Thursday, April 10, 2008

King Leopold's Ghost

Sometimes, history keeps secrets.

They're not secrets to everyone. In certain places, though, the history of other places is either whitewashed or just ignored.

The Congo is one such place.

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is the story of one of history's secrets, at least to the western world: the systematic decimation of the population of the Congo after King Leopold of Belgium assumed control of the region in the mid 1880's.

How many dead? At a minimum, over five million. Roughly, the number is considered to be half the population.


The story of Leopold's acquisition of the territory is a story of unalloyed, evil brilliance. Through a series of maneuvers in which he positioned himself as a humanitarian--to universal acclaim--Leopold obtained a colony which he could ruthlessly exploit for his own gain.

His colony, not Belgium's.

And in his pursuit of wealth, in the colonialists pursuit of wealth, the native population was destroyed in the most barbaric ways imaginable.

How were these brutal events discovered? An agent hired to track loading and unloading at docks in the Congo noticed a strange pattern--while shiploads of ivory and rubber were leaving the docks, only military officers, rifles, and bullets were arriving at the docks. His investigation of this discrepancy resulted in a campaign, shared by many others, to stop the slaughter.

It makes for both depressing and riveting reading, and the quantity of source material used from that era is remarkable. Also of note is the information concerning Joseph Conrad, who traveled in the Congo during that period and met several of the reformers. As it turns out, Heart of Darkness was truth thinly disguised as fiction--Kurtz was a composite of several particularly brutal administrators.

Like I said, it's difficult reading, but rewarding as well. Here's an Amazon link: King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.

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