I’m sure most people understand a little of what colonization meant for the original inhabitants of areas of Africa and Southeast Asia. But nothing I had ever read about prepared me for the appalling history found in King Leopold’s Ghost. The book is a non-fiction work about the Belgian King’s desire to have a colony of his own. Not for the Belgians, but for himself. Leopold looked towards Africa in the late 1870’s and took over area that would be known as the Belgian Congo. At this point in time, slavery had been long abolished in England, recently abolished in the United States, and was generally looked down upon throughout all of Europe. The inhabitants of the Middle East were still kidnapping native Africans and bringing them to the desert countries as slaves. The “civilized world” of the west was up in arms over this. So, King Leopold maneuvered himself politically to “help” those poor Africans, by establishing a state that would protect them from their oppressors. He received financial and written support from the international community to do this. What Leopold did, in actuality, was replace one oppressor with another. He took roughly a billion dollars worth of natural resources from the Congo, with the use of forced labor, killing, in the process, approximately half of its native population.
In the past few months I have read many books about Africa, learning about the tragedies of it’s wars and genocides, but nothing was as disturbing as the plight of the people in the Congo. They weren’t the enemy, and they had virtually no value to their overlords. The peaceful natives were thought of as mere animals, to be exploited, used as pack horses, abused and then discarded. The Belgians in charge worked them to death. It wasn’t a question of fighting back – the Congolese had no choice. The poor dark-skinned people were killed if their loads were slightly lighter than others, or if they collapsed with exhaustion. Worse yet, were bounties for the dead. As proof (in order to receive payment), the colonial forces severed the right hands of the Congolese – men, women and children. Sometimes they didn’t even wait for them to die.
It is a harrowing story and a true one that most people don’t know about. King Leopold was adept at destroying the Belgian records that would convict him of these crimes. But thanks to countless personal stories of missionaries and others who journeyed to the Congo during the forty years of King Leopold’s rule, the story comes to the surface.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1998