African Reading Challenge Review 2: King Leopold’s Ghost A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa | Project Diaspora

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African Reading Challenge Review 2: King Leopold’s Ghost A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa

If you want to learn more about the reading challenge visit Dave… and he will tell you all about it!

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
So far this reading challenge is turning into a crash course in African history. I must space these books out more carefully. Going from one book of death and disaster to another is playing hell on my mood, leaving me both cranky and sad (or maybe that is the flu!) At any rate, going from War torn Nigeria/Biafra to Colonial Africa was not the smartest thing I ever did. It is not that I was unaware of the horrors of colonialism. I come from the original Banana Republic after all, but I don’t think I had ever confronted them quite so baldly as I did reading this book.

I am a big fan of this kind of Historical writing, it is a fast read, you get a good sense of the personalities not just the events and the dates. I was as engrossed in this book as I was with Devil in the White City and The Professor and the Madman. I think these books share a similar esthetic in terms of the writing. They build a narrative for us, do a little foreshadowing and build suspense as best they can given that all of the events are a forgone conclusion. Since I am mostly a reader of fiction, I appreciate this style and makes me feel more comfortable with the language and structure of the book. However, for a history Mr. Hochschild was extremely prone to editorializing and opining. He pointed out flaws in all the characters as a good historian should but then was quick to excuse them if they were on the right side of the battle against Leopold. I think the evidences he gave us were strong enough to allow us to draw our own conclusions. I am not sure I needed to know his opinions on the relative weight of their flaws versus those of another. I did find his portrait of Stanley the most human. We saw all sides of his character, and in this instance Hochschild does let us draw our own conclusions.

The history itself covers alot of territory. He starts far enough back to really give a sense of the scope and sheer tenacity of Loepold’s will for dominion over his own personal colony. No matter where really. No one place was better than another as long as it gave him power and wealth. It is interesting that in giving us a picture of Leopold’s family life growing up and again as an adult, how little connection with actual real human affection he ever had. While Hochschild again gives us his opinion on what shaped Leopold, I think there is alot more to be inferred that was not stated. It is also another glaring how boring evil really can be. There is always this idea that evil is a rush of energy and almost sexual excitement, crazed lustful violence with all the florid language that goes with that. But the truth is here like in Nazi Germany it was a machine, a bureaucracy driven by paperwork, forms, quotas, weights, measures and money. It is methodical and the people who performed the atrocities just sort of got used to it. Which is infinitely more scary than all the florid phrases in the world.

In the end history teaches us, (and this book) that it is not hate that brings us down. It is indifference.

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  • bonnie says:

    i thought it was dreadfully boring

  • Otim Michael says:

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    Edmund Burke

  • dave says:

    Thanks so much for writing this up. I found this book (in audiobook form) absolutely fascinating, and I think your final conclusion, that indifference is the most dire enemy, is spot on. Appreciate your thoughts.

    I recently tried to read another nonfiction book about European atrocities in Africa: Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning, about the British torturing, imprisoning, and murdering millions (not exaggerating) of Kikuyus in the 1950s. But while the book is completely eye-opening, it’s dry and much narrower than Hoschschild. Still, I read the first quarter and it was well worth it.

  • tumwijuke says:

    Interesting observations. I didn’t like this book at all when I read it about six years ago. Perhaps I should give it a second look.

    Congratulations on progressing so fast with the challenge.