Dan Jacobson

  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Central Africa by Adam Hochschild
    Macmillan, 366 pp, £22.50, April 1999, ISBN 0 333 66126 5

Leopold II is best known as the founder and owner of the ill-famed Congo Free State. To most English-speaking readers his name evokes ‘Red Rubber’ and a world of plunder and atrocity: the Congo Reform Association which campaigned against his ruthless exploitation of the Free State has left behind it a notion of an aged, snow-bearded Satan who used black slavery to get money, and money to buy the favours of young girls.

The quotation is from Neal Ascherson’s The King Incorporated, published more than thirty years ago. Many stories deserve retelling for each generation; and the tale of Leopold’s duplicity, lubriciousness and greed, and of the cruelties and depredations with which his hirelings in the Congo Free State fed his appetites and their own, is certainly one of them. Adam Hochschild has taken most of the material for his new book from published sources; but about that I have no inclination to complain. Far from it. The findings of specialist historians have constantly to be ‘translated’ for the benefit of general readers, and Hochschild has done a valuable job in combining a biography of Leopold with a coherent, comprehensible account of how he realised his dream of a vast and ultimately profitable empire in the middle of Africa. Imagine a pathologically avaricious fraudster who is also a monomaniac, a man who never loses sight of his single aim yet never declares it, and you will be on the way to understanding something of Leopold’s character. You will also have a sense of the difficulties facing a writer who seeks to follow his devious footsteps. Hochschild compares the scale of the ‘holocaust’ produced by Leopold’s reign in the Congo with those for which Hitler and Stalin were responsible; if he is to be compared with either of them, I would say that he resembled Stalin rather than Hitler in always cloaking his intentions and deeds with an appearance of public benignity, of fatherly concern for his people, whether at home or in his great colonial possession.

Unfortunately the book has faults which run almost as deep as its merits. Hochschild’s naive zeal for cliché (news ‘flashed over the telegraph wires’, someone’s ‘hurt pride’ is ‘like an open wound’, society women are ‘bejewelled’ and generals ‘bemedalled’) is accompanied by lunges into a general metaphoric confusion (‘In Europe, the thirst for African land had become nearly palpable ... Stanley had ignited the great African land rush, but even he felt uneasy about the greed in the air’). Then there is his insistence that what happened in the Congo between about 1880 and 1910 has long been forgotten, even suppressed. Well, it hasn’t. The fact that he himself has been able to rely so heavily on published sources, some new, some old, in itself reveals how dubious the claim is. Anyone with the least interest in the ‘scramble for Africa’ knows that something terrible and protracted took place in the Congo basin at that time; and so, too, vaguely yet more vividly perhaps, do the ‘millions of readers’ (Hochschild’s phrase) who have encountered the place and period through ‘the most widely printed short novel in the English language’ – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Hochschild devotes an inconclusive chapter to discussing yet another possible ‘original’ for Mr Kurtz (his candidate is an unsavoury murderer and would-be man of science by the name of Léon Rom); but dismisses the informative power of the novel by baldly asserting that European and American readers have ‘cast it loose from its historical moorings’ – and then producing himself as star witness for his case. When he read it as an undergraduate, he tells us, he ‘mentally filed away the book as fiction not fact’. So what did he imagine those chained porters, those dying ‘black shadows of disease and emaciation’, to be – decor?

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