Tuesday, May 8, 2012

King Leopold's Ghost

Okay, one last book on the theme of exploration in the jungle, although this one is in the Congo instead of the Amazon and it illustrates some of the worst legacies of exploration. In fact, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild isn't a very pleasant book. But some of the most important lessons from history come from some of the ugliest chapters.

Near the end of the 1800's much of Europe was discovering the untapped natural resources of Africa, and expanding their colonial reach into the Dark Continent. King Leopold of Belgium, unhappy with his small kingdom and diminished role as king, saw other nations building colonial empires all over the globe and sought for his own anywhere he could find space. He used the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley to claim the area known as the Congo, and it became his own private colony since the Belgian people and government had little interest. He initially exploited it for ivory and later rubber, and used forced labor (slavery) among the native peoples to build his personal wealth. Although he never set foot there himself, he profited immensely while brutally suppressing the natives and forcing them to work for him. It is estimated that 10 million people died over 25 years as a result.

At the same time Leopold portrayed himself as a great humanitarian to the rest of the world. Eventually, however, as word got out of the atrocities committed the Congo Reform Association was created by Roger Casement (a British diplomat) and E. D. Morel (a former shipping clerk). Leopold waged public relations campaigns to discredit his detractors (which included Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle), but he made several mistakes and the public outcry finally forced him to sell the Congo to Belgium.

Adam Hochschild is good at writing lesser known histories, as he did with the peace movement during WWI in To End All Wars. Here he does a very good job of pulling all available sources together – a difficult task since it was a part of history that has long been ignored and covered up. Even worse, much of the documentation was actually destroyed. The brutality and cruelness employed by the Europeans is discussed at length and in appropriate detail. He discusses the attitudes and hypocrisy prevalent at the time, but doesn't ignore the fact that slavery was a long-standing practice among Africans. He also examines the successes and failings of the movement to free the Congo, which was the first sustained human-rights campaign in history.

It's sad to learn that such intriguing places around the world have such a shocking past, but it helps to understand the history and present state of these places, too.

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