Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: King Leopold's Ghost

With recent speculation that the new Tarzan film concerns the real life events of the Congo Free State (and if you have not read the article click now) I thought I would read Adam Hochschild's book about the tyranny and bravery that resulted from one man's greed. It is a powerful tale, well worth reading.

Centering around the mad rush to Africa that occurred in the late 19th century, Hochschild's main focus is on the rule of Belgian's Leopold II, a man more concerned with making money than life and sees the Congo as his claim to immorality since it would be his own colony. Once established it turns into a nightmare for villagers who find themselves at the mercy of Leopold's own version of enforcement-the Force Publique-and greed as a move into collecting rubber leads to slavery and death. While a few are brave enough to stand up against Leopold it takes a determined journalist name E.D. Morel and the consul to Britain Roger Casement to reveal the horror that Leopold and his reign caused.

Well researched and written, King Leopold's Ghost is a gripping account that benefits from the various viewpoints shown, via surviving letters, reports and newspaper stories that paints a vivid portrait of one man's greed and a group that was willing to stand up against him. It does take time to establish the events as Hochschild sets up the participants-including such luminaries like Henry Morgan Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame), Joseph Conrad (whose own experiences would lead him to pen Heart of Darkness) and Mark Twain (who penned his own pamphlet King Leopold's Soliloquy)-along with portraits of Casement and Morel as brave-if not perfect-men. Leopold meanwhile comes across as a man more concerned with lavish projects and keeping his young lover happy as well as someone who sees the Congo as his property and its inhabitants as just servants who must be taught who they serve, even if they lose their hands or their lives.

There are some flaws with the book. As Hochschild admits up front, most of the story is derived from the perspectives of outsiders, not the actual villagers whose lives were destroyed, so we do lose that first person account. Also some of the novel's detours venture into tabloid situations (like Leopold's dysfunctional family life and Casement's homosexuality) that do distract a a little. But those are minor complaints.

When all is said though King Leopold's Ghost is a book worth reading and thinking about, especially in these times we live in. Rating: **** out of 4.

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