- Lord Leverhulme’s Ghost: Colonial Exploitation in the Congo
The fact a major publishing house put out an English edition of this book, originally published in Belgium in 2001, is a testimony to the enduring fascination of Leopold II’s Independent State of the Congo. Even though this book treats palm concessions in the Kasai region of the Belgian Congo from 1911 to 1945, the frame of reference for the study lies in the rapacious exploitation of Congolese by an alliance of officials and foreign companies that characterized Leopold’s regime. King Leopold’s Ghost author Adam Hochschild lauds this study: “No other scholar, looking at any other part of Africa, has studied colonial forced labor as thoroughly as Marchal has in the Congo” (xxi). Perhaps if one had not read much on forced labor or on colonial Africa, this might sound reasonable. The very limited bibliography Marchal provides suggests that he himself had spent far more time sifting through archives than considering the broader literature on forced labor or Central Africa, whether in French or in English.
There will be ample time to consider how flawed this work is, but one must first recognize the tremendous amount of work required to put this text together and how it complicates common narratives of Central African history. Marchal documents in minute detail correspondence between the Unilever company, various officials at different levels of the Belgian colonial administration, and missionaries during World War I and the interwar period. Unilever concessions established between 1911 and 1918 allowed the company to demand local communities surrender their control over forests, coerced thousands of men to work under brutal conditions with poor health care, and obliged many people to hunt and supply food to nourish these plantations. Just as with forced cotton cultivation in Northern Congo as well as in neighboring Ubangi-Shari (Central African Republic), the complaints of individual officials, traders, and missionaries did little to stop the harsh policies of large companies backed by high levels of the colonial administration. In this light, the excesses of concessionary firms under the Independent State of the Congo were hardly unique in the later history of the Belgian Congo, or even for much of Central Africa. The reports cited by Marchal also show how the struggles between Congolese people and Unilever reflected battles over access to the environment. Forests were as much sites of contestation in the Kasai as they were in the better-documented cases of Kenya and German East Africa. African guards forced many men to hunt wild animals and turn in the meat to them, so that they could in turn profit by selling it to the Unilever concessions desperately seeking to feed workers in this thinly-populated region (72–73). There are similar fascinating insights over access to plants and animals embedded in this study, even though this work is by no means meant to be an environmental history or a social history of food supply.
All the myriad documents Marchal both cites and reproduces as full texts do practically nothing to consider a basic issue each historian of colonial Africa must wrestle with: the agency of Africans themselves. Rarely even do individual names of Congolese emerge from the unrelenting narrative of exploitation. Nancy Rose Hunt has rightly critiqued the simplistic narrative of fiendish officials and companies savaging a powerless and faceless mass of Congolese. One need only look at the treatment of the Pende revolt (146–169) for how woeful this simplistic manner of treating the African colonial past can be. Despite including lyrics of rebel war songs recorded by officials and giving a list of casualties of Africans, Marchal’s unreflective description simply repeats what different officials wrote about the revolt. He saves his analysis for exposing how different officials sought to expose or obscure the amount of violence used to crush Pende communities, rather than looking at social divisions among Pende people themselves or how different Pende communities alternately fought and negotiated with colonial authorities. However, bloc quotes and the microhistorical treatment of how different officials and company employees wrote...