A Remixed Book Review: Lessons learnt from: Hochschild A., King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), pp. 376

In mid January, on the 52nd anniversary of Lumumba’s assassination,  I was inspired  to learn more about one of the greatest African heroes- Patrice Lumumba hence my interest to learn more about DRC was rejuvenated.  I knew that to grasp the urgency of shortening Lumumba’s life and to understand the current situation in DRC, I had to go back to history. My mind then recalled a book that I had read more than 5 years ago while doing my MA studies- King Leopold’s Ghost. I decided to re-read the book again. I have finished it. Here is my remixed review (I call this a remixed because I have not done it in a conventional book review format).

Hoschschild presents a thoroughly researched book. Going through the pages of the historical facts in the book, I couldn’t stop thinking how much archival work Hochschild must have done.  Although he laments his frustration on the fact that his book lacks Africans’ (i.e. Congolese who were the victim in the entire story) voices, he tried as much as possible to incorporate testimonies given by Africans.  His book is full of evidence from different sources ranging from accounts of missionaries to Leopold’s own commission that tried to cover up the whole demonic experience he put the Congolese through.

To try and explain the content of the book in this brief blog post is to do injustice to this marvelous work. However, we can draw a number of lessons from the book in relations to the contemporary world. I will speak of two lessons:

The first lesson: international relations perpetuates itself. There is a famous saying that ‘history repeats itself’. From the book, it is evident that the practice of international relations also keeps repeating itself.  The politics and rhetoric of King Leopold in the 19th and early 20th Century are very similar to politics and rhetoric of some great powers in  contemporary international affairs .  When Leopold was acquiring Congo as his colony, his rhetoric was that he wants to save the humanity, to civilize the Congolese, blah blah. In the contemporary international relations, we have heard and see acts by great powers with rhetorical justifications of wanting or even the need to ‘bring democracy’, ‘to protect human rights’, ‘to ensure rule of law’ and other blah blah to countries… only a few (either naïve or the system’s loyalists) would agree that is the genuine motive behind some of the brutal wars we have seen in the 21st Century.  Just like we see how great powers support each other, it was the same during Leopold’s time. The USA and Britain recognized Leopold’s acquisition of Congo. Of course they would do so because they also had interests (especially trade) and were practicing similar policies of colonialism. They were all in the same business. The 1884/85 Berlin Conference, for example, brought all of them together.

Hochschild gives a thorough account of people and missionaries who lobbied their heart out against Leopold’s inhumane activities in Congo. These people, such as E.D. Morel, Sir. Casement, and Mr. & Mrs. Harris, were from the Western world, which had recognized Leopold as a legitimate master of Congo. This shows that not all citizens support their States’ actions. In fact, one of the lobbyists, Sir Casement who did a turning-point investigation, was a British diplomat.  Because countries of the Western world always want to be seen as messiahs to ‘civilize’ others, they finally ‘listened’ to them and start acting against King Leopold. However, we can see this support was superficial. These countries did not stop practicing colonialism themselves. In fact they were also using forced labour and harsh punishments in their own colonies to ensure productivity and maximum profits.  We see the same today. A significant number of Western citizens do not support their States’ policies. There are known critics such as Noam Chomsky who are critically opposing and writing against their governments’ policies.  In reaction to this, their governments either use spin to cover up their real motives or apportion the blame to others. The USA, for example, blames China of human rights abuses but the USA itself does the same things China does only that they do it under a blanket of spreading democracy or fostering the rule of law.

The support that the Congo lobbyists received from the USA and Britain was based on calculated interests that the powerful thought they may protect. Consider this statement from a British parliamentary committee in the 1830s, “better treatment of colonial subjects would promote the civil and commercial interests of Great Britain…savages are dangerous neighbours and unprofitable customers, and if they remain as degraded denizens of our colonies, they become a burden upon the State” (p. 212)…haven’t we heard similar sentences considering the so called ‘fragile states’?  Similar rhetoric are common in the statement of Western leaders when they are trying to justify ‘giving aid’ and/or ‘fighting terrorism’. Even in recent Mali intervention, we have had similar rhetoric in the UK parliament. On 14 January 2013, the UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said the following in the Parliamentary Statement concerning Mali ‘The House will no doubt be concerned about the humanitarian situation in the region and what the UK is doing to alleviate that situation…The threat posed by the instability in Mali is of grave concern to the UK. We must not allow northern Mali to become a springboard for extremism and create instability in the wider West African region. The ferocity and fanaticism of the extremists in northern Mali must be not be allowed to sweep unchecked into the country’s capital. France, which has an historic relationship with Mali, is quite rightly in the lead. In the coming days we will be focused on the regional and international diplomacy we must achieve to check this emerging threat.’ (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130114/debtext/130114-0002.htm#1301142000002).  Similar rhetoric can be extracted from Tony Blair’s statements prior to the infamous 2003 Iraq War. Recent statements by David Cameron  on Mali and Algeria are not different.

 I am not commending terrorist actions. In fact, my stand is that terrorists must be fought and be eliminated.  However, I am always skeptical of the rhetoric based on the ‘war on terror’,  ‘spreading democracy’, ‘foreign investments’ or ‘humanitarian purposes’ while the real motive is national interests. National interests under the blanket of ‘democracy’ or ‘humanitarian’ values often motivate foreign interventions in Africa.  This is what I often call ‘double standards’ in IR. If the Western powers are so pro humanitarian and democracy, why is Syria still in chaos? We have many such examples…Was Mali really more urgent than Syria?

Second lessons: In connection to the above, we, Africans, must learn and get real with our dignity and ourselves. The reasons Hochschild called his book ‘ Leopold’s Ghost’ is partly because he thinks Leopold’s ghost still haunts Congo. This is true. Leaders of Congo, in particular Joseph Mobutu, embraced the ghost and continued to carry out inhumane activities and pursue unfair policies to people. Because he promoted the policies of the great powers who had enjoyed Congo’s resources for centuries he was celebrated as an ‘ideal leader’ who is anti communism. Patrice Lumumba, who cared about Congolese and dignity had to be stopped. The cost of his courage was his life. The ghost couldn’t stand his ideals. Unfortunately the ghost is still alive. The ghost is now tormenting the whole continent. Some leaders and African children are embracing the ghost for personal gain at the cost of so many lives and African dignity.

Thus, we, Africans cannot only blame the ghost but we must also blame those Africans who embrace and sustain the works of the ghost in Africa. The ghost represents all unfair policies, deals, and investments towards Africa. The ghost is there to plunder for the interests of the great powers and a few individual Africans.  We need to rewrite our own history and tell our children about the ghost and its hosts. Our children must know the truth. This way we will save Africa.

Hochschild rightly showed how the history of Congo is one-sided. He gave examples of the biased exhibitions and museums in Europe that do not portray a true picture of what happened. This reminds me of a quote by Alexandre Dumas ‘True, I have raped history, but it has produced some beautiful offspring’. This continues to be the case. Patrice Lumumba lamented the same more than half a century ago and insisted that Africans will write the history of Africa. If we will not get serious and write this history, the ghost will keep tormenting us surviving under the name of aid, humanitarian, war on terror, education, and civilizations… our raped history will produce beautiful offspring for the ghost.

Thanks to Hochschild for writing such a mind-provoking book.  I am now motivated to work upon the dignity of Africa and expose the ghost hidden not only in foreign interventions but also in unfair resource contracts, puppet leaders, and….FINISH THE LIST! THEN JOIN ME!

47 thoughts on “A Remixed Book Review: Lessons learnt from: Hochschild A., King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (New York: Mariner Books, 1999), pp. 376

  1. Alilya Emmanuelle

    Thank you for this entry, the whole point is even ourselves need to be loyal to each other, with dignity and value of who we are regardless the circumstances. With my evaluation of personalities, this ghost is a certain personality which manifests in so many ways, but its main work is dividing, rule and impose fear. With regard of the article, we should critically evaluate what our values are? are they ethical? are they humanly? do I do the same to others, as I would have loved to be done to me?. Does our policies get reviewed? and so many other questions needed to be reviewed. The personality of continent, the relationships with each country, the culture and the image of the continent. Are you thankful? and knowing you were born in this continent for a reason? are you working to fulfill it and do you take accountability of your purpose driven community?.

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