Friday, April 24, 2009

King Leopold's Ghost

Here is a long overdue review of the book King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild. I think I’ve been reluctant to post this review because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to adequately convey the power and importance of the book, but I suppose that any review is better than none, so here it is, only a month after I finished reading it.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a seminal piece of history writing, combining objective statistics with emotional, passionate storytelling in relaying the history of the impact of Europeans in the Congo. The depth of Hochschild’s research is remarkable, giving the book instant real-world power and impact. The story is chilling, depressing, inspiring, and simply frightening. It is certainly not a light, easy read, but I don’t believe that any story about such a time and place could be. It is not, however, simply an historical work, as it chronicles the sad history of colonialism and horror in the Congo into the present day. Following a fascinating cast of characters – explorers, monarchs, missionaries, businessmen, and, importantly, Africans – this book unfolds a captivating and horrible story with remarkable depth of insight. Perhaps some of the worst terror of the book is that is exposes the things that normal people can do to each other, if enough money is at stake and other humans can be sufficiently dehumanized. Once of the greatest accomplishments of the work is that Hochschild manages to reveal the unspeakable brutality of the European colonists and the lasting devastation that it has caused, while avoiding falling into the trap of the “noble savage” myth. It’s the sort of book that makes one ashamed to be from a wealthy and powerful country, but that shame is not the point – rather, the point is the lessons that we can draw from seeing the exploitation of the weak by the powerful. I consider this book to be extremely important reading for anyone interested in Africa, human rights, history, or current events – in short, I’d say that this is an important read for everyone. As the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to fall to pieces today, one of Hochschild’s most insightful and timely lines comes near the end of the book: “The major legacy that Europe left to Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France, and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder.”

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