The world history is incredibly rich with dreadful outrageous events that loom through centuries and make us wonder whether limits to human brutality exist. In his best-selling novel King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa Adam Hochschild depicts the flawlessly elaborate atrocities of a single tyrant, giving the reader a clear vision of colonialism tragedy as a whole. In spite of raising grave and controversial issues, the author manages to create an enthralling chronicle that leaves no one indifferent.
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An award-winning American writer and journalist Adam Hochschild was born in New York in 1942. In 1963, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard University and after that went to South Africa to work in the opposition newspaper. Upon coming back to the USA, he participated in various civil rights and anti-war movements, worked as a reporter and editor. In 1976, he became one of the co-founders of the famous left-wing magazine Mother Jones. His first novel Half the Way Home: a Memoir of Father and Son was published in 1986. Among his other well-known popular history books are, The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin (1994), Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2005) and To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (2011) (Heaney, par. 1).
Published in 1998 King Leopold’s Ghost received warm reviews from critics, who praised it for its “compelling narrative in lucid prose” (Pritchard, par. 5). The novel tells the story of the colonization of Congo by the notorious Belgian King Leopold II in 1880-1910s. With the help of diplomatic wiles, loud promises, and brazen deceptions, this monarch managed to make Congo territories his private property and ruthlessly exploit them for decades. Hochschild’s interest to this topic can be explained both by his scientific inclinations as a historian and by his sympathy to anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and human rights movements. As it can be seen from the introduction of the novel, Hochschild discovered the Congo’s issue rather occasionally. He once read a footnote in some book with Mark Twain’s words about deadly consequences of slave labor in the Congo region. Being unpleasantly surprised by the fact that a Holocaust-scale tragedy had remained unnoticed for such a long time, Hochschild decided to conduct a thorough research of documents, statistics, and memoirs of eyewitnesses to present his blatant outcry to the world (Hochschild 6).
A range of themes related to the plague of colonialism and slavery are covered King Leopold’s Ghost. Adam Hochschild traces the history of colonialism in Congo back to the XV-XVI centuries when Portuguese explorers arrived there in search of slaves and natural resources, claiming, however, that they were Christian enlighteners and advocates of friendly relations between the two continents. At the end of XIX century Henry Morton Stanley, a catchy ambitious adventurer who made a successful career on his explorations, eventually conquered the hard-to-reach Congo River basin. Stanley appears as a typical seeker for fame and recognition, often ruthless and frenetic. Driven by an itch for easy gain and colonial ambitions of a newly created independent kingdom, King Leopold II of Belgium supported Stanley in his endeavors. To make Congo a Belgian colony, Leopold aggravated disputes for Africa between superpowers and finally at Berlin conference in 1884 consolidated the Congolese territories as his personal colony under the name “Congo Free State”. Leopold formed the strictest regime of exploitation and armed robbery of the local population. If the Congolese refused to supply ivory and rubber, to perform compulsory labor services, the army formed from local rivaling tribes under Belgian command would kill or mutilate the residents and burn entire neighborhoods. For Hochschild, King Leopold is “a man as filled with greed and cunning, duplicity and charm, as any of the more complex villains of Shakespeare” (7).
Apart from describing the genocide of greedy colonialists, Adam Hochschild in his book glorifies the courage and virtue of those who rose up against the tyranny and inhumane treatment of Congolese people. That was Edmund Dene Morel, a rank-and-file English clerk, who revealed Leopold’s activities in Congo, created the Congo Reform Association and dedicated his life to fighting for human rights. Other notable characters who stand for justice and respect for human dignity are William Sheppard, a black American missionary to Congo, who documented the terrorism of Leopold’s army and spread his articles through the world, and George Washington Williams, who was the first to write an open letter to King Leopold II condemning his actions.
All things considered, King Leopold’s Ghost can be named a remarkable work of modern historical literature. It is not just another dull citation of facts diluted with author’s digressions, but a thrilling story of one of the greatest undisclosed tragedies of past millennium. From this novel one may not only get acquainted with another bloody tyrant and encompass the tragedy colonialism brought to indigenous African nations, but also learn how people with high moral values can fight against the atrocities and make for better future.
Heaney, Christopher. Interview with Adam Hochschild: The Imaginary Cemetery. 2013. Web.
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Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. London: Pan Macmillan, 2011. Print.
Pritchard, Stephen. A Heart of Darkness. 2000. Web.