King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hochchild *****

Just as Europeans once looked upon the Americas as land that was unclaimed and waiting to be discovered, explored, and claimed by Caucasian Christian civilizations, so too was Africa, referred to as “The Dark Continent”, ripe for exploitation when the Europeans arrived.

Initially, through their own caste system, tribal chiefs were absolutely delighted to trade away the Africans they themselves kept in bondage for the wonderful new munitions, cloth, and other goods that were offered. But their satisfaction turned to horror when they learned that where Black folks are concerned, Europeans just don’t play by the rules. King Affonso of the Congo sat down and wrote a letter to the ruler of Portugal, explaining that he had sent his son to Europe to attend school, and he was never heard from again. Now he has learned that his own family members were being rounded up by slave traders! There must surely be some sort of mistake.

African missionary, explorer, and British emissary Dr. David Livingstone traveled to Africa and was the first known (at the time) European to cross Africa from coast to coast. He returned to England to be feted and celebrated, and then plunged back into Africa…and stayed there. He was happy. Why go home?

Henry Morton Stanley was a journalist of uncertain origins (see the book) who went in search of Livingstone and found him, uttering the famous quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Meanwhile, a royal in Belgium grew restless. Leopold had delusions of grandeur, and why not? If France, England, and Spain could enjoy colonialism, why not Belgium as well? Leopold thirsted for power. He wanted to become a king. As African territory was snapped up piecemeal, he leapt in and grabbed a slice through the middle, in what would for a time be known as the “Belgian Congo”.

By now, slavery had been declared illegal in Britain, and so Leopold strode in to civilize and Christianize dark-skinned people whom he was certain could not do so for themselves. A great road was built there…and it went straight in from the ocean, and straight back out again. Leopold had learned of the ivory to be obtained through the wholesale slaughter of elephants. He offered prizes to locals who brought these forward, and assured them they would be protected from the aggression of any other European powers. What a deal. Leopold sponsored Stanley and gave him the royal seal of approval when he went in to further explore the area. In the end, Leopold claimed all of the Congo, an area, says the author, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Many different tribes and cultures, some peaceful, some not, were brought under his ruthless leadership.

Leopold himself was almost a perfect villain, obsessed with power and obnoxious even to other Europeans of his time and station. When Prince Albert visited the new palace Leopold was having built, he believed he was complimenting the man when he said it would be like “a little Versailles”. Leopold took offense instead. “Little?”

But as amusing as anecdotes like this one are, the brutal fact is that tens of millions of Africans were killed under European colonialism. When Belgium was more or less forced to grant sovereignty to the people of the Congo, he sabotaged the new government of Patrice Lumumba, a popularly elected leader, by refusing to let go of the mines where the remaining mineral riches of the nation were located. The United States helped him crucify this man and was party to the manipulation of tribal rivals. Wholesale slaughter of unimaginable cruelty ensued. Multinational corporations were “also in on the take”.

Though this is a painstakingly written and riveting account, and the research undeniably fastidious, well documented, and scholarly, I would differ with the lame conclusions drawn at the end, namely that the United Nations should have sent in a peacekeeping force during the transition. Who is in the United Nations? Britain and the US, for starters? What a pitiful conclusion to an otherwise brilliant book. I know that if Malcolm X were here, he’d say this was “like leaving the fox to guard the hen house.” For this reason, I considered giving four stars. It’s just too well done otherwise to deny it all five, with this caveat: those final two pages of conclusions should cause any reader who makes it this far down in my review to understand I really mean, four and a half stars.

I say the only way the Congo or any other African nation can rule itself is for colonial powers to get out. Go home. There is nothing there that they own anymore; it’s over. Africans can rule Africa, as long as colonialists let go of the entire pie.

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