Adam Hochschild (1998)

A searing indictment of colonialism and a history of a forgotten, murderous episode.

The Congo remains the only empire in history to have been created solely by the efforts of a single man, Leopold II, King of the Belgians — and not by Belgium itself. This book reveals just how nauseous the whole regime was, and covers the efforts that led to its being gradually (all too slowly) dismantled. Leopold himself takes centre stage, with his ally Henry Morton Stanley cutting a rather sorry figure. But it is E.D. Morel, responsible along with Roger Casement, Hezekiah Shanu, William Sheppard for the first explicit campaign for human rights in history, who appear as the heroes who cleverly played international opinion.

Hochschild is right to point out the shame that we have few first-hand records of truly African origin: even the campaigners often felt it unwise (or unnecessary) to record and transmit the voices of the victims in whose names they worked. And the campaign stayed within the bounds of the intellectual landscape of the time, with its core beliefs in the need to educate and civilise the “native” populations. Hochschild is also right, I suspect, to see strength and sense in this position, arguing that a more radical approach to the rights of Africans, even if believed, would had doomed the campaign to failure on the fringes. He also doesn’t make the mistake of blaming all of Africa’s current problems on the legacy of colonialism, accepting the complex additions and the troubling similarities between pre- and post-colonial rule.

Nonetheless, around ten million people died during Leopold’s tenure over the Congo, and this is something that deserves to be far better known.

5/5. Finished Saturday 8 November, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)