some of these people to hide mass murder except that he seemed so intent on keeping his reputation in tact, but i'm not sure he was that delusional. as a last remark, this obviously only hit the tip of the iceburg, so per the book it is rightly; the horror, the horror.
etxgardener on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I pride myself on being a student of history, and I knew that the history of the Belgium Congo was not one of the high points in Europe's colonial adventures in Africa, but I had no idea how bad it really was, or how awful King Leopold of Belgium was.Impeccably researched and eminently readable, this book is compendium of horror. How anyone could possibly defend colonialism in Africa after reading it is beyond me. A sad excuse for a king, aided and abetted by greedy, grasping explorers (so much for my childhood impressions of "Dr. Livingston, I presume" Mr. Stanley), businessmen and soldiers of fortune raped and pillaged the Congo River basin leaving a sad legacy of corruption and brutality that continues up through today.On the flip side the efforts of a handful of human rights crusaders valiantly tried to end the terrible abuses in the territory. While only partially successful their efforts, too, live on today in organizations like Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders.This book should be required reading for anyone who today is promoting the overseas adventures in the United States in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
dchaikin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
King Leopold¿s Ghost is the story of Congo Free State ¿ a colony owned outright not by a European country, but by a single monarch, King Leopold II of Belgium. The state, an area almost 30 times the size of Belgium, existed for 23 years (1885 ¿ 1908), and was run solely for profit ¿ mainly from Ivory and rubber. Congo was ¿discovered¿ by the Portuguese in the late 1400¿s and became a source of slaves for the slave trading. But, it was not penetrated by Europeans until Henry Morton Stanley began his treks of discovery (leaving a bloody path behind him) in the mid-19th century. At this point King Leopold stepped in and successfully manipulates the creation of the ¿Free State of Congo¿ under his personal ownership. In Europe Leopold promoted his mission in the Congo as humanitarian.But, out European sight, was a prolonged massacre for profit. This is the world of Joseph Conrad¿s Heart of Darkness. Under Leopold, the Congo became basically an enslaved country of forced labor. The brutality was unrestrained and the stomach turning stories are endless. The black population dropped in half¿something like 10 million black Africans died during this during this period. This was not genocide. The torture and mass death came in the name of profits.However, this was not unique in Africa. Similar kinds of things happened in other places under other European states. The main difference of Congo was that it covered a huge area. Also unique was that Leopold provided a villain, and a strong movement developed to end the Congo Free State. The truth of the Congo was partially exposed during Leopold¿s lifetime. Hochschild has written a very detailed and gripping history of the Congo. He captures some of the atmosphere of life in the Congo, and he fleshes out many of the key people involved, especially the madman who was Henry Morton Stanly. His chapter on Joseph Conrad was absolutely fascinating.