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King Leopold’s Ghost by Hochschild: A Reader Response

Looking at most of the recent history from the perspective of cultural change and the key trends in it will help to discover that the legacy of colonialism is imprinted into every facet of cross-cultural interactions. Although colonialism is typically associated with the history of American and the exploitation of its native people, some of the lesser-known instances of imperialism also fit the narrative quite well. In his 1989 award-winning book “King Leopold’s Ghost,” Adam Hochschild examines the effects that the imperialist attitudes of Belgium have had on the Congo Free State people, particularly, on the surge in the instances of injustice observed at the time and committed against residents. Furthermore, the book portrays the intentions of the colonists quite well, outlining that Leopold II was hiding behind the shield of economic and geographic expansion as the main rationale for committing atrocities against the Congolese people. By incorporating a detailed and profound analysis and the masterful use of evidence, Hochschild manages to portray injustice and the colonial greed of King Leopold in all its ugliness.

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Although slightly underplayed in the first chapter, the theme of colonialism quickly escalates and gains weight in the further development of Hochschild’s narrative. The false idea of superiority, which the Belgian nation under the reign of King Leopold was quick to accept is mentioned rather clearly in the novel. Notably, the perspective that Hochschild provides on the situation observed in Congo at the time is quite flawed as well. For instance, the stereotype of indigenous people having an inherent spiritual connection with nature as the alternative to technological breakthrough observed in Europe is present in the novel: “Like many indigenous peoples, inhabitants of the Congo basin had learned to live in balance with their environment” (Hochschild 73). However, the specified stance comes from a place of empathy and is defined by the lack of deep cultural insight, which is why it does not skew the author’s argument significantly.

The rest of the novel, in turn, supports the portrayal of colonialism as a savage attempt at capturing the land of indigenous people under the pretext of being ostensibly more advanced and superior. Namely, the denunciation of King Leopold’s colonialist ideas culminates in the following attempt at exposing his vanity and moral deafness: “Your Majesty’s Government is engaged in the slave trade, wholesale and retail. It buys and sells and steals slaves” (Hochschild 111). Thus, the author establishes the theme of imperialism and the related issue of colonialism as a morally bankrupt policy that destroys indigenous communities.

However, as blunt and straightforward as it was, the concept of annexation was not the only driving force behind the process of attacking Congo for Belgian soldiers. As Hochschild explains, another justification often surfaced, being even more insidious than the previous one when considered closer. Specifically, King Leopold seemed to push the narrative of bringing enlightenment to whom he perceived as savages when establishing his goal of attacking and conquering Congo. As Hochschild explains, “In their opinion, slavery had come to an end throughout most of the world for one reason only: British virtue” (27). The specified imperialist point of view, which King Leopold held at the time, and which most Belgians shared, was detrimental to the lives, political independence, and overall representation of the Congolese population. Thus, Hochschild’s novel features the theme of colonialism quite vividly and poignantly, detailing the drastic effects of the blissful ignorance of Belgian soldiers as they trampled upon the rights of Congolese people, being under the delusion of bringing light to the uncivilized.

Thus, one could argue that the image of King Leopold’s ghost represents the shadow of imperialism that still hovers over Congolese citizens, shaping their history and their perception of themselves, their culture, and interactions with other countries. Namely, the lasting impact of the violence and injustice exerted upon the Congolese population by Belgian soldiers rings in Hochschild’s grim contemplations: “It is almost as if vengeance were the force driving him across the continent” (Hochschild 46). The specified excerpt exemplifies the problematic nature of the past that was shaped by colonialism, as well as how the imperialist greed of King Leopold shaped the future of Congo and its people. Therefore, the theme of colonialism remains one of the focal points of the book, introducing the reader

With the detailed description and analysis of the key events that transpired at the time, coupled with a plethora of historical material that provides extensive evidence, Hochschild has managed to depict the true colonialist and imperialist nature of King Leopold’s foray into Congo. The book offers a very realistic and simultaneously relatable account of the events that transpired at the specified period. Outlining the atrocities of the colonialist mindset, the greed of the people striving to expand by annexing the land of another nation, and the struggle of the Congolese citizens, the book serves as a reminder of how important it is to approach international relationships from the position of justice and support. Unless the imperialistic attitudes of King Leopold developed, residents of Congo would not have faced the injustice, brutality, and contempt that Belgian soldiers showed when attacking Congo. Thus, the book serves as a grim reminder of the ripples that colonialism and imperialism have produced across the entire globe, affecting the lives of millions of people in a most brutal and unhinged way, and causing the disruption in current international and cross-cultural communication worldwide.

Work Cited

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

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