Leopold's lethal legacy


King Leopold's Ghost. By Adam Hochschild. Macmillan. 366 pp, £22.50 in UK

Leopold II of Belgium has never had a good reputation historically, but following the revelations of this book he should rank as one of the real villains of Europe's recent colonial past. Colonialism, of course, is still with us to some extent, though it now goes under other names and forms. Doctrines of racial superiority and the old belief (often quite sincerely held) that Western institutions, Western religion and (above all) Western medicines and science would almost inevitably lift more backward races on to a higher level of culture, have mostly turned out, in retrospect, to be mere apologias for territorial expansion and economic greed. The so-called White Man's Burden was rarely as heavy, in practice, as the burden of the nations, tribes and regions subject to his rule.

Leopold was by nature an autocrat, but Belgium was a small, hybrid nation with limited scope for his thrusting ambitions, and too many constitutional checks for his pride and need to dominate others. Tall and strong, with a big spade beard and long nose in the Coburg style, he was astute, secretive and calculating from early youth. In medieval or even Baroque times he might have become a powerful absolutist ruler, able and energetic but also cruel, extortionate and tyrannical. He not only had considerable administrative gifts and a shrewd instinct for picking the right men, he also had a remarkable head for figures and a lust for making money. Today he would probably be on the board of some multi-national company, with a jet plane at his disposal and palatial houses (with swimming pools) in a dozen countries.

The Congo came into the news in 1872 as a result of the explorer Stanley's discovery of the missionary Livingstone, an event which was flashed to newspapers all around the world. Leopold's interest was fired, and he sent emissaries to Stanley, newly returned to Europe, and flattered and manipulated him for his own ends. Stanley, vain, touchy and with a cloudy past (he was Welsh and illegitimate, but passed himself off as an American), served as a largely unconscious public-relations front for the king's schemes, which were far-seeing and carefully laid. Leopold posed publicly as a man with an altruistic and scientific interest in Africa, whereas what he had in mind was commercial exploitation on a grand scale. He managed to win his sceptical subjects over and to raise a huge loan, with the proviso that he would hand over his territories in the Congo to the nation at some unspecified time in the future. He functioned strictly as head of a private company, not as an official imperialist, and his methods of conquest hinged about the steamboat (Africa's great rivers gave access to its heartland) and, when he could build them, railways. Mining experts, engineers, experts of all kinds, adventurers and traders and military men were all recruited, and with their aid the vast area of the Congo was systematically exploited for its resources, particularly rubber and ivory.

The methods used were unspeakable; refractory villages and tribes were sometimes almost wiped out, and Africans who failed to deliver a set quota of rubber were frequently punished by having a hand or foot cut off. This applied to women and children as well as men. A favourite tactic was to capture hostages from a tribe and compel their chief to come to terms at gun-point - the machine gun was a pivotal force in this. One Belgian officer, Leon Rom, arranged a row of severed heads around his garden; another, Guillaume van Kerckhoven, told a traveller that he paid his black soldiers "five brass rods (2 1/2d) per human head they brought him during the course of any military operations."

THIS regime continued unchecked until near the turn of the century, when a young English shipping official in Antwerp, Edmund Morel, noticed that ships docking there from the Congo landed rich cargoes of rubber and ivory, yet always sailed away with nothing in return except soldiers and weapons. Morel, a courageous man with a conscience, realised that the only explanation could be mass slave labour. He launched a newspaper crusade which gained the ear of Europe and America and eventually enlisted the support of people as various as Mark Twain and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A little later, the Irish patriot and British imperial official, Roger Casement, campaigned along similar lines, and some conscientious missionaries added their personal testimony. Leopold, always a master of public and press relations, retaliated with skilful self-justifying propaganda, bribery and misrepresentation which seem to have met with a surprising degree of success. The King died unmourned in 1909, immensely rich, but before that he had carefully destroyed the records of his overseas venture, in a burning of papers which went on for days. His conscience - insofar as he had one, which seems doubtful - remained serene up to the end and he married his young mistress virtually on his deathbed. The Congo, true to his promise, was handed over to the Belgian people, who knew almost nothing of the atrocities and were proud to think that they had fought against the notorious Arab slavetraders of Zanzibar and had brought the Congolese the benefits of European civilisation. It is only very recently that this myth has been seriously challenged, and Leopold's equestrian statue still stands in a prominent site in Brussels. (He had, to do him justice, been lavish in his public building and benefactions.)

Casement's end is too well known to describe here; Morel, a passionate pacifist, was one of the first people to see the senselessness and evil of the first World War, which he campaigned against with typically unselfish fervour and courage. His reward was to be vilified, harassed and even jailed, though he survived all this to find himself a hero of the British Labour Party and held high office briefly under Ramsay Macdonald. His health, however, had been broken and he died in his early fifties. As for the Congo, the international rumpus over it was largely buried in the tumult of the Great War. Adam Hochschild, who is a prize-winning American investigative writer, puts the toll of lives in the Congo at as many as ten million Africans, which seems high. After all, Leopold covered his tracks well and the evidence is largely missing, though records are still turning up here and there.

It is a fascinating though appalling chronicle, and Mr Hochschild has told it well. Leopold, though an extreme and even unique case, was far from untypical of his time in regarding Africa as so many potentially profitable outfarms to be exploited by the white man. But history has had its revenge, since colonial rivalry in Africa proved to be one of the powder-kegs which set off the first World War and so virtually wrote finis to Europe's Age of Empire.