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Publisher's Summary

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

Critic Reviews

"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." ( 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)

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  • Overall


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.

15 of 15 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A History that I Should Have Known

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.

11 of 11 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A sorry sad story

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.

10 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Elaine
  • Shaker Heights, OH, United States
  • 10-26-11

A history lesson we should have learned in school

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.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Gruesome story describing how shrewd King Leopold

This books tells a story that deserves a greater audience. Most people have a vague appreciation of colonialist exploits in Africa and most people know that imperialist Europe to some extent exploited Africa in a way that was not mutually beneficial. This book describes the process and the details of this exploitation in the Congo, and it paints a gruesome picture that is difficult to shake off.

We get to follow King Leopold who from an early age desired a large territory to exploit. By pretending to be on a humanitarian mission Leoplold got European leaders to accept him taking over Congo. When in charge he set up a reign based on terror and slavery resulting in a large personal fortune and a reduction of the Congolese population to about 50% of what it had been before Leopold’s men arrived. His belgian soldier were given manuals of how to Kidnap women and children to force men to work, as well as how to punish men who did not work (chopping off hands was a frequent phenomena).

As damning as this story is for white imperialist Europe, it also offers hope. Leopold was eventually stopped, and not through local uprisings. Indeed local leaders tended to help tyrants such as Leopold if they themselves could profit from it. Rather it was the english lawyer, E.D. Morel, who when he realized that Leopold was exploiting Congo made it his mission to stop him. This resulted in what was essentially a PR war between Morel and King Leopold, which was fought around the world and which is a fascinating story in its own right (which is also described in the book). Of course Congo eventually became a sovereign nation, and as is sadly often the case, the first thing they did was to elect a leader (Lumumba) who wanted to shut the rest of the world (especially western nations) out. CIA responded with an assassination and installed Mobutu, who ruled the “democratic” republic of Congo for 30 years, leading it to more suffering and poverty.

In sum, King Leopold’s ghost is a gripping, well researched, story about a chapter in our history about which we are too naive. The book is highly recommended

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Roy
  • Beaumont, TX, United States
  • 01-16-11

A Worthwhile Book

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.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Joseph
  • Tiburon, CA, United States
  • 03-18-12

Fantastic Book

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

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.

What does Geoffrey Howard bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

His diction and elocution is spot on, and he brings an elegant, measured tone to the narration.

Any additional comments?

The language is especially wonderful and the author seamlessly integrates source material into and out of the text.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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The horrors continue to this day in the Congo

This book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing to grant King Leopold’s side another instant of attention after realizing that the facts had been obscured for a century or more by repression of documents relating to the case in Belgian state archives. Better that we finally uncover the ugly truth and take its lesson: unbridled greed may be the ugliest, most unforgivable, most unnecessary sin of all.

How can we not have known this horrible history? It happened only a hundred years ago. Though I am embarrassed I did not know the anguished history and perpetuation of evil in the Congo, I stand in good company. Hochschild tells us of a Belgian diplomat serving in the 1970’s Congo who learned of the atrocities by a chance remark from a chieftain recalling “the first time” of rubber collection. This diplomat-turned-historian, Jules Marchal, spent decades after his retirement from civil service investigating and documenting King Leopold’s personal fiefdom in the Congo and its long list of crimes there at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

What does become amply clear from Hochschild’s account is how it is possible to mount a resistance to a great evil. Resistance requires exceptional people willing to bear witness, but also organization and persistence. Edmund Dene Morel, the shipping clerk who recognized in the 1890’s what was happening in the Congo, immediately called out the injustices he saw there and never hesitated in his mission to publicize it in the years that followed. Fortunately, he was an articulate man with a convincing speaking style and he had enormous drive. He managed to gather like-minded folk to himself to voice a larger protest.

The life of Irishman Roger Casement, the gay man knighted by the Queen for his work as a diplomat and later hanged by Britain as a traitor to the crown for his work as an Irish patriot, stands as an example of the strange dissociation countries in power display when someone challenges their economic and political interests. I fell in love with him a little, Sir Roger Chapman, as a man of great courage and vision: he saw what men are and did not despair, though one might say that, in the end, he died of it. Black Americans who spent their adult lives speaking out against the horror happening in Africa, the Reverend William Henry Sheppard and George Washington Williams, have finally found their way back into history. Many Christian missionaries, though notably, not Catholic missionaries, did their part in publicizing crimes in pursuit of endless demand for rubber.

What I liked most about the book was the way Hochschild brought us past the period of the Congo revelations to the present day, telling us how we could have been ignorant of the time and the period. He followed the lives of Morel and Chapman to their ends, and introduced us to Ambassador Marchal of Belgium. He follows the Congo after Leopold through its Belgian colony status to the demand for self-rule and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first legally-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tells us of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Congolese President who continued crimes against his country that Leopold had begun, this time with American support.

I began to realize that some of the surviving chiefs of Leopold’s crimes were sometimes collaborators. Their behaviors have been perpetuated over the generations until there is nothing but misery left in that place. Now I understand better how a country so rich in natural resources could be so socially impoverished. The crimes continue to the present. What can be the solution to this kind of moral destitution?

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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History Worth Hearing

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.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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A classic

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.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful