Be Afraid of Your Ghosts: A Review of Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”

king leopold's ghostIn King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild tells the haunting story of how a massive piece of African land and tens of millions of indigenous African lives became the sole property of a single, power-hungry man – King Leopold II of Belgium – who implemented brutal systems of forced labor which systematically exploited the land and its people for his personal wealth and fame under a guise of colonialist philanthropy that deceived the governments of Europe and the United States from 1885 through 1908. When his reign of terror over this land and its people was finally broken, the population of the “Free State of Congo” had been cut in half; ten million lives were lost due to murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure and disease while a plummeting birth rate contributed to this horrifying population decrease.

However, Leopold never set foot on the land that he so desired to control. He used intermediaries – pawns – to do his bidding both in the Congo and in the halls of skeptical governments. These bit players were financed by what would be hundreds of millions of today’s dollars violently extracted from the vines of rubber trees and the ivory tusks of elephants. As valuable as these natural resources were, profits from their sale alone would not have been enough to account for the riches Leopold amassed. Through the courageous investigations and tireless advocacy of men like George Washington Williams, William Sheppard, E. D. Morel, and Roger Casement, the international community eventually woke up to the economic reality behind Leopold’s profits: an immense system of forced labor imposed by a ruthless private army known as the Force Publique.  Leopold did his best to fight against the growing pile of evidence against him, but he eventually lost control over his “property” and was forced to sign it over to the Belgian government. The destruction of individual lives, families, societies, cultures, and the land of the Congo during Leopold’s rule continued after his death; it continues today. The Democratic Republic of Congo is still troubled by the spirits of greed, lust, and tyrannical power that were so diabolically manifested in King Leopold II of Belgium.

Aside from Hochschild’s extremely thorough, detailed, and clear depiction of this era in European and African history, a primary strength of his work are the intricate portraits of major players in the story of the Belgian Congo. Of course, Hochschild takes care to highlight the devious commanding character of King Leopold, but he gives just as much attention to two other very important characters: Henry Morton Stanley and E. D. Morel. Stanley became the “heroic” face of Leopold’s Congo as an internationally acclaimed explorer who traversed the land and laid the foundation for Leopold’s authoritarian rule. Stanley was known as a violent man, but Hochschild reveals how his outbursts of rage were fueled by inner wounds experienced in his childhood. As Hochschild so clearly illustrates through the life of Stanley, “the economic explanations of imperial expansion… are all valid, but there was psychological fuel as well” (151).

The portrayal of E. D. Morel is equally revealing. While Morel rightfully lays claim to a significant degree of responsibility for the Congo’s eventual release from Leopold, his advocacy for justice on behalf of the Congolese people was not without tension. Morel was a staunch supporter of British imperialism, which was also active on the African continent, even as he expressed outrage over King Leopold’s system of forced labor. However, unlike most other abolitionists, Morel insisted that the only long-term solution for the Congo lay in the power of free enterprise which required the ownership of land by indigenous Congolese people. Hochschild adeptly notes how Morel’s purist economic beliefs on land reform actually called the foundations of the entire European colonial project – Great Britain included – into question. In his rendering of Morel and Stanley, Hochschild reveals how these seemingly powerful men who held the attention of the Western world were actually driven by controlling forces – both internal and external – that lay far beyond their control.

As Hochschild notes in his concluding thoughts, this rich portrayal of individual European characters is also a weakness because the story of the Congo is not merely the story of European men – whether heroes or villains. I shared the sense of frustration that Hochschild expresses as he recalled the dearth of African voices in the archives of African history during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, he does make an admirable attempt to include a few African voices from the era: the African King Affonso I and his impassioned letter to the Portuguese monarch on behalf of his people, the rebels who fought back against the Force Publique, and the second-hand accounts of men like George Washington Williams and William Sheppard who took the time to stop, listen to, and honor the indigenous people and their way of life. It seems that this weakness in Hochschild’s work is unavoidable given the historical circumstances of the era he studied. If this is the case, it is not only Hochschild’s weakness; it is a weakness shared by all of us who read from places of Western privilege and power; it is a tragic loss that should be deeply mourned.

The story of Leopold’s Congo casts a dark shadow over the history of Christianity in this section of Africa. Hochschild notes how thousands of Europeans, many of them missionaries, witnessed the horrific atrocities taking place and never raised a voice of concern. What is more, Leopold justified the entire Congo project in terms of his “Christian” duty to civilize the “poor Africans” and fight the Arab slave traders. Tragically, his justification fit seamlessly into the preferred narrative of European Christianity with respect to Africa during his time. Leopold also paid off Roman Catholic priests in the Congo who were deployed “almost as if they were soldiers” (134). He was recognized and lauded by Christian organizations in Europe and was thought to be a friend to all missionaries. Thankfully, there were a few missionaries, most notably William Sheppard, who saw the evil of Leopold’s work with clear vision and did whatever they could to bring change. However, these heroic individual efforts of the few faithful Christians pale in comparison to the horror inflicted by “Christian” nations and their armies across the continent as Hochschild rightfully records. Leopold’s Congo was hardly an exception – it was more like a rule.


A wise saying I heard in class with a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary, Dr. Francesca Nuzzolese, comes to mind as I reflect on the implications of King Leopold’s Ghost for my practice of ministry: “pain that is not transformed is passed on.”[1] This truth is most evident to me in the life of Henry Morton Stanley, but it can also be seen in King Leopold’s life. I wonder what really separates me from men like Stanley and Leopold. Is the difference between us only a matter of degree of power and privilege? If I were given the same measure of power as they, would my untransformed inner pain be “passed on” as violently as theirs? The story Hochschild tells is truly a “ghost” story: it is scary. I most frightened by the unimaginable destructive potential of wounded, broken individuals who are given places of unaccountable privilege and power in which their untransformed pain is multiplied exponentially onto innocent others. My first reaction then is to reconsider my own inner struggles and reflect on how I am already passing that pain onto others, especially in a ministry context.

However, the second implication I draw from Hochschild’s telling of the Congo story gives me insight into how I can be different from Stanley, Leopold, and even Morel. The implication is this: when human persons, their land, and their different, diverse ways of life are abstracted, are gazed at from a distance, the risk of violence towards those people, places, and cultures increases dramatically. Leopold, along with most all of his European contemporaries, imagined the entire African continent as a faceless void of natural resources waiting to be plundered. This abstract, impersonal conception of thousands of distinct people groups and millions of acres of diverse ecosystems was fueled by the social distance created and sustained by European notions of power and privilege. How could a British “gentleman” really befriend an African “savage” or, even more unlikely, see the African as an equal? As I consider myself in ministry among those who have also been subjected to equally destructive powers of sin and evil, I am reminded of the need to bridge whatever distances may exist between me and those I serve. Justice must begin in friendship because “love exists only among equals.”[2] As long as I remain socially distant from those I feel called by God to love through service, I remain at risk of depersonalizing and dehumanizing them which makes them an easy target for my untransformed pain.

[1] A form of this saying can be found in the work of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr.

[2] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, rev. ed., trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), xxxi.


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