Sunday, March 4, 2012
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror & Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochschild
Barnes & Noble
It's not easy to claim that you love a book on the occupation, slavery, and death of ten million people. This was a hard read, to be sure, and there were a few times when I didn't think I'd be able to continue on. Much like when I was first introduced to Alex Haley's Roots, I found myself physically ill at the descriptions of the way those in power treated the powerless.
Leopold II of Belgium was a brilliant man. He masterminded the colonization of a vast area of land in a continent he had never even set foot in. How did he accomplish such a feat? He manipulated everyone around him: this government; Belgian citizens; Presidents, Kings, and dignitaries from other countries; African tribal chiefs who ceded away their land and people when they signed "treaties" with Henry M. Stanley, who was Leopold's explorer/emissary to the Congo region; journalists; and on an on. I doubt there was a person he met who he didn't manipulate.
Worse were the actions he (via his officers in the Congo) took against the African people: enslaving them; forcing them to work tirelessly collecting ivory and rubber; cutting off the right hands of those who did not meet their quotas; taking women and children hostage so the men would work harder; killing people for sport. Though none of the atrocities he committed were different from what other nations did at the time, it is no less horrifying and sickening.
And I had no idea this had ever happened!
My first job out of college, I worked for a company that did business in Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While I knew that Congo DR had previously been called the Belgian Congo, I didn't think about what that meant. And why would I? What Americans are taught in school was written by wealthy white men, not the poor Africans who were treated so horribly under their rule. Now that I'm older and (hopefully) wiser, I've found that it's important to know what REALLY happened. Hochschild did a fantastic job in describing how this area of the world was transformed over a hundred years ago.