Conquest of the Congo Told in Searing History


By Adam Hochschild

Houghton Mifflin

366 pp., $26

The story of perhaps the worst colonial regime in Africa, the Congo under King Leopold II of Belgium, is undoubtedly a story that needs telling. But it is hardly, at first glance, the kind of material one would imagine likely to entice the casual reader looking for a good old-fashioned read. Yet, as Adam Hochschild discovered in the course of researching "King Leopold's Ghost," this undeniably appalling episode in history is also an enthralling story, full of fascinating characters, intense drama, high adventure, deceitful manipulations, courageous truth-telling, and splendid moral fervor.

Hochschild has written a work of history that reads like a novel. It is a shameful story of brutality, corruption, and exploitation, but also an inspiring one about the brave and compassionate individuals - blacks and whites - who worked to expose and stop the atrocities.

The crusade attracted the support of such eminent persons as Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Booker T. Washington, and Anatole France. But its prime movers and greatest heroes are hardly as well-known as they deserve to be, and this immensely compelling book should go a long way toward rescuing their good works from historical neglect.

Leopold himself is a fascinating character, in an appalling sort of way. Even in his youth, as heir to the Belgian throne, he chafed at the prospect of reigning over a small parliamentary democracy in which his authority would be limited. He set his mind and heart on the acquisition of wealth, which, he realized, could be gained through colonies.

Exactly how Leopold managed to make a vast expanse of central Africa his own private fiefdom is an engrossing, alarming, and eye-opening story of a master manipulator of public opinion. Leopold set himself up as an enlightened humanitarian, deeply concerned with combating the Arab slave trade that was going on in Africa. He set forth proposals to develop the Congo and bring free trade to the area. He recruited the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley to his cause. Before long, he won international approval for his project and was widely praised as the very model of a progressive modern monarch.

The facts, however, contradict that image. The methods used by Leopold's men to force the Congolese to do back-breaking labor included the destruction of crops and villages, the taking of women and children as hostages, and the brutal whipping, maiming, and killing of those who resisted, disobeyed, or failed to deliver the huge quotas of rubber demanded of them. As many as 10 million Congolese perished during this reign of terror, according to estimates that Hochschild cites and explains.

When critics began exposing these atrocities, Leopold's response was to beef up his public-relations campaign. Bribery, coverups, lawsuits, and smear tactics were the weapons he cunningly deployed. As if all this were not bad enough, Leopold also cheated his creditors of the money he'd borrowed from them to finance his empire, keeping the profits for himself.

Although the pivotal story is the battle between Leopold and his opponents, Hochschild tells many others, just as riveting. He has done an amazing job of cramming so much into a relatively short book, beginning with the arrival of the first Europeans in the Congo in 1491 and taking us as far as the recent Zaire regime of Joseph Mobutu - and a grim appraisal of the parallels between the two kleptocrats.

The book ends, however, on a more positive note, with a tribute to organizations like Amnesty International that carry on the tradition of human rights so memorably exemplified by the Congo reform movement.

* Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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