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Book Review


Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998). 366 pp, $15.00.

     Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is an account that centers on the Belgian King Leopold's obsession with seizing control of territory in central Africa and of his misrule of the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This episode in history was one of the most brutal examples of imperial governance. An estimated eight million Africans are believed to have perished during the king's regime of terror, which was fueled by Leopold's insatiable greed, and the industrializing western world's appetite for raw materials. In addition, Belgian officials and their African allies crippled millions of Congolese who collected rubber for their colonial overlords. King Leopold's misrule of the Congo, however, did not go unnoticed. It spurred, according to Hochschild, the "[f]irst major international atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera." (4) The book focuses on this human rights movement that brought attention to the situation in the Congo, and which attempted to put international pressure on Leopold and the Belgian government to reform and ameliorate the brutal rule.

     When I read King Leopold's Ghost for the first time eight years ago, I immediately thought that the book, despite some shortcomings, would be useful in the classroom as a complimentary monograph. On and off, over the last five years, I have used it several times in both my world and my African history course.

     King Leopold's Ghost is a valuable teaching tool. Hochschild, a journalist by training, is a good writer. Over the years, several of my students (who generally are not shy to voice their displeasure about assignments and readings) have remarked on this. They frequently comment that the book keeps them engaged and interested. Judging from students' remarks in and after class or on course evaluations, it is a monograph that many are glad to have read. As an instructor I like to use the book because it provides ample grounds for class discussion.

     King Leopold's Ghost touches on many themes that I emphasize in my World and African history courses. The book enables my students to actively engage and discuss world historical issues discussed below in more depth.

     Much of the class discussion of the book naturally focuses on imperialism and how King Leopold justified the colonization of the Congo. Students talk about how the king was able to manipulate international opinion and the role that lobbying, media, propaganda, and bribery played in this process. The conversation can also be tied in with a more global focus, discussing ideological justifications of imperialism used by the western world such as the "civilizing mission," the "white man's burden," Social Darwinism, scientific racism, and ideas of white supremacy. An issue that often generates debate is the question of how representative Belgian efforts at colonization in the Congo were compared to those of other European nations around the globe. In other words, is the Belgian rule of the Congo an exceptional case or only a more extreme manifestation of a larger historic trend?

     Imperialism is not the only world history theme that can be talked about. I often guide the discussion to reinforce and bring up some of the topics introduced earlier in the course, by talking about such questions as the role that nationalism, liberalism, humanitarianism, racism, and the industrial revolution played in the story.

     The theme of resistance and activism is an especially worthwhile point of conversation given the focus of the book. As the efforts of the human rights activists that brought attention to the plight of the Congolese people point out, social movements and individuals can actually have an impact on world history. After all, even failed social movements are still an indication that there was opposition and that certain ideas and developments were not as widely embraced as textbook accounts of history sometimes seem to suggest. We also talk about the limitations of the Congo reform movement. For example, while E.D. Morel, an Englishman and leading activist, railed against Leopold's rule, he embraced the overall benefits of imperialism to non-western people. Raising such points aids students in grasping that historical developments and human choices are often complex. Furthermore, King Leopold's Ghost aids students in seeing the global and transnational connections that existed between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

     King Leopold's Ghost has shortcomings. African voices only appear on the margins of the story, and as a teacher and scholar I would have liked to see more. Hochschild argues that the focus of his book is shaped by African "silences" in the historic record. As an instructor they have spurred me to research alternatives to bring African voices into the classroom. But the so-called "silences" also raise further questions to be debated with students. What sources did Hochschild use? Might this be a reason for the "silences?" Could he have dug a little deeper? Might oral history help us to fill a void here? What are the potential limitations and problems that might emerge from this methodology?

     The book raises numerous interesting moral queries and conundrums that powerful readings about mass violence and genocide so often bring up. How could the events in the Congo happen? And how could it be ignored for so long? After all, as Hochschild writes, "[t]he men who seized the Congo often trumpeted their killings, bragging about them in books and newspaper articles." (5) Such issues, along with so many others, pre-occupy students during discussion.

     King Leopold's Ghost helps my students not only to learn about but also to interpret history. It encourages them to think in more depth about important world historical phenomena, such as imperialism, human rights, racial violence, genocide, and economic exploitation. The book engages my students and gets them talking about an episode in world history and a part of the globe that only few have thought about before reading the book. As a teacher I will consider using King Leopold's Ghost for as long as the book continues to remain relevant to my students. I expect that this might be the case for some time to come.


Christoph Strobel
University of Massachusetts Lowell


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