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King Leopold's Ghost (1998) is a best-selling popular history book by Adam Hochschild that explores the exploitation of the Congo Free Statemarker by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908.

The aim of the book is to increase public awareness of crimes committed by European colonial rulers in Africa. After having been refused by nine of the ten U.S. publishing houses to which an outline was submitted, the book became an unexpected bestseller and won the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for literary style. By 2005, some 400,000 copies were in print in a dozen languages.

The title is adopted from the poem The Congo, by Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay. Condemning Léopold's actions, Lindsay wrote: Listen to the yell of Léopold's ghost, / Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.

The book is the basis of a 2006 documentary film of the same name, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.

The story of Léopold's Congo

Hochschild describes Léopold as a man of greed who, obsessed by the desire for a colony, hides his real intentions under "philanthropic" purposes. With a complex scheme of political intrigue, corruption and propaganda, he wins the assistance of one of the greatest explorers of the time, Henry Morton Stanley, as well as that of public opinion and of powerful states. Through the Berlin Conference and other diplomatic efforts, he finally obtains international recognition for his colony. He then establishes a system of forced labour that keeps the people of the Congo basin in a condition of slavery.

In Hochschild's impassioned book, King Leopold takes his place with the great tyrants, having reduced the population of the Congo Free State—which Hochschild describes as his private fiefdom — from 20 million people to 10 million in 40 years. Louis and Stengers however state that population figures at the start of Leopold's period of control in 1885 are only "wild guesses", while E.D. Morel's attempt and others at coming to a figure for consequent population losses until the Congo's cession to Belgium in 1908 were "but figments of the imagination".

The heroes of the book (as much as a book of non-fiction can be said to have heroes) are Léopold's enemies, those who made the world aware of the reality of the Congo Free State. These include:

  • George Washington Williams, an African American politician and historian, the first ever to report the atrocities in the Congo.
  • William Henry Sheppard, another African American, a Presbyterian missionary who furnished direct testimony of the atrocities.
  • E. D. Morel, a British journalist and shipping agent who understood, checking the commercial documents of the Congo Free State, that while millions of dollars worth of rubber and ivory were coming out of the Congo, all that was going back was rifles and chains. From this evidence, he inferred that the Congo was a slave state, and devoted the rest of his life to destroying it. Morel's assertions were often erroneous.
  • Sir Roger Casement, British diplomat and Irish patriot, who put the force of the British government behind the international protest against Leopold. Casement's involvement had the ironic effect of drawing attention away from British colonialism, Hochschild suggests. The Congo Reform Association was formed by Morel following Casement's instigation.

Hochschild dedicates a chapter to Joseph Conrad, the famous Anglo-Polish writer, in the first years of Belgian colonization only a sea captain assigned to a Congo steamer. Hochschild observes that Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, despite its abstract and evocative theme, is in fact a quite realistic picture of the Congo Free State and its main character, Kurtz, is inspired by real figures of state functionaries, most notably Leon Rom. While Heart of Darkness is probably the most reprinted and studied short novel of the 20th century, its psychological and moral truths are so profound as to overshadow its literal truth. Hochschild finds four likely models for Kurtz: men who boasted of cutting off the heads of African rebels and sometimes displayed them, as Kurtz does in Heart of Darkness.

Documentation and bibliography

Adam Hochschild takes inspiration from the research of several historians, many of whom are Belgian. He especially refers to Jules Marchal, a Belgian former colonial civil servant and diplomat who spent twenty years of his life trying to break Belgian silence on the massacres. The documentation was not easy to come by; the furnaces in Brussels are said to have spent more than a week burning incriminating papers when Léopold turned over his private Congo to the Belgian nation, and for many years Belgian authorities prevented access to what remained of the archives, most notably the accounts of Congolese before the King's Commission. Most of the information about Léopold's torture-murderers that Hochschild uses was accumulated by his enemies.

Although few, if any, Africa scholars outside of Belgium question the high estimates of the death toll in King Leopold’s Congo, the subject remains a touchy one in Belgium itself. The country’s Royal Museum for Central Africamarker, founded by Léopold II, mounted a special exhibition in 2005 about the colonial Congo; in an article in the New York Review of Books, Hochschild accused the museum of distortion and evasion.Adam Hochschild In the Heart of Darkness, New York Review of Books, 26 October 2005. "The exhibit deals with this question in a wall panel misleadingly headed 'Genocide in the Congo?' This is a red herring, for no reputable historian of the Congo has made charges of genocide; a forced labor system, although it may be equally deadly, is different."

Also in 2005, the American and British publishers of King Leopold’s Ghost reissued the book with a new “Afterword”by Hochschild in which he talks about the reactions to the book, the death toll, and events in the Congo since its publication.

Reviews and critics

Hochschild has been praised by critics for his ability in telling the story. While acknowledging that most of the facts illustrated in the book were already known (although appearing in books and documents not easy to find), most historians and Africa specialists appreciated his capacity to narrate the history accurately. Hochschild's book was praised by scholars of Africa such as Prof. Robert Harms of Yale Universitymarker and by the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer.

Hochschild has said that his intention was to tell the story in "a way that brings characters alive, that brings out the moral dimension, that lays bare a great crime and a great crusade." His choice was the basis of his success, but some Belgian critics deplored his comparison between Léopold and such famous mass-murderers as Hitler and Stalin.

The Belgian historian Jean Stengers, whose works are cited in the sources of King Leopold's Ghost, claimed in a newspaper article that Hochschild's moral judgements are "not justified in respect at the time and place" and that his conclusions about the scale of the mass murder are based on incomplete statistics. He advanced the suspicion that in Hochschild's book historical objectivity was affected by the desire to attract the attention of the public—especially the African American public.

Hochschild was also criticized by Barbara Emerson, author of a biography of Léopold, who described Hochschild's book as "a very shoddy piece of work" and declared that "Leopold did not start genocide. He was greedy for money and chose not to interest himself when things got out of control." Hochschild, however, has never called what happened in the Congo a genocide; instead, he describes how these mass deaths happened as a result of a forced labor system.

Hochschild replied to Stengers, accusing him of not accepting the implications of his own research, arguing that while Stengers was "a meticulous and talented scholar", he was conditioned by his colonialist views. Hochschild claims that the estimates about the reduction of the population of the Congo reported in his book are taken, in part, directly from Stengers' own writing.

Jules Marchal, on the other hand, showed his admiration for Hochschild's book. He defined it as "a masterpiece, without even one error about the historical deeds related." He reminded people that Hochschild's conclusions were confirmed by his own work on original sources. Several other Belgian experts on the period, such as anthropologist Jan Vansina, also backed Hochschild. And Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, a Congolese scholar whose Histoire générale du Congo was published the same year as King Leopold's Ghost, estimated the death toll in the Léopold era and its immediate aftermath at roughly 13 million, a higher figure than the various scholarly estimates Hochschild cites.

The Guardian reported in July 2002 that, after initial outrage by Belgian historians over King Leopold's Ghost, the state-funded Royal Museum for Central Africamarker would finance an investigation into Hochschild's allegations. The investigatory panel, likely to be headed by Professor Jean-Luc Vellut, was scheduled to report its findings in 2004. The main result appears to be the museum exhibit mentioned above.


  1. King Leopold's Ghost (Documentary film, 2006), IMDB.
  2. Wm. Roger Louis and Jean Stengers: E.D. Morel's History of the Congo Reform Movement p.252-7
  3. The hidden holocaust, The Guardian, 13 May 1999
  4. Andrew Osborn Belgium exhumes its colonial demons The Guardian July 13, 2002

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