- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
All the great advances in human rights have been—and will continue to be—made at that critical moment of moral judgment when men and women confronted with abuse react with outrage and make a decision. They decide that despite all of the tradition, prevailing assumptions, pressures from vested interests, and resistance aligned against them, they will no longer be willing to simply accept things as they are, no longer be passive, and no longer be silent. They become willing to risk their families, their friendships, their jobs, their reputations, their security, and sometimes even their lives on behalf of those who suffer.
Once they became aware of the unspeakable suffering of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, for example, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce determined to commit their lives toward ending the slave trade. The personal experience of holding wounded soldiers writhing in agonizing pain without medical attention led Henry Dunant to create the International Red Cross. Witnessing the terrible plight of thousands of helpless people fleeing their homelands in the wake of war and revolution in order to save their lives convinced Fridtjof Nansen to devote himself to protecting the rights of refugees. The realization of the unimaginable genocide of the Holocaust convinced many in the world, like Eleanor Roosevelt, of the need to work tirelessly on behalf of establishing international standards of human rights. The arbitrary arrest of students for toasting “to freedom” moved Peter Beneson to launch a letter writing campaign that eventually became Amnesty International. All of these actions, and countless others by those known and unknown from the globe to the grassroots, flow from decisions made at moments of moral choice.
This essential element in understanding and appreciating the historical evolution of human rights is captured in all of its drama, pain, and courage by Adam Hochschild in his blistering book, King Leopold’s Ghost, and appropriately subtitled A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. At the end of the nineteenth century, King Leopold of Belgium became obsessed with seizing control of territory in Africa. Like many other Europeans and Americans of his day, he viewed the continent as if it were without Africans: a vast expanse of uninhabited space, just waiting with unlimited possibilities for prestige and profit. The Congo appeared ripe for the taking. With charm, seductive rhetoric, political guile and deviousness, propaganda and sham organizations, bribes, hidden accounting, manipulation, the ruthless use of the military power of the state, and boundless greed, Leopold set out to make the Congo his personal fiefdom. Brutal exploitation and the forcible extraction of tons of ivory, and then shiploads of rubber, soon brought him staggering wealth.
Like all oppressive regimes, of course, the success of Leopold’s operation [End Page 535] required those willing to follow orders. He needed explorers, military officers and men, steamboat captains, state functionaries, concession company officials, foremen, and soldiers of fortune, among others, willing to accept the prevailing attitudes of racial superiority over indigenous peoples, to do exactly what the system told them to do without asking troublesome questions, to inflict pain or kill, and to keep quiet. He had no difficulty finding such people. Indeed, an important measure of his success in this regard can be seen in the fact that he was able to hide the brutality of his operation and actually portray himself as a philanthropic monarch and the Congo as a veritable model of progress and civilization for years without challenge.
But not everyone can be bought or persuaded. Through Hochschild’s impassioned and riveting account, we find visitors with different eyes and different values traveling by foot around the lower rapids and by steamer up the river into Leopold’s hidden and lucrative Congo. One of these is a black American named George Washington Williams, a Baptist minister and writer. To his shock, he dis-covers not the paradise of a benignly ruled colony and well-treated people as described by...