Reading Adam Hochschild’s ‘ King Leopold’s Ghost’

Our fathers were living comfortably….They had cattle and crops; they had salt marshes and banana trees

Suddenly they saw a big boat rising out of the great ocean

This boat had wings all of white, sparkling like knives

White men came out of the water and spoke words which no one understood

Our ancestors took fright; they said these were vumbi, spirits returned from the dead

They pushed them back into the ocean with volleys of arrows

But the vumbi spat fire with a noise of thunder

Many men were killed. Our ancestors fled

The chiefs and wise men said that these vumbi were former possesors of the land….

From that time to our days now the whites have brought us nothing but war and miseries

 Excerpt from King Leopold’s Ghost

I have just finished reading ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, and I am filled with SORROW! How come I have never been taught about this massive brutalization of Africans in all my many years in the education system!?? I was never been taught about this, but I was taught about the likes of Henry Morton Stanley, Ludwig Krapf and Livingstone! What injustice! I first learnt about this book and the injustices in the Congo via Facebook. I have learnt more about Africa from what people share on FB than from the school system. I WANT my MONEY back!!! Aki.

Our system of education needs a complete overhaul!

Another point: I hear our lousy uncle Tom/homeguard politicians saying subjects like history and anthropology are not important. This is a historical/anthropological text. These kinds of subjects are more critical than anything – especially for those that Fanon referred to as “The Wretched of the Earth”.



King Leopold’s Ghost  is a deeply moving book. It  is a historical account of the colonial enterprise in the Congo; very good entry point into understanding why Congo continues to unravel today. The book is about unparalleled greed personified in the figure of King Leopold of Belgium. It is about underbelly of white supremacy, resistance to injustice, and about the triumph of the human spirit.

About Henry Morton Stanley

As I have said above, I remember being taught about this “explorer” somewhere in the pipeline of the still very colonial school system. We were told that Stanley was great. No mention was made of his reign of terror in the Congo. It was Henry Morton Stanley (HMS) who helped King Leopold lay the foundation for conquest in the Congo. HMS was an absolute tyrant. He was a murderer, a slave driver, deeply racist, a maniac, a person who was running away from his own demons. He saw this life of exploration as the avenue through which to build his severely damaged self esteem. Africa is where you go to feel good about yourself/to discover yourself. It still happens today – rife in the Lords of Poverty Industries – Conservation and the Humanitarianism.  The books he published following his exploration(s) include: ‘Through the dark continent’, ‘In darkest Africa’,  and my ‘ Dark companions.’  A keen reader will not fail to see which word he thought was the best descriptor of African peoples. When I posted about HMS on FB my fellow African said “But surely, he must have done something good.” You can always count on Africans to make great concessions to their tormentors. It is tied to education systems and Christianity. We are supposed to forgive all and turn the other cheek! What did the people of the Congo then think about HMS?

His name produces a shudder among this simple folk when mentioned; they remember his broken promises, his copious profanity, his hot temper, his heavy blows, his severe and rigorous measures, by which they were mulcted of their hands.

Russell E. Train Africana Collection, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
Henry Morton Stanley. Source: The Wilson Quarterly 

The above was reported by George Washington Williams, an African-American, who bothered to ask Africans what they thought of Stanley.  Other writers and Europeans who went to the region did not think that Africans had any thoughts about anything.  After all, the Europeans belief about Africa at the time was that it was a:

dreamscape, a site for fantasies of the fearsome and the supernatural. Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk who mapped the world about 1350, claimed that Africa contained one-eyed people who used their feet to cover their heads. A geographer in the next century announced that the continent held people with one leg, three faces, and heads of lions. In 1459, an Italian monk, Fra Mauro declared Africa the home of the roc, a bird so large that it could carry an elephant  through the air.


Top: George Washington Williams 

An African person was thought to be the product of a mindless state, full of coarse feelings, with rough passions, brutish instincts, proud and vain. Further:

The black man’s principal occupation, and that to which he dedicates the greatest part of his existence, consist of stretching out on a mat in the warm rays of the sun, like a crocodile in the sand…..the black man has no idea of time, and, questioned on that subject by a European, he generally responds with something stupid.

These images of Africa and African people have continued to haunt the continent and its peoples today. But the most painful thing is that Africans themselves have absorbed and legitimized this kind of deficit theorizing.  People who were running very complex societies, trading, cultivating crops, herding livestock, fishing, who had absolute authority over their lives were just lying under a mat without a plan?  If you want to conquer a people, you do not tell them how great they are. You tell them that they are a useless and hopeless lot.


Lazy Africans carrying their very hardworking colonial master? Source: Sphere Influence 

Tendrils of Resistance

It must be pointed out that Africans did not acquiesce to their fate. When the slave and colonial marauders entered their land, there was resistance from the very beginning. Sample this:

Yet sometimes, event through those records, we can glimpse the determination of those who resisted the King [Leopold]. In Katanga in the far south, warriors from the Sanga people were led by a chief named Mulume Niama. Though the state troops were armed with artillery, his forces pit up a stiff fight, killing one officer and wounding three soldiers. They then took refuge in a large chalk cave called Tshamakele. The Force Publique [the King’s army] commander ordered his men to light fires at the three entrances to the cave to smoke the rebels out, and after a week he sent an emissary to negotiate Mulume Niama’s surrender. The chief and his men refused. Soldiers lit the fires again and blocked the cave for three month. When the troops finally entered it, they found 178 bodies. Fearful of leaving any signs of a matyr’s grave, the Force Publique soldiers triggered landslides to obliterate all traces of the existence of the Tshamakele cave and of the bodies of Mulume Niama and his men.

Yes, the lazy people who were just lying under the mat and answering questions in a stupid manner had the stamina to launch resistance, and even opt for death as an alternative to living under this vile regime.

Leopold and handless victims
King Leopold and his victims. Source: African Exponent. 

The Apparatus of exploitation

The Congo, like other parts of Africa was conquered through the morally bankrupt notion of terra nullius/vacant land, and questionable treaties with real chiefs or manufactured chiefs. Once this was done, a reign of terror and horror was instituted. What is a better way to consolidate your presence in the colony than constructing a railway line through a slavery regime?

A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads., and the clink kept time with their footsteps….I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope, each had an iron collar on his neck and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking. These were the laborers starting work on Leopold’s Railway.

Railway construction
Construction of King Leopold’s railway 

It is also important to note that when it became untenable for whites in America’s South to hold slaves, the Congo was thought of a suitable place to relocate the African-Americans. They did not want people of African descent in the South. Of what use were they if they were not slaves? How was this scheme to be instituted? Through Christianity.  The Presbyterian church in particular voted to begin sending African-American missionaries to Congo so that they could evangelize in the land of their ancestors. Wherever there is injustice, Christianity is always there – either to sanitize, or to entrench, or both!

King Leopold’s slavery regime in the Congo. Source: KJ Vids 

The rubber regime

In addition to ivory, one of the most sought after products was rubber. Wild rubber. The machinery of extraction was instituted through extreme violence. When I read these sections, I was engulfed in sadness, and could not continue reading the book for days. Listen to this:

No payments of trinkets or brass wire were enough to make people stay in the flooded forest for days a time and to do work that was so arduous –and physically painful. A gatherer had to dry the syrup-like rubber so that it would coagulate, and often the only way to do so was to spread the substance on his arms, thighs, and chest. The first few times it is not without pain that the man pulls off the hairy parts of his body. ….the Native doesn’t like making rubber. He must be compelled to do it.

How was he to be compelled?

 An example of what is done was to….the office was to arrive at a village…, the inhabitants invariably bolted on arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chickens, grains, etc  out of the houses; after this they attacked the natives until able to seize their women. The women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the District brought in the required number of kilograms of rubber. The rubber having been bought, the women were sold to their owners for a couple of goats a piece and so continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected.

In addition:

If a village refused to submit to the rubber regime, a state or company troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone on sight, so that nearby villages would get the message. But on such occasions some European demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, not “wasted” in hunting or worse yet, saved for possible use in a mutiny. The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. “Sometimes, said one officer to a missionary, soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man.” In some military units there was even a keeper of the hands.


The hand was not the only sought after body part. Heads were too. Some of the European officers used the severed hands of Africans as decorations in their gardens. This mirrors the current tussle between Africans like Herero people with museums in Germans over the skulls of their ancestors, which are stored there. And Germany is refusing to hand over these body parts because they are being used for “science” for the benefit of the world. Macabre! Just macabre! Stories about the  cruelty in the Congo are preserved in legend, stories and encoded in their language(s).

05.29 cong_hands_1904
A Congolese worker called Nsala with the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali. Source: 
Source: KJ Vids 

I weep for Patrice Lumumba

At independence in 1960 Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister stood on the podium and told the Belgians and the world that  we are no longer your monkeys.  Lumumba’s premiership did not last for long. How could it? Like all other sensible African leaders, he was killed by empire/white supremacists. CIA chief Allen Dulles referred to him as a “Mad dog”. Mobutu Sese Seko killed him with the support of the  full support of the USA. Following Lumumba’s death, empire installed their stooge Mobutu and the plunder of the Congo continued unhindered.


Lumumba potrait
Source: Aprecon


Mobutu Sese seko
Left: Mobutu Sese Seko. Source: BBC

Lumumba is immortalized in our hearts, especially those of us who care about the total liberation of African peoples.

Lumumba [is] the greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent. He didn’t fear anybody. He had those people so scared they had to kill him. They couldn’t buy him, they couldn’t frighten him, they couldn’t reach him. Why, he told the king of Belgium, ‘Man, you may have let us free, you may have given us our independence, but we can never forget these scars.’ The greatest speech — you should take that speech and tack it up over your door. This is what Lumumba said: ‘You aren’t giving us anything. Why, can you take back these scars that you put on our bodies? Can you give us back the limbs that you cut off while you were here?

– Malcolm X at a rally in the Audubon Ballroom June 28, 1964


Mobutu Sese Seko and the farce of flag independence

Mobutu was a darling of AmeriKKKa. Ronald Reagan received him at the white house several times praising him as a voice of good sense and good will. George Bush thought of him as one of AmeriKKKa’s most valued friends.  This is how Africa is plundered:

Early on, the western powers had spotted Mobutu as someone who could look out for their interests. He had received cash payments from the local CIA man and western military attaches while Lumumba’s murder was being planned. Wearing dark glasses and his general uniform with gold braid and a sword, he later met President Kennnedy in the White House in 1963. Kennedy gave him an airplane for personal use and a US Air force crew to fly it for him……USA supported him with over a billion dollars in aid and thwarted attempts to overthrow him.

Mobutu lived a lavish life at the expense of the Congolese people and open up the country to empire. He, like other African uncle Toms/ betrayers of the people, believed he was white. His life and lifestyle mirrored that of Leopold. Massive wealth obtained through plunder, predisposition to extreme violence, narcissism,  and a deep disdain for Africans. Indeed, Mobutu’s villa in the French Riviera – mirrored those of Leopold.

Mobutu with Richard Nixon in Washington D.C.  Source: Wikipedia 

Turning yourself into the victim

One of the things I found most bizzare is the capacity and capability of some of the white people who worked in the Congo, was their propensity to turn themselves into the victim. Here is a perfect example of this:

I had two sentries drag him to the front of the store, where his wrists were tied together. Then standing him up against a post with his arms raised high above his head, they tied him securely to a crossbeam.I now has them raise him by tightening the rope until his toes touched the floor…so I left the poor wretch. All night long he hung there, sometimes begging for mercy, sometimes in a kind of swoon. …At last when the morning came and my men cut him down, he dropped unconscious in a heap on the ground. Take him away, I ordered. Whether he lived or not, I do not know. Now sometimes in my sleep I think I am the poor devil and half a hundred black fiends are dancing…about me. I wake up with a great start and I find myself covered with a cold sweat. Sometimes I think it is I who has suffered most in the years that have passed since that night.

The nerve!! This completely twists everything around to make us start having empathy for the oppressor and not for man who was left hanging on a post overnight. It reminds of something I read in a book called ‘Slaveship’ by Marcus Rediker about the slave trader John Newton. He wrote the famous song ‘Amazing Grace’. Netwton  continued engaging in the slave trade even after his conversion to Christianity. He was in the slave ships. He saw all manner of brutality meted out to slaves and he participated in some of it himself. Then, he turns around and writes a song Amazing grace….how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…I was blind, now I see.  He makes it all about himself and not the real wretched of the earth who were writhing with pain and sorrow in the ships. Newton creates his own narratives an centres himself as the victim. It is just fascinating – in a very twisted kind of way.

Ivory trading in colonial Congo. 

Joseph Conrad

Conrad is referenced heavily in this book. I have not read his book ‘Heart of Darkness’, but I have read a variety of opinions regarding his work on documenting brutalities in the Congo. The most prominent of his critics is Chinua Achebe, who claims that Conrad represents Africans as people without heads. While this book uses a lot of Conrad’s narrative to weave the story together, it also provides a balanced perspective on who he was or what he stood for. Conrad felt that “liberty …can only be found under the English flag all over the world”. And at the very time he was denouncing the European lust for African riches in his novel, he was an investor in a gold mine in Johannesburg. Hochschild argues that Conrad was afflicted by the “white man’s notion that he is less savage than other savages.” Alas!



When Leopold succumbed to pressure and handed his solo colony to Belgium, he burnt most of the records, which would be incriminating. Anything that pointed to a whiff of violence, plundering of resources, greatly profiting from the wealth and sweat of Congolese people was burnt. This reminds of the burning of documents by the British when they were departing from Kenya colony in order to conceal abuse meted out to the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau). Belgium was no much better a colonial power than Leopold.  Ofcourse, both Leopold and Belgium have gotten away with the massive human right abuses they committed in the Congo.  The only justice of sorts was to be found via the universe.

Leopolds mistress gave birth to a child with a deformed hand. A cartoon in Punch showed Leopold holding the new born child, surrounded by Congolese corpses with their hands cut off. The caption read: vengeance from the most high


Handless victim

The heartbreaking story of Ota Benga

EuroAmerican Exhibitions of human beings are a well  documented in history. The story of Ota Benga, from the Congo is the definition of sorrow.  He was put on display in the Monkey house of New York’s Bronx Zoo in September 1906.  Sharing his space was an Orangutan.

Visitors ogled his teeth- filed, newspaper articles hinted, for devouring human flesh. To further this impression, zookeepers left a few bones scattered on the floor around him. A poem published in the New York Times declared that Ota Benga had been brought:

From his native land of darkness

To the country of the free

In the Interest of science

And of broad humanity

The promoter who staged this exhibit was former Presbyterian missionary who abandoned his preaching for several business ventures. A delegation of black ministers finally rescued Ota Benga from the Zoo. He remained in the United States and committed Suicide ten years later.

Benga 8
Source: Readex

Europe’s Tower of Opulence

Ultimately, when you read this book, the words of Franz Fanon are put into sharp focus.

Europe today raises up her tower of opulence , there has flowed  out of centuries towards the same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally a creation of the Third World. The wealth that smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool specialized in the Negro slave trade, and owe their renown to millions of  deported slaves. So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor underdeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude.


Confronting this world, the European nations sprawl, ostentatiously opulent. This European opulence is literally scandalous, for it has been founded on slavery, it has been nourished with the blood of slaves, and it comes directly from the soil and the subsoil of that underdeveloped world. The well-being and the progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians, and the yellow races.

Here is a compilation of images from colonial Congo. Heart-wrenching stuff.

We still live in colonial and slave-like conditions in most parts of the world. The overarching question is this: What will it take to make decency prevail in this world?








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