Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

A quick reading of a fascinating book, by Adam Hochschild, about the history of the Congo between the years 1885 and 1908 when it was controlled by King Leopold II of Belgium.

Starting Out: The Berlin conference did not partition Africa, the spoils were too large at that point it took many more treaties. At the time of the conference, Europeans thought of African wealth in terms of coastlines, not the interior. Leopold got the centre of Africa while other nations focused on the coast as they did not realize how vast the Congo was.

Revenue: Etat indépendant du Congo (the Congo Free State) was a very profitable venture for Leopold thanks to ivory and rubber. The Congo was a private state of the King and got half the profits from concession companies. Records from one of them, the Anglo Belgian Indian Rubber Exploration Company, showed that ABIR spent 1.35 Francs per kilo to harvest rubber in the Congo and ship it to their headquarters in Antwerp where it sold for up to 10 Francs per kilo – and in six years to 1898 rubber prices had gone up thirty times. Transportation costs aside, harvesting wild rubber required no cultivation, no fertilizer and no capital investment, only labour, for which the concession companies brutally used the people of the Congo as slave labour.

Leopold kept the Congo profits as secret as possible so as not to stir up demands that he pay back sums owed to the Belgian government. To achieve this the Congo state did not publish a budget and it presented understated revenue reports.

Bonds: With time, Leopold was able to issue bonds that brought in as much revenue as rubber. He issued bonds worth 100 million Francs (half a billion in today’s currency). Some were for as long as 99 years and he knew paying back the principal would be someone else’s problems. He even wrote to the Pope, urging the Catholic Church to buy Congo bonds as that would promote the spread of religion.

Use of Funds The money raised with bonds was for development in the Congo but little of it was spent there. The funds went to build monuments, new palace wings, museums including at the seaside resort of Ostend, a golf course at Klemskerke, renovations to a luxurious home at Laeken etc. many of which he gave back to the country with great fanfare. There was also an incomplete World School of Colonialism in Belgium.

Negotiations Out: Once the extent of the atrocities done to the people in the Congo were exposed by authors, organizations and leaders in the UK and US, there was pressure for Leopold to sell. He argued that if Belgium did not take it soon, some powerful country might, such as France and Germany who were jealous of the rubber profits from Congo.

Negotiation began in 1906 but got bogged down as the Belgian Government could not get a full accounting of the state of finances in the Congo, and included some entities that had been incorporated in Belgium, Germany and France.

The End: Finally, it was agreed Leopold would give the Congo up to the Government of Belgium in exchange for them assuming 110 million Francs of debt. This comprised bonds that he had dispensed over the year to his friends and also included 32 million of bonds that he himself never paid back. They also agreed to pay 45 million Francs towards completing building projects of the King, with a third going to complete the one at Laeken. Leopold was also to receive 50 million as gratitude for his sacrifices made to the Congo, and the change of ownership took place in November 1908. After Leopold died, his family and the Belgian government continued to try to clean up issues to do with the Congo and a lot of records of the atrocities of the era were lost.

EDIT Extras

  • Versions of book, including kindle ones, are on Amazon.
  • The last comeprehensive book I read on the country was Michael Wrong’s In the Footstep of Mr. Kurtz about Mobutu Sese Seko and his years as President.

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