Upon first cracking open “King Leopold’s Ghost”, I had no idea what to expect. Like most people living in the United States, my knowledge of the world beyond my own country is very limited, and certainly my understanding of Africa specifically was essentially no understanding at all. But this spring, at Columbia College, they hands of fate directed me into an amazing class called “Topics in African History”, a class which I joined simply because I needed a history credit to graduate. It has proven to be one of the most eye-opening classes I’ve ever taken, and this book has been a key factor in that process.
“King Leopold’s Ghost” is a 305 page account of the systematic exploitation of the Congo during the late 1800’s, perpetrated by the King of Belgium, King Leopold II. It is simultaneously horrific and amazing that such events took place, or were allowed to take place. For hundreds of years Europeans had been abusing and enslaving Africans for their own advancement, but the Belgians took it to a whole other level. The harvesting of ivory, rubber, and other resources was done through forced labor, and those who refused had their hands cut off, were whipped and beaten into unconsciousness, or were flat out shot and killed. During a time when a world-wide system of communication was just beginning to take hold, yet not quite developed, King Leopold proved himself a master of manipulation. Not only was he ruthless, merciless, greedy, corrupt, and a down right asshole, as most of history’s leaders were, but he was also intelligent, charismatic, calculating, and able to work the system to get what he wanted. It’s a tough task to fully explain a hundred years of horrendous activity, but this book does just that, forcing the reader to ask how such things could happen, then immediately answering their questions.
But this isn’t a review of the life of King Leopold, this is a review of the book which exposes him for who he was. “King Leopold’s Ghost” shifted my thought process in a way that hasn’t happened since I read “1984” back in high school, but beyond the dreadfully important information that is given us, we are also treated to a writing style that is addictive to read. This is not a text book. This is not a dry list of facts. This is a collection of interwoven stories, one leading into the next, factual accounts crafted together with the appeal of any best-selling novel. We have our villains; King Leopold, H.M. Stanley, Leon Rom, and so many others. And, of course, we have our heroes as well; George Washington Williams, E.D. Morel, Roger Casement, and so forth. Chapter by chapter we read as these two forces battle each other through the years, fighting on what was a relatively new front, know as Public Relations. While murder, rape, enslavement, and destruction were occurring at astronomical rates all through the Congo (and all of Africa at the hands of other European invaders), the world at large had no idea what was truly going on, or to whom they should lend their trust. The clever and depressing skill of miscommunication was Leopold’s main weapon, and for decades he used it as well as anyone could. But eventually he was found out, and this book explains it all.
“King Leopold’s Ghost” should be required reading at the high school level. Every person in the world should know and understand these events, and this is a great book to use as a way of introducing the facts. It’s depressing, it’s well-written, it’s informative, and it will change your perception of a world. What more could you ask?
Billy Roberts loves zines and fun and bands, and he runs Loop Distro