Text: Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1998.
Summary of Introduction
The story begins with “a young man’s flash of moral recognition” (1). In 1897 or 1898, Edmund Dene Morel, an employee of a Liverpool shipping line was in Belgium supervising the loading and unloading of ships from Africa on the docks of Antwerp. He noticed that the ships brought rubber and ivory to Belgium but took back soldiers and arms. He realized that no trade was going on, but rather, that the goods were being produced through slave labor. His realization and subsequent action were the start of the first international human rights movement of the twentieth century. Morel turned out to be a great organizer and speaker, traveling all over the world to mobilize public opinion against Belgium’s King Leopold II for his brutal use of forced labor in his Congo colony to produce wealth for his own use.
The author remarks that he had never heard of this human rights movement until he read a footnote in a book, a quotation from Mark Twain during the time he was part of the worldwide protest against Leopold’s slavery in the Congo. Hochschild, a journalist, had once been in Leopoldville in the Congo in 1961, during his youth. He had personally heard a CIA operative brag about the CIA involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first prime minister following independence. This African trip was the beginning of Hochschild’s own interest in human rights, which he has pursued in all his books. The only other thing he knew about the Congo was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He had read the book in college, but with the usual Freudian and mythic interpretations, never understanding that the novel was based on fact. After doing some research, Hochschild began to see that what happened in the Congo a century before included “a death toll of Holocaust dimensions” (4).
Besides Morel, there were others who helped to uncover Leopold’s terrorism in the Congo: George Washington Williams, a black American journalist and historian who interviewed Africans, and William Sheppard, a black American missionary who recorded scenes he witnessed in the Congo. Novelist Joseph Conrad, once a ship’s captain on the Congo River, wrote of the inhuman brutality of white colonialism in his characterization of Mr. Kurtz, based on actual jungle agents Conrad knew. Hochschild compares King Leopold II to one of Shakespeare’s evil villains. He regrets he has few materials to tell the story from the African point of view. Though the mass killings happened between 1890 and 1910, the roots of it go back five hundred years to when whites first discovered Africa.
Commentary on the Introduction
Hochschild summarizes his characters and themes in the Introduction. It is instructive that he begins with Morel’s moral recognition of the Congo atrocity and his human rights movement, rather than totally focusing on the sensational statistics of the Congolese mass murder and Leopold’s greed. Hochschild has said of his experience as a journalist, that though he treats of human rights abuses, he always finds heroes of a different mind to balance the picture, to give hope to his readers.
The Introduction brings up at once the philosophical question every reader asks when learning of such atrocities, “is human nature inherently good or evil?” Hochschild addresses this by mentioning Joseph Conrad’s short novel, Heart of Darkness, the tale about Mr. Kurtz, the idealistic white man who becomes evil in Africa. Hochschild points out that often the story is studied psychologically or philosophically. Is Africa really the dark and evil continent that corrupts Kurtz with its primitive temptations, or is the heart of darkness already within us, waiting for an opportunity?
Hochschild had read this story, but now began to understand that it was fact, not philosophy or fiction. It came from Conrad’s personal observation of colonialism in the Congo. Hochschild’s discovery of the footnote citing Mark Twain as a protestor against the evils of the Congo led him to uncover this curiously forgotten episode of mass murder, on a scale close to Hitler’s or Stalin’s.