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King Leopold's Ghost

A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Written by: Adam Hochschild
Narrated by: Geoffrey Howard
Length: 12 hrs and 34 mins
Categories: History, World
4.5 out of 5 stars (20 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

In the late 1890s, Edmund Dene Morel, a young British shipping company agent, noticed something strange about the cargoes of his company's ships as they arrived from and departed for the Congo, Leopold II's vast new African colony. Incoming ships were crammed with valuable ivory and rubber. Outbound ships carried little more than soldiers and firearms.

Correctly concluding that only slave labor on a vast scale could account for these cargoes, Morel resigned from his company and almost singlehandedly made Leopold's slave-labor regime the premier human rights story in the world. Thousands of people packed hundreds of meetings throughout the United States and Europe to learn about Congo atrocities. Two courageous black Americans - George Washington Williams and William Sheppard - risked much to bring evidence to the outside world. Roger Casement, later hanged by Britain as a traitor, conducted an eye-opening investigation of the Congo River stations.

Sailing into the middle of the story was a young steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming over all was Leopold II, King of the Belgians, sole owner of the only private colony in the world.

©1998 Adam Hochschild (P)2010 Random House

What the critics say

"Hochschild's fine book of historical inquiry, which draws heavily on eyewitness accounts of the colonialists' savagery, brings this little-studied episode in European and African history into new light." (Amazon.com review)
"Hochschild's superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II's rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885....[M]ost of all it is a story of the bestiality of one challenged by the heroism of many in an increasingly democratic world." ( Publishers Weekly)

What members say

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Very lnformative, shameful and sad . Well read.

The book disonnects one thread in the web which hides what Europeans have done to other inhabitants of this planet. It's a paradox that Europeans do such evil yet have brought many beneficial technologies to the world. it is also strange that it is mostly other Europeans who are the ones to correct these wrongs. It's also odd that others are replicating their evil. Humans...

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Well researched exploration of an African genocide

This book was an introduction to the genocides in the Congo to me. The topic is presented in a very consumable and logical manner. Well referenced and framed without being dry. Through accounts of people witness to and affected by the atrocities it really shows the human aftermath of the colonial history.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Fantastic, narrative history of a horrifying past

Without qualification, Hochschild is one of the most exceptionally talented historians of his day, and here he has an presented a highly listenable, down-to-Earth and horrifying look at a past that a lot of people have tried to keep buried. He presents a deep dive into the Congo Free State, and its earned status as probably the single biggest tragedy and devastation of the colonial, imperialist mindset that ran Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries. He draws extensively from primary sources, statistics, emphasizes African voices (so often silenced throughout history) wherever he can reliably find them, and trusts his audience enough to be horrified by the crimes of the CFS that he doesn't need to condemn them every fifth second. And he does this in a way that is genuinely informative for the reader, helps him tell the story that Leopold tried to keep silent, and shows us all how responsible history is conducted.

Perhaps his greatest talent is Hochschild's ability to look into the minds of twisted, corrupted men (Henry Morton Stanley and Leopold himself being the key figures) through their written words and actions. Listening to him dig into the twisted logic that drove these men to commit the abject crimes that they did paints a vivid picture of a system where—as long as you have money and cloak your words in those of a saviour—almost nobody will look at you twice.

The only two marks I'll knock off for the book are that the chapter marks are out of sync with the actual chapters, and the audio quality—being recorded almost 20 years ago—leaves something to be desired. Otherwise, Howard's voice is immediately grasping and his enunciation and tone gives this story the exact kind of narrator Hochschild presents: a measured, smooth tone that contrasts really well with the abject horror he's describing.

Otherwise, this book is phenomenal. Revolutionary for narrative non-fiction, an excellent source for serious students of history, and a much-needed and welcome approach to making sure we don't forget, as Hochschild says, "one of the greatest human rights atrocities of the 20th century".

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    4 out of 5 stars

Eye-opening.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It took me several months to get through it. I stopped and started several times. I think it's an important book about part of History than most people don't know. The author did a great job explaining. The narrator did a good job too. Who knew such evil existed before Hitler?

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Edith
  • 2011-01-20

Fascinating

I had heard about this book from friends and knew I should read it, but dreaded hearing the gory details of King Leopold's horrendous subjugation of the Congo. But Hochschild breaks it to you gently, and crafts the story so skillfully that I never felt overwhelmed. The book is easy to listen to and consistently fascinating. It is amazing that the Belgians were able to prevent the information about this massive crime against an entire people from being disseminated earlier, successfully burying it for so many decades. Highly recommended.

29 of 29 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Clarity Ann
  • 2011-04-19

A History that I Should Have Known

This is a history that I should have known, but did not, and am glad that I had an opportunity to explore the history of the Belgian Congo and the forces that shaped many of the countries in Africa. The author focuses on the perceived need, within Europe countries, and King Leopold of Belgium, in particular, to have a foot hold on the African continent and to exploit the resources and peoples in Africa to his own personal advantage. The author makes the history more personal, more intimate, by focusing on the dynamics of King Leopold of Belgium and how his personal needs drove widespread exploitation and brutality in the area that became the Belgium Congo. The reader captures the history as if telling an engaging mystery that is unfolding with many characters with multiple over-lapping and conflicting agendas until the reader has to step back and realize the damage and destruction that is being done. The inhumanity of it all is at times overwhelming and yet it is a history that provides a more contemporary context for some of the conflicts in this region. Well-crafted historical work; well-read with clarity and engagement; a story worth knowing as one ponders developments in the region and the history of European involvement in the colonization and exploitation of Africa.

19 of 19 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • L. Lyter
  • 2010-12-27

A sorry sad story

One of my favorite books, "Poisonwood Bible", piqued my interest in exactly what had happened in the Congo. The reality was worse than I ever had imagined. Mass genocide and other atrocities were so severely inflicted on the people of the Congo that all but the faintest hints of oral traditions were eradicated, along with most of the culture. The author takes some time in exploring the parallels to Joseph Conrad's fictional "Heart of Darkness" and makes a strong case that fictional people and events truly existed. There are heroes in this story, but current events in the Congo make any hope of the restoration of the once vibrant culture truly faint. That one man can destroy so much is an unfortunate lesson the humankind keeps having to repeat. Narration is competant but there are annoying repeated phrases as an earlier reviewer states.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Neuron
  • 2015-07-18

Gruesome story describing how shrewd King Leopold

This books tells a story that deserves a greater audience. Most people have a vague appreciation of colonialist exploits in Africa and most people know that imperialist Europe to some extent exploited Africa in a way that was not mutually beneficial. This book describes the process and the details of this exploitation in the Congo, and it paints a gruesome picture that is difficult to shake off.

We get to follow King Leopold who from an early age desired a large territory to exploit. By pretending to be on a humanitarian mission Leoplold got European leaders to accept him taking over Congo. When in charge he set up a reign based on terror and slavery resulting in a large personal fortune and a reduction of the Congolese population to about 50% of what it had been before Leopold’s men arrived. His belgian soldier were given manuals of how to Kidnap women and children to force men to work, as well as how to punish men who did not work (chopping off hands was a frequent phenomena).

As damning as this story is for white imperialist Europe, it also offers hope. Leopold was eventually stopped, and not through local uprisings. Indeed local leaders tended to help tyrants such as Leopold if they themselves could profit from it. Rather it was the english lawyer, E.D. Morel, who when he realized that Leopold was exploiting Congo made it his mission to stop him. This resulted in what was essentially a PR war between Morel and King Leopold, which was fought around the world and which is a fascinating story in its own right (which is also described in the book). Of course Congo eventually became a sovereign nation, and as is sadly often the case, the first thing they did was to elect a leader (Lumumba) who wanted to shut the rest of the world (especially western nations) out. CIA responded with an assassination and installed Mobutu, who ruled the “democratic” republic of Congo for 30 years, leading it to more suffering and poverty.

In sum, King Leopold’s ghost is a gripping, well researched, story about a chapter in our history about which we are too naive. The book is highly recommended

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Elaine
  • 2011-10-26

A history lesson we should have learned in school

When I was a history major in college over 45 years ago, I never heard of King Leopold of Belgium, and knew nothing of the relationships between the colonizers and the African people. The detail in this book makes it impossible to escape the connection between the abuse of the African people and the development (or lack thereof) of the people and governments of central Africa.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Roy
  • 2011-01-16

A Worthwhile Book

I have a particular interest in the African Diaspora, the US reconstruction, and Jim Crow years. This book provides fine background on a particularly dark era. First, Leopold II’s story is well documented here and those who are unfamiliar with the story will greatly benefit. Individuals who became cognizant of the “goings on” in African under the King and fought are aptly covered. King Leopold realizes that Europeans are profiting from African in general and the Congo in particular and wants his share of the booty. How he does that and the aftermath is the story of this book. I would have enjoyed gaining a more nuanced understanding of the culture, communities, and detail related to what was happening “on the ground” in the Congo. Essentially, this book details, outlines, and retells what took place. There are examples and a few short biographical sections (a African head collector for example), but the story does not come to life. This is not a new book (1999), but very worthwhile. Geoffrey Howard reads wonderfully.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • vivalizvega
  • 2014-03-16

The Greatest Crime Against Humanity

Where does King Leopold's Ghost rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

It is among the tope 3 books I have ever heard.

What other book might you compare King Leopold's Ghost to and why?

A good history book

Have you listened to any of Geoffrey Howard’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

no and I actually didn't like his voice at the beginning but he grw on me.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

This book made me sick to my stomach as I learned of all the injusticies and atrocities committed by King Leopold.

Any additional comments?

Before I heard this book, I had such an incomplete history/view of what happened in the congo. Yes, I read heart of darkness and knew that there was truth to that but my goodness, this book got me fired up and angry that more people don't know about the infamous King Leopold.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Joseph
  • 2012-03-18

Fantastic Book

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Absolutely, the story is moving and entertaining and terrifying and amazing. Even if you have no particular interest in history, colonialism, human rights or the ethics of empire the story told here is fascinating and draws you into the narrative, involving as it does so many people, famous, infamous and unknown.

What does Geoffrey Howard bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

His diction and elocution is spot on, and he brings an elegant, measured tone to the narration.

Any additional comments?

The language is especially wonderful and the author seamlessly integrates source material into and out of the text.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Sher from Provo
  • 2019-03-30

If you cried through Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

If you cried through Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee you probably ought not to read this book. Bury My Heart made me embarrassed to be white. King Leopold’s Ghost made me embarrassed to be human. I picked up this book because I have always wanted to know what really went on in the Congo with Patrice Lumumba back in the 50s, and why he was assassinatd in 1960. Although this book is not about Lumumba, it does touch on his life, and it becomes quite clear why he was assassinated—by the American CIA on order of the POTUS. Sickening. But what I learned about the Congo in the late 1800s and early 1900s was unexpected and horrifying beyond belief. I don’t remember hearing anything about King Leopold and the atrocities he committed against the people of the Congo, and against their land. It is simply unspeakable!

This book is well written and well documented. The things it claims really did happen. Leopold was responsible for the murder of over 10 million people, and made over a billion dollars off of the forced labor of the Congolese while claiming their land for himself and glutting on their natural resources. The things he did put him right up there with Stalin and Hitler and a few others for the “winner” of the Most Evil Man on the Face of the Earth award.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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  • Caleb
  • 2018-04-10

The Horrors of the Congo Free State

Would you listen to King Leopold's Ghost again? Why?

Yes. It is a very informative, and moving work about the tragedy of the Congo Free State and the evils of colonialism.

What did you like best about this story?

How it shed light on King Leopold's reign over the Congo region, and the atrocities committed there. People often speak of the human rights violations of the Nazis and Communists, but very rarely does anyone seem to remember the Congo.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

In Africa, no one can hear you scream.

Any additional comments?

This was an excellent work about the horrors and exploitation of the Congo Free State. Hochschild makes it very clear where he stands with regards to Leopold and his legacy, so don't expect a detached retelling of the historical record with some clinical analysis. Hochschild does not hold back, and his outrage is palpable at times. This time period and its events have largely been swept into the dustbin of history to be forgotten, despite Holocaust levels of death and atrocity. Hochschild a superb job of dragging it back into the light, and highlighting not only the brave men and women who fought to end the abuses, but also the people of the Congo who suffered at the hands of greedy empires. Hochschild provides a thoroughly researched, unflinching account of the realities of Colonialism, and no country walks away unscathed.

Geoffrey Howard's narration is great. Very rarely he pronounces a word in way that makes it hard to understand, but it's not really enough of an issue to detract from the rest of the work.

'King Leopold's Ghost' is a tragic work, but an important one. It's also an excellent read. I never once felt like it was dragging or boring. Highly recommended.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful