Monday, January 4, 2010

King Leopold's Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild is an enthralling history of the colonization of the Congo Basin and the international outcry that exposed the atrocious slave system imposed by King Leopold II of Belgium. What makes this story so fascinating are the characters who prove the old adage that truth is better than fiction, none of whom are more fascinating than the sadistic King of Belgium. King Leopold II made it his life's work to own a colony and spent half his life hunting the globe for a piece of land on which to plant his flag. Unfortunately for the tribesmen of the Congo basin, their "undiscovered" home was the last piece of land not grabbed by more powerful nations such as Great Britain, France and Germany.

Under the rule of Leopold II, the tribes of the Congo were enslaved by colonial armed forces and forced to collect wild rubber or face death. Often, wives and children were held hostage and murdered at the slightest shortfall in the rubber quota. Thousands died building the railway line that hauled the plundered wealth of the Congo to the industrialized nations of the world. It was wild Congo rubber that supplied the huge demand for pneumatic tires for bicycles and cars before farmed rubber trees yielded their first crop.

Hochschild's book, like those who exposed the abuses of the regime, details the brutal economic system that allowed Leopold's men to extract Congo's resources. What it reveals about the results is staggering. Without census records it is difficult to be precise, but most experts, including sources from the time, estimate that the Congo's population was cut in half from 1880 - 1920 directly or indirectly from murder, starvation, disease and exposure. This was not a case of genocide; the bodies broken in the Congo were broken on the cogs of an economic wheel that ground on regardless of the cost in human life.

This episode, nearly untold, reminded me of another little known economic holocaust that occurred in Central Asia. During the first of Stalin's 5 year plans, the nomadic peoples of Central Asia suffered disproportionately compared to the populations of agrarian societies as Soviet Russian colonizers enforced collective farming.

During this period it is estimated that between 1.3 and 1.8 million Kazakhs died as a result of forced collectivization. As with rubber quotas, agricultural quotas were to be filled on pain of death and in Kazakhstan, like the Congo, the result was the near complete eradication of traditional culture and death on a massive scale. In Kazakhstan, nearly a quarter of the 6 million strong population perished in the course of a few short years of forced collectivization.

For the survivors, it was a horrific experience. Although the official record of the famine has been suppressed, memories haunt the survivors. "People told [my uncle] the roads were lined with corpses and that wild animals, particularly wolves, were eating the corpses," Tokmurzin said. "The people said these animals might attack my uncle. More shocking were the tales of gangs of cannibals roaming the countryside." Oral histories such as Tokmurzin's are invaluable sources in illiterate cultures, where like the Congo, little attempt has been made to collect an official history. With few written sources, most of these voices are lost to the past.


Robert Service. A History of Twentieth Century Russia, Harvard University Press, 1997.

Adam Hochschild. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, HM, 1998.

Kazakhstan: The Forgotten Famine.d

1 comment:

Jerroleen said...

I thought that The Road was totally unreal, but maybe he wasn't so far off base after all. Kazakhstan and the Ukraine were some of the worst sufferers under the Stalinist regime, but even Russians themselves suffered terribly under the first few years of agricultural collectivisation. They took so much of the peasants' production for the cities and to sell for foreign currency that they had very little to eat. Some people estimate around 7 million died in the consequent famines.