King Leopold and “The Horrors of Belgium’s Congo.”


My affection for Belgium and the Belgians precludes overt flippancy, but it does not prevent an honest examination of King Leopold’s legacy.

It’s not a pretty sight, and it’s hard not to be scathing about it. It helps to know that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was derived from the Belgian colonial subjugation of the Congo.

European royalty boasts its fair share of rogues and scoundrels, but as a dismal human being, Leopold truthfully was in another league. His personal Congolese wealth-extraction mechanism cost the lives of 10 million persons, and in many respects the Congo hasn’t ever recovered from it.

Last week I watched a documentary, described here.

The Horrors of Belgium’s Congo, by Manohla Dargis (New York Times)

A latecomer to colonialism, King Leopold II of Belgium searched the world for a satellite to call his very own, finally finding his prey in the Congo region of Africa. Hiding his greed behind the twinned fictions of charity and philanthropy, the king entered the Congo with the help of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley and quickly strong-armed tribal chiefs into signing away their future. Soon after, representatives from Europe and the United States delivered the region — renamed the Congo Free State, later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo — into Leopold’s rapacious care.

The ghastly story of Leopold’s reign of terror in Africa during the late 19th- and early-20th centuries forms the subject of the documentary “Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death,” from the British filmmaker Peter Bate.

It’s not for the squeamish.

Many Americans first became aware of this through a book.

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998) is a best-selling popular history book by Adam Hochschild that explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908, as well as the atrocities that were committed during that period.[1] In doing so, the book aimed to increase public awareness of these Belgian colonial crimes,[citation needed] successfully as it turned out.

It was refused by nine of the 10 U.S. publishing houses to which an outline was submitted, but became an unexpected bestseller and won the prestigious Mark Lynton History Prize for literary style. It also won the 1999 Duff Cooper Prize. By 2013 more than 600,000 copies were in print in a dozen languages.

The book is the basis of a 2006 documentary film of the same name, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.

I may or may not watch this second documentary. To be sure, there are heroes in this story; primarily journalists and missionaries, who adopted the simple expedient of telling the truth.

History. It really does matter.