In this true story of slavery and exploitation shown in King Leopold’s Ghost, information that is truly awesome is presented and organized to leave the mind hungry for answers. The shock that this horrible show of humanity existed, and no less than a century ago, invokes a sadness at its reality and an unrelenting curiosity about those who participated in it and why they did. However, this book also shows a kind of heroism in those who opposed the Congo and now have unwavering respect. The themes and messages that are present in this book are necessary in understanding the history and nature of human beings.
King Leopold’s Ghost is a book laden with countless themes and messages such as: race, exploitation, destruction, strength, manipulation, courage, a sense of right and wrong, greed and more. Of these, the main propellant in events involving the Congo, including the opposition, was greed. The difference was either having a presence or an absence of it. There are many examples of both. The first of these examples is apparent in the processes and functioning of the Congo itself. The lack of response generated to the injustices in the Congo from outsiders can be a result of many motives such as fear or dependency but most importantly is a direct result of this greed.
Few examples of protest against the Congo, in comparison to those who supported it, however, can be seen. The first to speak out in protest was that of George Washington Williams. Williams voiced objections against the injustices of the Congo in 1890, and by this time, “close to a thousand Europeans and Americans had visited the territory or worked there.”1 Another person who challenged the Congo is Konrad Korzeniowski, otherwise known as Conrad, who created the literary work, “Heart of Darkness.”2 This book was a landmark in creating awareness among the public by showing a more realistic view of the Congo than had previously been seen. In furthering awareness of the Congo in actuality, two other key actors were essential to the changes that later resulted, those were E. D. Morel and Roger Casement. They both created numerous important works such as the West African Mail and scathing official Foreign Office reports, and lead countless other projects to eventually begin and lead the Congo Reform Association.3 In addition, without the help of the missionaries, a great deal of information would have gone unknown, and would have greatly weakened the opposition against the Congo. Some of the key missionaries were William Sheppard and John and Alice Harris.4 All of these examples and more show those individuals who made a definite response to the situation in the Congo. They are only a few of the countless who were involved in the creation and sustainment of the state. Those who were bribed or otherwise inclined for selfish reasons to portray a positive view of the Congo can be seen in every facet of the maintenance of the Congo, whether it be lobbying, writing false literary works, or working in the Congo itself. Hence, the supporters of the Congo largely outnumbered those who protested.
A more obvious show of insatiability is in the actions of King Leopold himself. His unremorseful and self righteous exploitation and destruction of the people in the Congo and of the Congo itself show the King’s unquenchable greed. His unrelenting push for rubber exportation, which resulted in the most horrific time period of the region, the rubber terror, contributed to only his personal gain. To meet his greed for wealth and rubber, not to forget other items of exportation such as ivory, in the time that King Leopold II controlled the Congo, “the population of the territory dropped by approximately ten million people.”5 This staggering number of deaths and horrendous deeds are reflected in King Leopold’s countless architectural projects and luxurious investments; including the château of Laeken, the huge Cinquantenaire arch, the land and dwelling on the Riviera, his yacht, the Alberta, his private extravagant railway car, and any extravagant spending on his mistress Caroline, including a French château and countless other luxuries.6 King Leopold II used this blood money to line his pockets and increase his personal comfort. These actions that caused so many unnecessary deaths and so much pain still feels its effects today. Thus greed, along with heartless tactics and ideologies, fueled the Congo in every way. The Congo was created and sustained to fill this unending self-indulgence.
However unique these facts and events may seem due to their shocking and inconceivable nature, they are not. This attitude and similar violent destruction of a people was happening worldwide in the same era of Leopold’s Congo. In Africa in particular, other colonizers practiced similar feats in the destruction of a people. In French and Portuguese Africa, half the population was killed in the rubber terror.7 In German Africa, a specific group called the Hereros was estimated at 80,000 in 1903 and in 1906, only three short years later, only 20,000 remained.8
This pattern is no different on other continents. In the United States, the decimation of the American Indians and the seizure of their land was widespread. The Philippines was no different in the brutal killing of around 220,000 Filipinos and the claiming of the Philippine land for the United States.9 In the same manner, the British in Australia killed the aborigines ruthlessly and appropriated their land for Britain. All of these forcefully entered, retook the land, and exploited and/or destroyed the local population. Unfortunately, this conquest of a land and people, as can be seen with the numerous examples, was widespread.
The question is why. Why was there a common desire to conquer and devastate for personal gain, and why were these conquerors seemingly all European or of European decent? Human nature allows for such desires of conquest and the like, but as seen in comparison with non-European groups of this time period, they are unmistakably unequal in their degree of decimation and abuse.
This European condition owes its origins to Darwin. Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” discusses, of course, the origin of species and also offers an explanation of the survival of the fittest theory, or as can be interpreted, to the superiority of a species. This new idea became a catalyst for new thoughts of racial superiority amongst human beings. To spur this idea further was the presentation of other races being inferior in many ways including, but not limited to, written works during that time period. An example is the “Hottentot Venus”, an African woman that was exhibited in a traveling show no differently than a strange animal, implying the inferiority of her race. Also various works of art from that period reflect this attitude, such as Gaugain in his paintings of women in Tahiti, whom are naked, exotic and thus lesser in comparison.10 These examples and more provided clear and scientific evidence of European superiority.
The belief of European superiority allowed for the creation of such dismal circumstances previously discussed. It was a belief that argued Europeans were a stronger, more powerful group than local populations and it was thought that the destruction of a local group was nothing more than evidence supporting natural selection. This cultural concept spread and became imbedded in the minds of Europeans everywhere, and therefore can be seen worldwide. Today many examples can still be seen of this belief in European superiority. A tragic example is that of Rwanda in 1994. The genocide that ensued was allowed to by European forces. It would have been avoided relatively easily if only European nations would have desired it to be so. This prime example shows the work still left to be done in establishing equality among all races, that all began over a century ago with the exploitation, obliteration, and greed of the European nations.
What began as getting a “slice of this magnificent African cake” ended in a display of an appalling and sickening show of humanity.11 Although not limited to the Congo, the events that occurred in that time frame are still felt today in the ripple effects. Those few who opposed the Congo regime were crucial to ending King Leopold’s hold on the Congo state and establishing the humanitarianism efforts of today, and of the many who did not oppose; their efforts can be seen in the longevity of the Congo state and in Africa’s current conditions. King Leopold’s Ghost offers a vital look at both sides of the issue, and allows for a better understanding of our shared history and human nature.