Written for a college class, winter 2006.
In the very first pages of Adam Hochschild’s novel, “King Leopold’s Ghost” we meet the hero. E.D. Morel steps off a cross-channel steamer with such visionary prose that I felt as though I were standing on the deck of that ship, just a step or two behind him. In the very same paragraph that we learn of Morel’s background, we also meet the villain. King Leopold II of Belgium is perhaps the most brilliant aristocrat alive in the era. His brilliance doesn’t make itself evident on the surface. He portrays himself as a do-gooder, a humanitarian and a philanthropist, but in Leopold’s elegant and pristine private chambers the King dances to a different tune. His one goal is to make something of himself that is more than the mere figurehead that the Belgian government wishes him to be. He wants to become a real king, with true power. Since he has no real power, he cannot conquer a territory in the traditional sense, but he can buy one and in so doing, become its lord and master. This is the Leopold that history books don’t show us. This is the Leopold that scared me, and that I found myself admiring by the end of the novel. Adam Hochschild uses powerful prose to give us a portrayal of King Leopold II that reveals a man that was a political and financial genius who was ahead of his time.
Over the course of the novel, Leopold evolves from an old world aristocrat to a business savvy entrepreneur with a strong view of his future. As the story opens, we meet Leopold as an awkward young man who is being forced to marry a woman he doesn’t love. Arranged marriages were typical of the aristocracy prior to the twentieth century. Leopold accepted his fate and married his wife Marie-Henriette and suffered through it as though it were his duty. When writing to Prince Albert of England in regard to his wife’s pregnancy he almost coldly regards it by saying, “the wise and practical advice you gave me…has now borne fruit” (Hochschild 36). Even within the bonds of this loveless marriage, and while carrying out the duties that were expected of him as an aristocrat, Leopold had ideas about his future that differed greatly from the ideas that were being designed for him by his parents. These ideas were sparked at an early age, “[h]e tried to buy lakes in the Nile delta so that he could drain them and claim the land as a colony” (Hochschild 36). Leopold’s hunger for a colony led him to the idea that if he couldn’t conquer one, he could buy one. He traveled the world over and eventually reasoned that “[o]ne could purchase a small kingdom in Abyssinia for 30,000 francs” (Hochschild 36). With this idea in mind, Leopold began to search for his small kingdom. This idea is one that was foreign to the world at the time. Colonies were often formed by foreign governments exploring the land and claiming it as their own, or at the end of bloody conflicts. Leopold did not have the authority to acquire a colony through war, so he looked to exploration as a possible venue for purchasing some land. This evolution of his character, from king to man of the new century was critical in the deals and political machinations that were to come. Writer Neal Ascherson noted this as well when he said “[Leopold] concluded that the modern monarch must also be the greatest capitalist in the land, possessing a huge personal fortune immune to state control and steering economic development through his own participation in all major corporations and trusts” (Ascherson). This concept of a modern monarch provided a vital lens for Leopold to look through that showed him the way to the heart of Africa. That path was through none other than the famous British explorer, H.M. Stanley.
Through his writing, Hochschild shows the reader how Leopold manipulated Stanley to achieve his vision of having his own personal colony in central Africa. This was one of Leopold’s more brilliant maneuvers. The king “eagerly scanned the Times of London daily for news of [Stanley’s] fate”. (Hochschild 57). This sentence allows the reader to easily see what is coming next, and is a great preface for what Hochschild writes later, when Stanley is finally persuaded. Hochschild says “he made sure that Stanley heard a few hints about him possibly making a deal with another explorer instead. Leopold knew his man. Five months after returning to Europe, Stanley accepted an invitation to visit Belgium” (Hochschild 60). This manipulation is crucial to Leopold’s ability to succeed in obtaining a colony in central Africa. Without the famous explorer in his pocket, Leopold would have had no hope of achieving his dream, but with Stanley he could “give [him] some job of exploration which would offend no one, and will give us the bases and headquarters which we can take over later on” (Hochschild 58). This was only the first step down the path toward Leopold’s goal of obtaining a colony in the Congo. Hochschild goes on for several chapters about how painstaking Leopold’s attention to detail was, but there were many more things he had to accomplish, and he would walk down this path of terror right under the noses of the other European governments with their blessings.
Leopold used a tactic that we now call “public relations” to make himself look good and to put the governments of Europe at ease with his activities in the Congo. Under the guise of a humanitarian operation to bring about an end to the Arab slave trade, Leopold began to establish his strangle hold on the Congo. Hochschild shows the reader the beauty of Leopold’s plan when he explains that “the reason that he was able to get his hands on so much is that other countries thought that they were giving their approval to a sort of international colony […] open to traders from all of Europe” (86). This idea quickly faded. Once Leopold had the approval he was looking for, he became King-Sovereign of his colony and let “[t]he pretense that there was a philanthropic ‘Association’ involved in the Congo […] evaporate” (Hochschild 87). It is here that Leopold began to rule the Congo and through his great trickery, he continued to feed the European public lies about his Congo until they all began to unravel thanks to the Congo Reform Movement. Ascherson also notes this theme in Hochschild’s writing, “[i]t was all lies. Leopold’s Congo, advertised in the United States as the seed of a future “confederation of free negro republics,” was in reality a tightly centralized colony designed to strip the territory of natural wealth” (Ascherson). And strip it did. Not only is it estimated that 10 million Africans lost their lives under Leopold’s rule in the Congo, at the time of his death, Hochschild tells the reader that Leopold had amassed sources of income that amounted up to “1.1 billion in today’s dollars” (Hochschild 277). That’s quite a chunk of change.
The most interesting thing about Leopold’s departure from this earth is how well he hid his money and investments from the Belgian government, which is a testament to his financial genius. His investments were so thoroughly entangled that “the Belgian government’s efforts to clear up the dead king’s financial morass dragged on for years” (Hochschild 276). He did indeed, become the greatest capitalist in all of Belgium. This fact didn’t last for Leopold though. Ascherson made mention of it when he said that “[t]his astonishing idea eventually came to nothing; the idea of “The King Inc.” as royal tycoon did not survive Leopold’s loss of the Congo” (Ascherson). Leopold’s loss of the Congo marked the end of his reign as King-Sovereign. It was the end of an era for Leopold and the birth of the 20th century.
Leopold was the model of a modern man in every sense that we deem ourselves to be modern. He used every method at his disposal to manipulate people to his whims. This is how corporations are run today, and is a good model for making money, but I’m not so sure that it’s actually a good model for doing business. The genius of Leopold’s methods had me admiring him by the end of the book, even while I was terrified at the level of cruelty that took place as a direct result of those methods. Leopold stood on the shoulders of millions to achieve his goals and history judges him most cruelly because of it. I believe that history judges him appropriately, but I do not think that it should ignore the genius that it took for Leopold to manipulate all of the right people to his whims, just as history tends to ignore Hitler’s ability to motivate people to his cause. These gifts and talents to motivate and manipulate large groups of people are definitely worthy of our note, because they are so powerful in their own ways that we can easily be taken in by them. I think this is the lesson that we can learn from Leopold’s Congo. As feeling, flawed human beings, we are easily taken in by those who would try to manipulate us.
Ascherson, Neal “Touch of Evil” The Los Angeles Times 10. Jan. 1999 Proquest < http://www.proquest.com>
Hochschild, Adam King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa New York, New York. Mariner Books 1999