In the late 1890s, Edmund Dene Morel, a young British shipping company agent, noticed something strange about the cargoes of his company's ships as they arrived from and departed for the Congo, Leopold II's 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 Leopold's slave-labor regime the premier human rights 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 Americans - George Washington Williams and William Sheppard - risked much to bring evidence to the outside world. Roger Casement, later hanged by Britain as a traitor, conducted an eye-opening 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.
©1998 Adam Hochschild (P)2010 Random House
"Hochschild's fine book of historical inquiry, which draws heavily on eyewitness accounts of the colonialists' savagery, brings this little-studied episode in European and African history into new light." (Amazon.com review)
"Hochschild's superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885....[M]ost of all it is a story of the bestiality of one challenged by the heroism of many in an increasingly democratic world." (Publishers Weekly)
I had heard about this book from friends and knew I should read it, but dreaded hearing the gory details of King Leopold's horrendous subjugation of the Congo. But Hochschild breaks it to you gently, and crafts the story so skillfully that I never felt overwhelmed. The book is easy to listen to and consistently fascinating. It is amazing that the Belgians were able to prevent the information about this massive crime against an entire people from being disseminated earlier, successfully burying it for so many decades. Highly recommended.
This is a history that I should have known, but did not, and am glad that I had an opportunity to explore the history of the Belgian Congo and the forces that shaped many of the countries in Africa. The author focuses on the perceived need, within Europe countries, and King Leopold of Belgium, in particular, to have a foot hold on the African continent and to exploit the resources and peoples in Africa to his own personal advantage. The author makes the history more personal, more intimate, by focusing on the dynamics of King Leopold of Belgium and how his personal needs drove widespread exploitation and brutality in the area that became the Belgium Congo. The reader captures the history as if telling an engaging mystery that is unfolding with many characters with multiple over-lapping and conflicting agendas until the reader has to step back and realize the damage and destruction that is being done. The inhumanity of it all is at times overwhelming and yet it is a history that provides a more contemporary context for some of the conflicts in this region. Well-crafted historical work; well-read with clarity and engagement; a story worth knowing as one ponders developments in the region and the history of European involvement in the colonization and exploitation of Africa.
Runner, Commuter, Dietitian with a passion for U.S. History.
One of my favorite books, "Poisonwood Bible", piqued my interest in exactly what had happened in the Congo. The reality was worse than I ever had imagined. Mass genocide and other atrocities were so severely inflicted on the people of the Congo that all but the faintest hints of oral traditions were eradicated, along with most of the culture. The author takes some time in exploring the parallels to Joseph Conrad's fictional "Heart of Darkness" and makes a strong case that fictional people and events truly existed. There are heroes in this story, but current events in the Congo make any hope of the restoration of the once vibrant culture truly faint. That one man can destroy so much is an unfortunate lesson the humankind keeps having to repeat. Narration is competant but there are annoying repeated phrases as an earlier reviewer states.
This relatively unknown history of the reign of terror by King Leopold II on Africa's Congo is a tragic witness to the collective amnesia that we all collectively suffer.
Mr. Hochschild has done us a tremendous service in bringing to light and life, the dark tale of the fate of the African Congo and the brutal exploitation that took place on the world's stage to a mostly silent and indifferent audience.
This is an excellent and painful lesson in world history, all the more remarkable that it occurred not that long ago. The narration is balanced, crisp and dispassionate and lets the words provide the majority of the drama. The passions of Leopold and those who sought to expose him are allowed to come through unfiltered. While it may be a misnomer to call an audio book a "page turner", nonetheless, it is appropriate.
Absolutely, the story is moving and entertaining and terrifying and amazing. Even if you have no particular interest in history, colonialism, human rights or the ethics of empire the story told here is fascinating and draws you into the narrative, involving as it does so many people, famous, infamous and unknown.
His diction and elocution is spot on, and he brings an elegant, measured tone to the narration.
The language is especially wonderful and the author seamlessly integrates source material into and out of the text.
When I was a history major in college over 45 years ago, I never heard of King Leopold of Belgium, and knew nothing of the relationships between the colonizers and the African people. The detail in this book makes it impossible to escape the connection between the abuse of the African people and the development (or lack thereof) of the people and governments of central Africa.
I have a particular interest in the African Diaspora, the US reconstruction, and Jim Crow years. This book provides fine background on a particularly dark era. First, Leopold II’s story is well documented here and those who are unfamiliar with the story will greatly benefit. Individuals who became cognizant of the “goings on” in African under the King and fought are aptly covered. King Leopold realizes that Europeans are profiting from African in general and the Congo in particular and wants his share of the booty. How he does that and the aftermath is the story of this book. I would have enjoyed gaining a more nuanced understanding of the culture, communities, and detail related to what was happening “on the ground” in the Congo. Essentially, this book details, outlines, and retells what took place. There are examples and a few short biographical sections (a African head collector for example), but the story does not come to life. This is not a new book (1999), but very worthwhile. Geoffrey Howard reads wonderfully.
This is one of those classic, well-written tales that all educated people should at least know of. And it's an engrossing listen too. If you're looking for a good history book, this is a fine choice.
I'm still giving it five stars, but I'll make the following criticisms: First, Hochschild has a certain supercilious moralism. You don't have to be supercilious to find fault with the Rape of the Congo, but Hochschild is, and it comes through. He goes to great effort to try to share the voices of the victims, which is in fact a great strength of the book, but in doing so he can't resist a discussion about how history empowers and disempowers and blah blah blah, gets kind of irritating. Yes, killing millions of poor Africans is wrong; we don't need to get super PC to make this point.
Second, I think the most interesting point in the book is an idea Hochschild touches on at the end, that Africa's modern dysfunction is in many ways a direct consequence of the horrors inflicted during this period, and that this is not so much a reflection of large-scale problems of bad governance, but of the small-scale utter breakdown of civil society during the colonial period and the normalization of violence. This is somewhat outside the scope of the book, but I would really have liked to hear the case made directly.
That being said, still a good listen.
This had long been on my wish list and I am glad to have finally read it. The story of Belgian King Leopold's acquisition and rape of the Congo and its indigenous people will surely rank as one of the most brutal campaigns of pillage and murder in recent history but also an epitaph to any remaining romantic notions of colonialism in the dark continent. Hochschild's book skillfully links the character and ambitions of Leopold, a second rate monarch and first rate despot, with his desire to acquire, for his own wealth and vanity, a colony in Africa to exploit in the late 19th century. Aided along the way by Livingston and Stanley, as well as the naïveté and racism of rulers in the new and old worlds, he eventually seizes the Congo and therein establishes a colonial regime based on rubber cultivation that succeeds in lining his own pockets, achieves little for his Belgian subjects, and unleashes immeasurable exploitation and suffering on the Congolese people, the ramifications of which arguably still reverberate today. Anyone familiar with Conrad's Heart of Darkness (referenced throughout) will recognize what Leopold had wrought in the Congo. Credit to Hochschild's though for letting the facts speak for themselves rather than sermonizing. Throughout, he does not dwell solely on the evil but also focuses on the few brave activists who first sought, to little success, to expose what was going on. To me, it was this aspect that elevated the book from a run of the mill expose to a remarkable history of a little know and mostly forgotten genocide. As Mr. Kurz would say, "the horror, the horror."
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