King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Delanceyplace book selection –.

In one of the greatest atrocities of the modern era, Belgian King Leopold II was responsible for the deaths from 1885 to 1908 of ten million Africans in the lands surrounding the Congo River. Determined to acquire a colony from which to extract personal riches, the king had used famed explorer Henry Stanley to trick village chieftains into selling their lands to him for token compensation. To the world, he presented a face of benevolence regarding the colony, professing himself to be anti-slavery and his mission to be charitable.

In fact, his personal army forced millions of Africans into de facto slavery to amass a personal fortune from elephant tusks and rubber plants. It was King Leopold’s Congo that served as the subject for Joseph Conrad’s famed novel Heart of Darkness. Two individuals who were among the earliest to begin reporting the horrors of the colony back to the western world were George Washington Williams and William Sheppard. In enforcing the Africans to work, King Leopold’s soldiers often had to shoot those who would not cooperate. To get credit for these actions, as well as to help prevent the waste of ammunition, these soldiers had to show the hands of those they had killed:

“[In his Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, Williams reported that in acquiring lands for King Leopold, Henry] Stanley and his white assistants had used a variety of tricks, such as fooling Africans into thinking that whites had supernatural powers, to get Congo chiefs to sign their land over to Leopold. For example: ‘A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet. . . . When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull up trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.’ Another trick was to use a magnify­ing glass to light a cigar, after which ‘the white man explained his intimate relation to the sun, and declared that if he were to request him to burn up his black brother’s village it would be done.’ In another ruse, a white man would ostentatiously load a gun but cov­ertly slip the bullet up his sleeve. He would then hand the gun to a black chief, step off a distance, and ask the chief to take aim and shoot; the white man, unharmed, would bend over and retrieve the bullet from his shoe. ‘By such means . . . and a few boxes of gin, whole villages have been signed away to your Majesty.’ Land purchased in this way, Williams wrote, was ‘territory to which your Majesty has no more legal claim, than I have to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian army.’ …

” ‘Your Majesty’s Government is excessively cruel to its prisoners, con­demning them, for the slightest offenses, to the chain gang. . . . Often these ox-chains eat into the necks of the prisoners and produce sores about which the flies circle, aggravating the running wound.’ Leopold’s claim that his new state was providing wise government and public services was a fraud. There were no schools and no hospi­tals except for a few sheds ‘not fit to be occupied by a horse.’ …

“White traders and state officials were kidnapping African women and using them as concubines.

“White officers were shooting villagers, sometimes to capture their women, sometimes to intimidate the survivors into working as forced laborers, and sometimes for sport. ‘Two Belgian Army officers saw, from the deck of their steamer, a native in a canoe some distance away. . . . The officers made a wager of £5 that they could hit the native with their rifles. Three shots were fired and the native fell dead, pierced through the head.’

“Instead of Leopold’s being the noble antislavery crusader he portrayed himself as, ‘Your Majesty’s Government is engaged in the slave-trade, wholesale and retail. It buys and sells and steals slaves. Your Majesty’s Government gives £3 per head for able-bodied slaves for military service. . . . The labour force at the stations of your Majesty’s Govern­ment in the Upper River is composed of slaves of all ages and both sexes.’  …

“In 1899 the reluctant [William] Sheppard was ordered by his superiors to travel into the [Congo] bush, at some risk to himself, to investigate the source of the fighting. There he found bloodstained ground, destroyed villages, and many bodies; the air was thick with the stench of rotting flesh. On the day he reached the marauders’ camp, his eye was caught by a large number of objects being smoked. The chief ‘conducted us to a framework of sticks, under which was burning a slow fire, and there they were, the right hands, I counted them, 81 in all.’ The chief told Sheppard, ‘See! Here is our evidence. I always have to cut off the right hands of those we kill in order to show the State how many we have killed.’ He proudly showed Sheppard some of the bodies the hands had come from. The smoking preserved the hands in the hot, moist climate, for it might be days or weeks before the chief could display them to the proper official and receive credit for his kills.

congo severed-hands

“Sheppard had stumbled on one of the most grisly aspects of Leopold’s rubber system. … If a village refused to submit to the [forced work of harvesting rubber], state or company troops or their allies sometimes shot everyone in sight, so that nearby villages would get the message. But on such occasions some European officers were mistrustful. For each cartridge issued to their soldiers they demanded proof that the bullet had been used to kill someone, not ‘wasted’ in hunting or, worse yet, saved for possible use in a mutiny. The standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. ‘Sometimes,’ said one officer to a missionary, soldiers ‘shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man.’ In some military units there was even a ‘keeper of the hands’; his job was the smoking.”

Author: Adam Hochschild
Title: King Leopold’s Ghost
Publisher: Mariner Books
Date: Copyright 1998 by Adam Hochschild
Pages: 109-111, 164-165

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

by Adam Hochschild by Houghton Mifflin

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  • Laura G  On April 12, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    sick, sick, sick.. reparation will never pay for these atrocities but demand a worldwide reparation never-the-less. it is still happening today, that is the actions of greed, terror and heroism in many forms. it must stop.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On April 13, 2013 at 1:36 am

    Sorry, I couldn’t read this article beyond the first two paragraphs.

    Very little has changed today. The powerful and privileged continue to amass wealth through exploitation of the poor and weak.

  • de castro  On April 13, 2013 at 4:57 am

    One book I will never buy or read…it “stinks” ! The greed and averice
    of human behaviour saddens me …past present and future.!!
    As Rosaline wrote “it continues today”…have we not learnt from
    past mistakes in history…or do we remain “fools”!
    Guyanese on line should be congratulated for highlighting
    “Evils of past atrosities in wealth accumulation” …mans
    inhumanity to mankind…animals behave better in the
    “jungles of mankind” wild and domesticated.
    I am ashamed to be a human being …

    with sadness in my heart


  • Cyril Balkaran  On April 13, 2013 at 8:07 am

    Its all about Man’s Inhumane behaviour to his fellow man. Avarice and greed are the culture that has robbed humanity of the Love and Compassion that he should uphold dear in his heart. Every book on Religion and Religious thoughts exhort man to love your fellowmen. Today we live in the Dark age which can be likened to the past Stone Ages. All empires have been built on some premise that all peoples will someday become one. Those warring empires have all fallen, one after the other, the Romans, The Greeks, the Monguls, the French, the British, and many more such empires are now confined to the lyrics of History. The Mayan and the Incas all are now relics of the great past. Today we are forced to live under the umbrella of the UN. We play by the game and we respect one another as a member of the Global Village. Our Technology has brought us from the Stone Age to the Dark Ages but we play by the Game. The rules are set and we must obey them or suffer the consequences. No one id immune. The Security Council of the UN is the watch dog for those who may wish to fall out of line. While we embellish in the Dark ages, we call it Modern Times! The world will never change until each individual changes his mind and opt for a higher Consciousness of higher Self. Until then man remains a Savage!

  • de castro  On April 13, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Worse than a beast or predator…

    A wild animal will kill for food…a human to feed his addictions.

    I prefer to live in the jungle with wild animals than the human jungle.
    Cities Towns even some villages.

    CHERIN in the alpujaras mountains is such a place…
    sadly most of its wildlife are hunted into extinction…illegally
    I may add. I bred pair of Vietnam wild pigs then released
    them into the wild…but the sow returned the same day before
    dark …the Boar returned few days later with scars from his
    battle with the wild boars that visit my area in their 15km
    daily journies in search of food. He was no match for them.

    Sorry for straying from the subject to prove a point.
    Read/write on…

  • de castro  On April 13, 2013 at 10:44 am

    You may have already read one of Jared Diamonds other books but recommend
    It was an enlightened read on the history of everybody for the last 13.000 years…
    It covers periods up to the 1850s
    Its scientific approach to life was interestingu

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