King Leopold’s Ghost Essay
King Leopold’s Ghost chronicles the horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes that took place in the Congo in the 1800s. Historian Adam Hochschild developed the story using an abundance of sources that take up eleven pages in the book’s bibliography, with much reliance on The Scramble for Africa, by Thomas Pakenham, and the four-volume History of the Congo, by Jules Marchal. He complements his unparalleled historical research skills with vivid description, imagery, and symbolism, as well as excellent storytelling skills, to create an intense and enthralling narrative. He also features a vast array of characters such as the heroic but complicated Roger Casement, to add life to the story. The author examines various historical figures, their lives and observations, and their experiences in the events that took place in the Congo. There is tension throughout the book between reformists who sought justice for the country and exploiters who pushed to benefit by repressing native Congolese citizens. Two of the reformists described in King Leopold’s Ghost, Edmund Dene Morel, and William Sheppard, merit special attention.
Besides King Leopold himself, Morel and Sheppard are the central figures in the book. Their personalities differ, they play different roles, and they can be compared to separate archetypes. Though a history, the book is structured like a work of fiction, with characters serving different purposes depending on the storyline. In fiction, a protagonist deals with the main problem, and needs changing. An antagonist opposes the protagonist’s actions. In King Leopold’s Ghost, Leopold fills the protagonist role, though he is hardly a protagonist that a reader would support. Morel and Sheppard are the antagonists, who in this case are the heroes. Such characters represent courage and greed, love and malice, justice and crime. The thematic expressions serve to support the overall message and theme of the author. King Leopold’s Ghost is a character-driven work, meaning it focuses on the characters of particular figures as it relates the events.
As a history, King Leopold’s Ghost is about imperialism in the Congo. The main reason Belgium wanted to colonize the Congo was economic. At the time, Belgium was in the midst of an industrial revolution and needed resources and materials that the Congo had in abundance. The region was also rich in culture, but that was of less interest to Belgium than its lack of governance, which made it easy to invade, colonize, and plunder. King Leopold II led the invasion. He took advantage of Belgium’s seizure of unexplored territories around the Congo River to loot the region’s rubber, killing nearly 10 million people in the process.
King Leopold could be described as cruel and cunning, but also charming. Despite wreaking havoc and perpetrating a genocide, he also cleverly manipulated his image and reputation as a great humanitarian. The genocide he committed is attributed to financial greed and virtual slavery; Belgians who went to Africa as workers gave accounts of his monstrosities. Most African deaths were due to whipping and being beaten as they were pushed to meet ivory and rubber production goals. Many died from overwork and living in slave-like conditions. Others were simply killed.
The Protagonist: King Leopold II
King Leopold II is the leading figure in the book. He was the second king of Belgium and also the Duke of Brabant. Unlike other monarchs of a relatively young age, Leopold was awkward and lanky, as well as unskilled in combat. However, the duke found motivation to acquire power after observing other European countries growing richer, so he started looking for unexplored and unconquered land and bought them up. Africa was ultimately his biggest conquest, as he took over a resource-rich inland region along the Congo River and set up the Congo Free State.
Leopold covered his aggression by claiming altruistic motives for stealing a personal fortune in rubber and ivory using forced labor. His tactics included kidnapping, flat-out robbery, sex slavery, disappearance, labor slavery, torture, and the murder of millions of Congolese natives. When these abuses became known, some of the severe criticisms of King Leopold came from British sources. Other critics included social Catholics and the Labor Party at home, thus forcing him eventually to allow the Belgium non-royal administrative government to take over the Congo. However, even this ceding was not complete freedom for the Congolese citizens, as their land continued under the control of the Belgian Legislature.
King Leopold can be referred to as greedy as he focused on amassing personal wealth through direct exploitation. His character was also barbaric as he hid his crimes against humanity under the veil of being a humanitarian and claimed to be helping improve the lives of native Congolese citizens by actions such as introducing technologic advancements. King Leopold was successful in achieving his goals in terms of expanding Belgium territories, power and wealth, and amassing a fortune for himself.
The First Antagonist: Edmund Dene Morel
Morel earned fame for making the first opposition moves against King Leopold’s rule and conquest in the Congo. After witnessing the crimes occurring in the country, including slavery, he published works to prove their existence. During the time that Morel worked for the shipping company that transported ivory from the Congo, he noticed that no payments in the form of goods or money were being made to compensate for the ivory coming out. He also noted that most of the rubber from Congo benefitted King Leopold personally rather than the nation of Belgium. Morel also observed that only guns and ammunition were shipped back into the country. Morel actually supported the idea of imperialism in the Congo, but he was not pleased with the crimes going on there, especially slavery and mass murder. He was successful in turning public opinion against the actions of King Leopold and was thus responsible for the takeover of the control of Congo by the Belgian government. He contributed by recruiting hundreds of journalists to publish articles, consequently forcing the Belgian government to reconsider some of its tactics and practices in the state of Congo (Hochschild 1). Morel is quoted as seeking to make allies with people such as Mark Twain and Senator John Tyler Morgan to further his cause.
The Second Antagonist: William Shepard
William Sheppard, an African American explorer, was appalled by the events he saw in the Congo and joined hands with Edmund Morel to oppose King Leopold’s actions. He took photographs and wrote notes about the atrocities he witnessed in Congo. Later he published an article in which he reprimanded the supposedly “enlightened” Belgium nation for advancing and reinforcing Leopold’s crimes. He was arrested and tried in courts for taking part in the resistance by helping movements that opposed the rule and tactics of King Leopold but was later acquitted.
In conclusion, the three characters described above played significant though opposing roles as far as imperialism in Congo was concerned. While King Leopold acted to amass wealth for himself, William Sheppard and Edmund Dene Morel opposed Leopold’s orchestration of the numerous atrocities in Congo. The two agitated for the liberation of the oppressed in the Free Congo State. They should be remembered as much as Leopold.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in
Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998.