Saturday, 30 June 2012

Book review: King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild (1998)

Who said arts degrees are a waste of time? Ask anyone who has read this book. Adam Hochschild was born in 1942 and got his BA from Harvard in 1963 (the year after I was born) before going on to become active in the civil rights movement. He was a co-founder of Mother Jones. The book doesn't say when Hochschild began his research for this book, but it does say that the germ of the idea to write it was laid during a transcontinental flight in the US when he read a quotation by Mark Twain that mentioned the "worldwide movement against slave labour in the Congo, a practice that had taken eight to ten million lives". He was, he says in the introduction, "startled" by this snippet of text. But why should we care about an anti-slavery movement that took place during the first decade of last century? Hochschild says that it is because the ghost of the colonial tyrant - Leopold II of Belgium, who set off the European "scramble for Africa" in the late 19th Century, owned the Congo as a personal feif - still stalks the land.
"Those who are conquered," wrote the philosopher Ibn Khaldun in the fourteenth century, "always want to imitate the conqueror in his main characteristics - in his clothing, his crafts, and in all his distinctive traits and customs."
This is Hochschild toward the very end of this book, quoting from a source he had encountered during his research. The quote suggests that in order to understand the Congo today you must understand its colonial history. A fuller understanding of the evils that exist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today requires also knowing that US President Eisenhower ordered the assassination of the first elected Congolese prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961. The strongman who replaced Lumumba as leader of the DR Congo for the next 30 years, like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, had been a soldier, and Mobutu's reign was characterised by lavish spending, massive expropriation of sovereign wealth, and repressive rule. Leopold's ghost stalked the land then and today, of course, there is in the DR Congo a festering civil war involving a number of armed players, and many say that it is the mineral wealth of the country that encourages the fighting. The DR Congo is furthermore almost a no-go zone for journalists as a result of the continuing violence, and so we receive only sporadic notice of developments on the ground.

If that's not enough reason to read this book, you can remind yourself that Joseph Conrad, the Polish-English novelist who published Heart of Darkness in 1899, visited the Congo in 1890 and 1891. His book was, as is widely known, the wellspring out of the depths of which emerged Francis Ford Coppola's classic movie, Apocalypse Now (1979) about US involvement in Vietnam. For Sydneysiders of my generation this film stands as a cultural marker of great significance; how many of us during the 80s trekked up Glebe Point Road to the Valhalla Cinema to catch a screening on a Friday, or Saturday, or Wednesday night? Colonel Kurtz played by Marlon Brando is not the only point of fascination in the movie, but Hochschild can point you to a number of models for Kurtz in his book.

The final chapter of the book is called 'The Great Forgetting', and it recounts how Leopold, before handing over his colony to Belgium, in 1908 incinerated masses of documents pertaining to his foreign rule. But some documents remained. This chapter recounts the story of Jules Marchal, a retired diplomat, who, in 1975, sought access to records produced by Leopold's Commission of Enquiry, which had operated in 1904 and 1905, and which had been assembled in response to the orchestrated campaign against injustices in the Congo that was led by the Englishman E.D. Morel. He was refused. When he retired in 1989 he worked full-time assembling material on the colony, and his work on the colonial adminstration was finally published in 1996. That's really an awful quantity of forgetting, right there, and it's the reason why Hochschild's book is so important and valuable for readers today. On top of this the book is entirely accessible. Hochschild continues today to work as a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. And he continues to write books. His next project will be on the Spanish Civil War.

Also worth mentioning is that this edition is the book's second edition, published in 2006, and it contains an afterword by the author dated 2005 bringing readers up to date with developments.

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