By Adam Hochschild. Audiobook narrated by Geoffrey Howard.
King Leopold II is a common touchstone for the villainy of colonialism. For good reason: he pocketed fabulous wealth for himself, while the extraction of ivory and rubber from his personal colony ended around 10 million lives. At the beginning of his control of the territory that became his Congo Free State, there were around 20 million people living there. Forced labor reduced that population by half over three decades.
While Hochschild’s book documents Leopold’s personal immorality to a sometimes comical degree, the book has other more interesting and troubling takeaways. The body count was more-or-less proportionally the same in countries where other colonial powers used forced labor to extract wild rubber. That is to say, the problem was actually existing capitalism not Leopold’s excesses. The French and Portuguese were no more moral than the Belgians.
Another horrifying fact is the extent to which the native armed force used to control the rubber workers were themselves essentially slave soldiers. Forced labor was especially brutal during the World Wars. During World War I, Congolese were conscripted to invade German Tanganyika. During World War II, each man had to do more-or-less 120 days/year of service to the Belgian state. It was forced Congolese laborers who extracted the uranium used to blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hochschild’s real passion is the Congo Reform movement, which he devotes much of the book to. In Europe and the United States this was spearheaded by British consul and Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement and shipping clerk-turned-radical E. D. Morel. Both suffered greatly due to their opposition to World War I (Casement was hanged) and their heroism is worth learning about.
The book also devotes some space to African-American missionaries who traveled to the Congo and campaigned against Leopold. George Washington Williams (portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson above), who should be a big name in speculative fiction by now between The Legend of Tarzan and Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, was the first person to bring news to the outside world about what was going on.
My favorite character in the history is African-American Presbyterian missionary William Henry Sheppard (above in the white suit)–maybe because he seemed to be having a good time while he was in Africa despite everything. He loved hanging out with natives. He was very athletic. He fought a crocodile. He was the first Westerner to be accepted into the court of the Kuba King. Sheppard also has a little speculative fiction cred. He’s the historical basis for the father of Charles Saunders’ New Pulp hero Damballa.
Hochschild is very cognizant of the paucity of African voices in the written historical record. He tries to remedy this as much as he can between a handful of African accounts and detailed lists of every anti-colonial mutiny (there were many). However, this can tend to get lost in the more detailed dramas of the European and American figures.