Tragically, inhumanity on an epic scale is not reserved to a single time or a single place. Which is why Francis Ford Coppola could so effortlessly pluck Kurtz out of Joseph Conrad’s King Leopold’s GhostAfrica and deposit him into the Southeast Asian milieu of Apocalypse Now. The original Kurtz of Heart of Darkness was indeed a fictional character, but nevertheless served as an emblem of authenticity for historic individuals, actual events, a specific geography and an almost unimaginable cruelty that has been virtually forgotten by much of the world, even by the descendants of the victims. In King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild forces us to remember.

During the mad scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century, European powers ruthlessly carved up the continent into colonial possessions irrespective of historic boundaries or tribal loyalties. But the Congo, where Conrad’s visit found inspiration for Kurtz, was not one of those colonies. It was rather quite remarkably and singularly the vast personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II, a constitutional monarch with almost no political power at home, who managed to create his very own African empire and milked it for everything he could with a terror machine worthy of envy by the worst later twentieth century totalitarians. If this is a book of heroes and villains – although Hochschild is too much a student of nuance and complexity to paint with such a broad brush – Leopold was indeed a great villain. Still another was the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley, of Stanley and Livingstone fame, who manufactured his own identity, managed to serve and subsequently desert from both sides in the American Civil War, routinely brutalized natives on expedition, had such a streak of sadism that he once fed his dog its own tail that he had severed – and through his efforts nearly single-handedly secured the Congo for Leopold to menace and exploit.

But these two pale in comparison to the agents of Leopold’s rule who squeezed the territory and its hapless population for every last drop of wealth, from an initial focus on ivory to the exploding market for rubber. A review such as this is too limited in scope to contain even a summary of all of the atrocities committed in this regard, and it would take a thick tome of single-spaced text in a tiny font to list all of the otherwise nameless and colorless Kurtz’s who dispassionately carried out the long litany of crimes against humanity that characterized Leopold’s rule of the Congo, often magistrates or members of what was called the Force Publique. Some of the more notable mounted heads on poles or collected skulls as souvenirs, inspiring Conrad, but most – like Hitler’s bureaucrats or Stalin’s executioners – were easily forgotten anonymous murderers who quietly went about their sanguinary duties. Hochschild cites Primo Levi’s observations of his Auschwitz experience: “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the . . . functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” [p121]

Leopold successfully disguised his appropriation of a huge chunk of Africa for his personal domain through a disingenuous campaign against slavery by Arab traders. But through a clever sleight of hand it was Leopold who enslaved the native population, compelling them to forced labor in unimaginably inhumane conditions, chained together by the neck and routinely punished with hundreds of lashes by a rawhide whip known as a chicotte, while conducting mass campaigns of extermination against those who resisted or ran away. The Force Publique were issued rations of bullets and expected to return with either unused shells or the severed right hands of those they had killed. Thousands of hands were collected, in some cases from living human beings. It was a terror on a scale never before seen on the continent.

There were also heroes, white and black, although like most heroic figures in history they remained unrewarded in life. Leopold’s forces were quite formidable, as were his public relations resources. Still, eventually an odd alliance of brave souls – a black American missionary, a British agitator and journalist, and a British Consul with grave secrets – gradually brought to light the misdeeds that plagued the Congo and spurred an international effort towards redress. The latter, a descendant of the nineteenth century anti-slavery crusade, was the last great Pan-European human rights movement of that era and ultimately proved successful, more or less, by forcing Leopold to divest himself of the Congo, which became a colony of Belgium and saw the end of the worst kinds of abuses that once ran rampant there. This movement is also largely forgotten, along with the cruelties it sought to relieve, eclipsed in human memory by the greater horrors of World War I and sympathy for the victimized and overrun Belgium.

The exploitation of the Congo continued, however, although the terror was much diminished. Few even among the reformers recognized the greater crimes of colonialism and the abuses it spawned. Towards the end of this outstanding book, Hochschild reminds us that although Europe rose in righteous indignation at Leopold’s cruelties, it turned a blind eye to much of the rest of the crimes against humanity that raged in colonial Africa and beyond, including the 1904 mass extermination of tens of thousands of Hereros in German South West Africa, today’s Namibia. The British massacre of aborigines in Australia hardly caused a stir. Few noticed as the United States pursued a counter-guerrilla effort in the Philippines “that killed 20,000 rebels and saw 200,000 more Filipinos die of war-related hunger or disease.” [p282] There were plenty of villains to go around, usually masked by the bureaucracy of the state rather than the figure of a single individual such as Leopold.

As for the heroes, they are forgotten also. The journalist Edmund Morel (who resurfaces in Hochschild’s magnificent book, To End All Wars) is later imprisoned for his loud opposition to England’s involvement in World War I. The Congo experience acted to springboard former British Consul Roger Casement into anticolonial agitation that crossed the line in a wartime collaboration with Germany that sought to effect Irish independence; he later served as an inspiration for Nehru but was smeared for his covert homosexuality and ended his life on the gallows. Black missionary William Sheppard, disgraced for extramarital affairs, returned to an America of second class citizenship; a white woman in his Virginia hometown reminisced that: “He was such a good darky. When he returned from Africa he remembered his place and always came to the back door.” [p283]

In the Congo, the institution of the Force Publique also persisted. When the era of colonialism ended just as the Cold War was heating up, the CIA sponsored a coup that resulted in the overthrow and death of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, who was seen as unfriendly to western interests. The thug recruited as a key agent in this effort was Joseph-Desiré Mobutu, a former NCO in the Force Publique, who came to power and – rewarded by US support for his staunch anti-communism – for decades afterwards terrorized and bankrupted his country. In this sense, King Leopold’s ghost is still with us.