Synopses & Reviews
"Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is an absorbing and horrifying account of the traffic in human misery that went on in Leopold's so-called Congo Free State.... Among other things, it stands as a reminder of how quickly enormities can be forgotten....[a] gripping narrative, as dense as a novel and laden with subplots...." Luc Sante, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
"...a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions." Michiko Kakutani, 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." Paul Theroux
"Hochschild's outstanding study, unmatched by any other work on the Congo, reveals how all Europe and the USA contributed to the making of King Leopold's holocaust of the Congolese people." Nadine Gordimer
"The author of The Unquiet Ghost: Russia Remembers Stalin, one of Library Journal's best books of 1994, takes on another megalomaniac." Library Journal
"Adam Hochschild's spellbinding account of imperial machinations and how these led to the first major human-rights movement of this century present a dynamic story." Robert Taylor, The Boston Globe
"A superb synoptic history of European misdemeanor in central Africa." Jeremy Harding The New York Times Book Review
"[D]raws on memoris, missionary accounts, government rcords, and the testimony of Africans themselves to unearth the long-forgotten facts behind Conrad's fiction....the kind remains a shadowy villain...[but] Hochschild vividly brings to life the activists whose battle agains Leopold dominates the book's second half." Rebecca A. Clay, WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
"This true story of the Congo is 'full of fascinating characters, intense drama, high adventure, courageous truth-telling, and splendid moral fervor. . . A work of history that reads like a novel.... An enthralling story." Christian Science Monitor
In the 1880s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million--all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian. Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopold's Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman. Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows. Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II. With great power and compassion, King Leopold's Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo--too long forgotten--onto the conscience of the West.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 338-350) and index.
About the Author
Adam Hochschild was born in New York City in 1942. His first book, Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son, was published in 1986. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called it "an extraordinarily moving portrait of the complexities and confusions of familial love . . . firmly grounded in the specifics of a particular time and place, conjuring them up with Proustian detail and affection." It was followed by The Mirror at Midnight: a South African Journey, and The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. His 1997 collection, Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels, won the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay. King Leopold's Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. It also won a J. Anthony Lukas award in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize in England. His books have been translated into twelve languages and four of them have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. His Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empires Slaves, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. His last two books have also each won Canadas Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book on international affairs and the Gold Medal of the California Book Awards. In 2005, he received a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction.
Hochschild has written for The New Yorker, Harper's, The New York Review of Books, Granta, The New York Times Magazine, and many other newspapers and magazines. His articles have won prizes from the Overseas Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists and elsewhere. He was a co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and has been a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."
Hochschild teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and spent half a year as a Fulbright Lecturer in India. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, sociologist and author Arlie Russell Hochschild. They have two sons and two granddaughters.
Reading Group Guide
ABOUT THE BOOK
Adam Hochschilds awardwinning, hearthaunting account of
the brutal plunder of the Congo by Leopold II of Belgium presents a megalomaniac
of monstrous proportions, a royal figure as cunning, charming, and cruel as
any of Shakespeares great villains. It is also the deeply moving portrait
of those who fought Leopold: a brave, committed handful of idealists, missionaries,
travelers, diplomats, and African villagers who found themselves witnesses to
and, in too many instances, victims of a holocaust.
In the late 1890s, Edmund Dene Morel, a young British shipping company agent,
noticed something strange about the cargoes of his companys ships as they
arrived from and departed for the Congo, Leopold IIs vast new African
colony. Incoming ships were crammed with valuable ivory and rubber. Outbound
ships carried little more than soldiers and firearms. Correctly concluding that
only slave labor on a vast scale could account for these cargoes, Morel resigned
from his company and almost singlehandedly made Leopolds slavelabor regime
the premier humanrights story in the world. Thousands of people packed hundreds
of meetings throughout the United States and Europe to learn about Congo atrocities.
Two courageous black AmericansGeorge Washington Williams and William Sheppardrisked
much to bring evidence to the outside world. Roger Casement, later hanged by
Britain as a traitor, conducted an eyeopening investigation of the Congo River
stations. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young steamboat officer
named Joseph Conrad. And looming over all was Leopold II, King of the Belgians,
sole owner of the only private colony in the world.
We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups
and provide a deeper understanding of King Leopold's Ghost for every reader.
1. Between 1880 and 1920, the population of the Congo was slashed in half: some
ten million people were victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure,
disease and a plummeting birth rate. Why do you think this massive carnage has
remained virtually unknown in the United States and Europe?
2. Hochschild writes of Joseph Conrad that he was so horrified by the
greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human
nature was permanently changed. Judging from Hochschilds account
and from Heart of Darkness, in whatway was Conrads view changed? How is
this true of other individuals about whom Hochschild writes? In what way has
this book affected your view of human nature?
3. The death toll in King Leopolds Congo was on a scale comparable to
the Holocaust and Stalins purges. Can Leopold II be viewed as a precursor
to the masterminds behind the Nazi death camps and the Gulag? Did these three
and other twentiethcentury mass killings arise from similar psychological, social,
political, economic, and cultural sources?
4. Those who plundered the Congo and other parts of Africa (and Asia) did so
in the name of progress, civilization, and Christianity. Was this hypocritical
and if so, how? What justifications for colonial imperialism and exploitation
have been put forward over the past five centuries?
5. Morel, Sheppard, Williams, Casement, and others boldly spoke out against
the Congo atrocities, often at great danger to themselves. Many others rationalized
those same atrocities or said nothing. How do you account for Leopolds,
Stanleys, and others murderous rapaciousness, on the one hand, and
Morels, Casements, and others outrage and committed activism,
on the other?
6. The European conquest and plunder of the Congo and the rest of Africa was
brutal, but so was the European settlement of North America and, long before
that, the conquest of most of Europe by the Romans. Hasnt history always
proceeded in this way?
7. Hochschild begins his book with what he calls Edmund Morels flash
of moral recognition on the Antwerp docks. What other flashes of moral
recognition does Hochschild identify, and what were their consequences? In what
ways may Hochschilds book itself be seen as a flash of moral recognition?
What more recent flashes of moral recognition and indignation can you identify?
8. Hochschild quotes the Swedish missionary, C. N. Börrisson: It
is strange that people who claim to be civilized think they can treat their
fellow man &emdash; even though he is of a different color &emdash;
any which way. How may we explain the disregard of civilized
individuals and groups for the humanity and life of others because of skin color,
nationality, religion, ethnic background, or other factors? Why do this disregard
and resulting cruelties persist?
9. What are the similarities between the colonial and imperial aspirations of
pre- and early twentieth-century nations and the corporate and market aspirations
of todays multinational companies? Whether rapacious or beneficent, most
actors in the Congo, and in Africa at large, seem to have been motivated principally
by profit. In what ways do business objectives continue to shape the policies
and actions of national governments and international organizations?
10. Hochschild writes that Leopold found a number of tools at his disposal
that had not been available to empire builders of earlier times. What
new technologies and technological advances contributed to Leopolds exploitation
of the Congo? What impact have these tools had on both the advancement and degradation
of colonial or subject peoples?
11. The burgeoning hierarchy of imperial rule in the Congo Free
State was, Hochschild writes, reflected in the plethora of medals
and attendant grades and ranks. What were the reasons for this extensive hierarchy
and for the bureaucracy it reflected and maintained? Are there any contemporary
parallels? Of what historical examples can we say that the more heinous the
political or governmental crimes, the larger and more frequently rewarded the
12. How does Hochschild answer his own question, What made it possible
for the functionaries in the Congo to so blithely watch the chicotte in action
and . . . to deal out pain and death in other ways as well? How would
you answer this question, in regard to Leopolds Congo and to other officially
13. Hochschild quotes Roger Casement as insisting to Edmund Morel, I do
not agree with you that England and America are the two great humanitarian powers.
. . . [They are] materialistic first and humanitarian only a century after.
What evidence supports or refutes Casements judgment? Would Casement be
justified in making the same statement today?
14. After stating that several other mass murders went largely unnoticed,
Hochschild asks, why, in England and the United States, was there such
a storm of righteous protest about the Congo? Do you find his explanation
sufficient? Why do some atrocities (the mass murders in Rwanda, for example)
prompt little response from the United States and other western nations, while
others (the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo, for example) prompt military
action against the perpetrators?