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King Leopold’s Ghost (1998)

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The best-selling popular history book by Adam Hochschild that explores the exploitation of the Congo Free State genocide by King Leopold II of Belgium between 1885 and 1908. King Leopold of Belgium, writes historian Adam Hochschild in this grim history, did not much care for his native land or his subjects, all of which he dismissed as “small country, small people.” Even so, he searched the globe to find a colony for Belgium, frantic that the scramble of other European powers for overseas dominions in Africa and Asia would leave nothing for himself or his people. When he eventually found a suitable location in what would become the Belgian Congo, later known as Zaire and now simply as Congo, Leopold set about establishing a rule of terror that would culminate in the deaths of 4 to 8 million indigenous people, “a death toll,” Hochschild writes, “of Holocaust dimensions.” Those who survived went to work mining ore or harvesting rubber, yielding a fortune for the Belgian king, who salted away billions of dollars in hidden bank accounts throughout the world. 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.

The title is adopted from the poem The Congo, by Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay. Condemning Léopold’s actions, Lindsay wrote: Listen to the yell of Léopold’s ghost, / Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host. The book is the basis of a 2006 documentary film of the same name, directed by Pippa Scott and narrated by Don Cheadle.

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Written by bluehammer

December 22, 2008 at 4:13 am

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