Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though now treated in most literary and academic circles as a parable applicable to any time and any place, was directly lifted from Conrad’s experiences going down the Congo River on a steamboat in the late 1800s. Then ruled by King Leopold of Belgium, the Congo was a lawless hell, where white Belgian officers had free reign to rape the people and the country with abandon, and that they did for years, while their monarch wrote his murderous greed off as a humanitarian effort.
Central character Kurtz—remembered best with Marlon Brando’s rendition in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—is a medley of a cross-section of savagely cruel Belgian officers. Kurtz appears to “go native”—however, as Adam Hochschild reveals in, King Leopold’s Ghost, the real-life officers the character is based upon were simply doing what colonial powers do in a land that’s portrayed as “empty.” Kurtz’s inspirations cut off hands and severed heads because they could—and because it was convenient to do so.
No, Heart of Darkness is not necessarily rooted in a vague idea of the evil of man; King Leopold’s Ghost makes it clear that greed, racism, violence, and a culture of silence is what landed Kurtz in his hut with severed heads—and what almost obliterated an entire nation.
Hochschild’s book, detailing the history of the colonization of the Congo (and its bloody-handed players) is remarkable in its unique comprehensiveness. As the author points out in the conclusion of the book, Belgian government was systematic in its destruction of evidence. The only trace of relation that remains in Brussels is the Royal Museum of Central Africa, trumpeting the successes of Leopold’s crusade against the “Arab slave trade.” Never mind that Leopold’s ruthless search for rubber and ivory effectively made slaves of millions of Congolese—the death toll approached the ten million mark.
It’s difficult to detail what should make you angriest. Is it the acts themselves? The heinous abuse, murder, slavery, rape, all committed against the Congolese, all by the Belgians, and all under the pretense of altruism? Or is it the fact that Belgium, and essentially the rest of the Western world, refuses even now to recognize its brutal erosion of an entire population, so deeply rooted in its devastation that even now the country is still reeling? (But then, why would we, considering the continuing Western economic interest in the Congo’s resources that has prompted the U.S. and Europe to meddle in the nation’s political affairs in order to ensure a hand in the honey pot). The injustices are long and they thrum methodically throughout the piece, filling you with a fury that incredibly has no real target.
The title is apt; the ghost of Leopold and his contemporaries shroud the regions they stole from, and yet so many are willing to pretend they just don’t feel the icy chill of colonial spirits.
Hochschild’s account offers some respite from the horror, detailing the courageous efforts of the few that dared speak out against Leopold’s terrifying iron grip and his ghoulish but effective spin machine. But even these accounts are tainted with defeat. In the end, Leopold died a billionaire, with more social shame because of his 17-year-old mistress than the genocide he executed overseas, and the Belgium government quietly picked up where the king left off. The total lack of regard for the Congolese themselves leaves the reader feeling helplessly cold.
Nevertheless, King Leopold’s Ghost is extraordinarily compelling. Hochschild has a gift for storytelling; he weaves the narratives of the key players in the rise and fall of Leopold’s Congo artfully and his travels through time and space read easily. Though the subject matter is gory, the book remains respectful rather than salacious. Despite the organized, businesslike presentation of the facts, the narration is not cold; Hochschild is heated, and he wants the reader to join him in his outrage.
Notably absent from the book are Congolese voices. Hochschild acknowledges this immediately, and asks the readers to understand that the few Congolese voices that were allowed into the discourse have since been erased. The country is more globalized now, and current citizens don’t have strong ties to the genocide of the early 1900s. The author does his best with what he has, and his passion for the subject shows, especially since he wasn’t aware of the conflict for a good period of his academic life.
As is the case with many in the Western world today, who see Africa as a giant blob of colonized mess, not bothering to break down who took what—and how, and when. This is why Hochschild’s book is so significant; it holds Belgium and the Western world accountable for remembering the specificities of the atrocities. As Hochschild says, “The world we live in—its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence—is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.”
Perhaps that’s why I opened with an observation on Conrad’s novel—though problematic when it comes to the discussion of race, it is one of the only revelations about the Congo in our modern canon. It may be time to re-examine that work, with its full historical context firmly in place. Rarely is there fiction more horrific than the truth.