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King Leopold's Ghost

A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

By Adam Hochschild
21-minute read
Audio available
King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild

King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) is the devastating story of how one man – Leopold, King of the Belgians – developed a territory comprising one-thirteenth of the African continent into his personal fiefdom. While publicizing his supposedly benevolent intentions, Leopold enslaved vast numbers of people, forcing them to harvest ivory and rubber in appalling conditions. In all, an estimated ten million Africans died while he was the King-Sovereign of the Congo. 

  • Anyone too horrified by colonialism to look away
  • Those interested in little-known histories
  • Scholars of African history

Adam Hochschild is an American writer and journalist whose work is focused mainly on issues of social justice and civil rights. He has won a number of awards for his numerous books, and King Leopold’s Ghost was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

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King Leopold's Ghost

A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

By Adam Hochschild
  • Read in 21 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 13 key ideas
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King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Synopsis

King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) is the devastating story of how one man – Leopold, King of the Belgians – developed a territory comprising one-thirteenth of the African continent into his personal fiefdom. While publicizing his supposedly benevolent intentions, Leopold enslaved vast numbers of people, forcing them to harvest ivory and rubber in appalling conditions. In all, an estimated ten million Africans died while he was the King-Sovereign of the Congo. 

Key idea 1 of 13

From first contact, Europeans valued central Africa mainly for its profit-making potential. 

In 1482, Portuguese naval captain Diogo Cão was watching the North Star disappear over the horizon. His ship was passing the equator, and was much farther south than any European had ever been before. 

Suddenly, he saw the ocean had turned brownish-yellow. It was freshwater. Cão had stumbled upon the mouth of a massive, silty river, larger than anything he’d ever seen. He went ashore and erected a limestone pillar and cross, marking it as discovered for Portugal. 

But Cão hadn’t ventured on this dangerous journey just for the sake of discovery. He was in search of treasure. 

The key message here is: From first contact, Europeans valued central Africa mainly for its profit-making potential. 

The great river, later known as the Congo, lay at the northern end of a wealthy African kingdom, a federation of two to three million people spread over three hundred square miles. 

Nine years later, Portuguese monks located its capital and set up an embassy. It was the first interaction between Europeans and a black African nation. The ManiKongo, or king, was enthusiastic about the Portuguese’s fire-spouting weapons – guns, as we'd call them – and the effect they might have on a potential provincial rebellion. 

For their part, the Portuguese were largely dismissive of Kongo culture – and they were scandalized by the nudity they saw. They admitted, though, that the kingdom was sophisticated, the most advanced on the west coast of central Africa. Arts and agriculture flourished, and there was an intricate political system that also involved enslavement. This was crucial: the preexistence of a form of slavery there meant that when Europeans showed up and offered to buy human beings, the kingdom’s chiefs were open to selling. 

European development of the Americas had created a nearly insatiable market for African slave labor. Slaving fever gripped the Portuguese in the Congo, who generated vast profits by shuffling convoys of chained Africans onto ships. Enslaved peoples were marched to the coast, deprived of sufficient food and clean water on their miserable journey. The trails linking the ocean to the interior were soon littered with bleaching bones. 

Europeans were also seized by the urge to explore. But the treacherous terrain meant that several centuries’ worth of visitors never made it up the great Congo River. Many expeditions set out and never returned. 

The source of the river remained a mystery. The only thing that Europeans could be sure of was that Africa supplied valuable raw materials: elephant tusks and human bodies.

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