Publisher Discussion Questions

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of King Leopold’s Ghost for every reader.

1. Between 1880 and 1920, the population of the Congo was slashed in half: some ten million people were victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate. Why do you think this massive carnage has remained virtually unknown in the United States and Europe?

2. Hochschild writes of Joseph Conrad that he “was so horrified by the greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human nature was permanently changed.” Judging from Hochschild’s account and from Heart of Darkness, in whatway was Conrad’s view changed? How is this true of other individuals about whom Hochschild writes? In what way has this book affected your view of human nature?

3. The death toll in King Leopold’s Congo was on a scale comparable to the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges. Can Leopold II be viewed as a precursor to the masterminds behind the Nazi death camps and the Gulag? Did these three and other twentiethcentury mass killings arise from similar psychological, social, political, economic, and cultural sources?

4. Those who plundered the Congo and other parts of Africa (and Asia) did so in the name of progress, civilization, and Christianity. Was this hypocritical and if so, how? What justifications for colonial imperialism and exploitation have been put forward over the past five centuries?

5. Morel, Sheppard, Williams, Casement, and others boldly spoke out against the Congo atrocities, often at great danger to themselves. Many others rationalized those same atrocities or said nothing. How do you account for Leopold’s, Stanley’s, and others’ murderous rapaciousness, on the one hand, and Morel’s, Casement’s, and others’ outrage and committed activism, on the other?

6. The European conquest and plunder of the Congo and the rest of Africa was brutal, but so was the European settlement of North America and, long before that, the conquest of most of Europe by the Romans. Hasn’t history always proceeded in this way?

7. Hochschild begins his book with what he calls Edmund Morel’s “flash of moral recognition” on the Antwerp docks. What other flashes of moral recognition does Hochschild identify, and what were their consequences? In what ways may Hochschild’s book itself be seen as a flash of moral recognition? What more recent flashes of moral recognition and indignation can you identify?

8. Hochschild quotes the Swedish missionary, C. N. Börrisson: “It is strange that people who claim to be civilized think they can treat their fellow man — even though he is of a different color — any which way.” How may we explain the disregard of “civilized” individuals and groups for the humanity and life of others because of skin color, nationality, religion, ethnic background, or other factors? Why do this disregard and resulting cruelties persist?

9. What are the similarities between the colonial and imperial aspirations of pre- and early twentieth-century nations and the corporate and market aspirations of today’s multinational companies? Whether rapacious or beneficent, most actors in the Congo, and in Africa at large, seem to have been motivated principally by profit. In what ways do business objectives continue to shape the policies and actions of national governments and international organizations?

10. Hochschild writes that Leopold “found a number of tools at his disposal that had not been available to empire builders of earlier times.” What new technologies and technological advances contributed to Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo? What impact have these tools had on both the advancement and degradation of colonial or subject peoples?

11. The “burgeoning hierarchy of imperial rule” in the Congo Free State was, Hochschild writes, reflected in “the plethora of medals” and attendant grades and ranks. What were the reasons for this extensive hierarchy and for the bureaucracy it reflected and maintained? Are there any contemporary parallels? Of what historical examples can we say that the more heinous the political or governmental crimes, the larger and more frequently rewarded the bureaucracy?

12. How does Hochschild answer his own question, “What made it possible for the functionaries in the Congo to so blithely watch the chicotte in action and . . . to deal out pain and death in other ways as well”? How would you answer this question, in regard to Leopold’s Congo and to other officially sanctioned atrocities?

13. Hochschild quotes Roger Casement as insisting to Edmund Morel, “I do not agree with you that England and America are the two great humanitarian powers. . . . [They are] materialistic first and humanitarian only a century after.” What evidence supports or refutes Casement’s judgment? Would Casement be justified in making the same statement today?

14. After stating that several other mass murders “went largely unnoticed,” Hochschild asks, “why, in England and the United States, was there such a storm of righteous protest about the Congo?” Do you find his explanation sufficient? Why do some atrocities (the mass murders in Rwanda, for example) prompt little response from the United States and other western nations, while others (the “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo, for example) prompt military action against the perpetrators?

Leopold Gives to New York Museum

December 13, 1907

Brussels, Thursday — King Leopold intends creating a museum of natural history in New York for everything connected with the Congo and has made an offer to this effect to the city authorities, who have accepted it. The King is taking the greatest interest in the project and has instructed the directors of the proposed museum that two great halls will be required to contain the specimens he intends to contribute, besides the examples of ethnology and zoology of the Belgian colony.

The King is contributing interesting frescos, which will form a background, representing the daily life the inhabitants, while revealing the natural beauties of Congo.

To make the collection thoroughly complete the directors of the museum are sending special commissions to Africa to bring back information relating to the history, resources and government of Congo.

Relics From Congo Reach New York

Dr. Herman C. Bumpus, director of the American Museum of Natural History, corroborated the statement of the cable dispatch last night. he said that King Leopold’s gift had been accepted by the Board of Trustees of the Museum and that several specimens from the Congo sent by the ruler of the Belgians had been already received. The two halls to be dedicated to the purpose will be among those now being constructed as parts of addition to the present building.

“As the Herald cable announces,” said Dr. Bumpus yesterday, “it has been decided to send a special commission to Africa to investigate the matter along the lines indicated by King Leopold’s purpose and to select the best specimens in ethnology and zoology available. When that commission will start has not yet been determined.

“As to the value of the King’s donation nothing could possibly be said at this time because nobody could possibly know beyond the unquestionable fact that it will be great. It is hardly necessary to say that it will be the finest in American, because there is practically nothing of the kind in America, but, according to the present outlook,it will be the finest,the largest and altogether the best collection concerning a virtually unknown country in existence anywhere, with the possible exception of England.”

Agreement on the Congo

March 4, 1908

Brussels, March 3-

It is announced that King Leopold and the Belgian Government have come to a complete agreement on the question of the annexation of the Congo Independent State. The agreement was made possible by an important concession by the King, in consenting that the Parliament have control of the Congo budget. In addition, the King gives to Belgium the magnificent domain of the Cape Ferrat in the South of France reserving for himself the use of it, however, during his lifetime.

The Government on its part agrees to proose that the Chambers vote a special fund to carry out certain undertakings in the Congo and in Belgium, which will not exceed $12,000,000 and at the same time a special annual credit of $600,000 will be included in Congo budgets for fifteen years, for the construction of hospitals and other institutions.

It is expected that the annexation treaty in its new form will be presented to the Chambers on Wednesday or Thursday next. It was stated late to-night that the Official Gazette would publish shortly a royal decree abolishing the crown domain in the Congo Free State.

Leopold Protects Ryan

March 6, 1908

Brussels, March 5-

The text of the new Congo annexation treaty was submitted to Parliament to-day and sent to committee without debate. According to the terms of the new treaty, King Leopold agrees to abandon the Crown domain and the Crown Foundation to Belgium. Belgium on its part must not only assume all the Congo obligations, amounting to $21,000,000, but must undertake also to continue the King’s usufruct in the Congo revenues during his lifetime.

Belgium is specifically required to respect the concessions granted in 1906 to two American companies in which Thomas F. Ryan is interested.

The Congo revenues are charged with $24,000 a year, payable to Prince Albert, nephew of King Leopold and $15,000 a year payable to Princess Clementine, the King’s third daughter, and as a especial token of gratitude to the King, must provide the sum of $10,000,000 in fifteen annual installments for the King’s use in constructing hospitals and schools and forwarding scientific work in Africa.

Furthermore, Belgium must expend the sum of $9,000,000 in work for which contracts already have been made. In addition King Leopold retains in fee simple $40,000 hectares of land at Mayumbe for coffee and cocoa growing experiments and during his lifetime he is to enjoy his interests in the Congo concesssionary companies and the property in Belgium and France which he purchased out of the funds of th e Congo Foundation. Upon the death of the King, all his property will revert to Belgium.

In spite of the criticism of the Opposition, the prevailing impression in Parliamentary circles regarding the King’s concessions assure the ratification of the treaty. The King’s friends naturally regard the treaty as it now stands as exceedingly magnanimous. Baron Des champs, the Minister of State, said tonight:

The King presents to the nation as a gift of colony twenty-three times as big as Belgium which he created and organized. Of the Crown domain, which is larger than France and of extraordinary richness, he retains nothing. Besides, he gives to the nation beautiful properties in the South of France which he purchased with the revenues from the Crown Domain, only holding for himself the usafruct during his lifetime. More important still, he grants to the Belgian Parliament both the administrative and budgetary control of th colony, which should satisfy the foreign critics.

“In return, he simply exacts an obligation that Belgium complete the works undertaken by him in this country and his philanthropic and scientific projects in the Congo Independent State.”

Should the parliament now refuse to ratify the treaty, it is believed here that King Leopold, in order to escape foreign intervention would offer the Congo to France, case Belgium refuses to annex it.