Posted on May 22, 2023

King Hochschild’s Hoax

Bruce Gilley, American Conservative, April 17, 2023

For the past 25 years, the idea of the Congo has been closely linked in the Western imagination to the 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost by the American journalist Adam Hochschild. The book is widely assigned in high schools and colleges, and it regularly tops best-seller lists in colonial, African, and Western history. Hochschild has become a sort of king of the Congo, or at least of its history. The book is reflexively cited by reputable scholars in their footnotes any time they wish to assert that it is “well known” and “beyond doubt” that sinister men in Europe wrought havoc in Africa over a century ago. Any discussion of the Congo, or of European colonialism more generally, invariably begins with the question: “Have you read King Leopold’s Ghost?”

I have read it. And I can declare that it is a vast hoax, full of distortions and errors both numerous and grave, a few of which I will detail in this short essay. Some people might view “King Hochschild’s Hoax,” as we might call it, as an empowering fable for modern Africans at the expense of the white man. But its debilitating effects on Africa, and on the Congo in particular, make the opposite more nearly the case. It is a callous and negligent chicotte (hippo whip) lash on the backs of all black Africans, narcissistic guilt porn for white liberals at the expense of the African. The Congolese lawyer Marcel Yabili calls it “the greatest falsification in modern history,” a compliment of sorts, I suppose.

Hochschild’s book is a history of the private domain of the Belgian King Léopold II in the Congo river basin that was founded in 1885 and then handed over to the Belgian government in 1908. The book alternates between diabolical accounts of Léopold and hagiographic accounts of three of his critics: the British campaigner E.D. Morel, the British diplomat Roger Casement, and the black American missionary William Henry Sheppard. The narrative style is dark and conspiratorial, from the initial plans for the domain to its final dissolution. All along, Hochschild’s aim is to elevate the story into one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated by the West upon the Rest.

There have been two documentary films about Hochschild’s fable, both travesties of art as well as fact. But the worst is yet to come. A dramatized Hollywood version by the American directors Ben Affleck and Martin Scorsese, co-produced with the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, has been in development since 2019. The history of the Congo might have survived one gut punch from California (Hochschild did his research entirely at libraries in the state and teaches at Berkeley). But once Hollywood weighs in on the matter, history as such will be impossible. Before that happens, let’s set the record straight and end this most malicious form of imperial plunder.

The first and biggest deceit at the heart of King Leopold’s Ghost is the attempt to equate Léopold’s “État indépendant du Congo” or EIC (long mistranslated as the Congo Free State) with Western colonialism. Yet the EIC was a short-term solution to the absence of colonial government in the Congo river basin. The deal was simple: Léopold was to open the area to trade and eliminate endemic Arab slave empires and African tribal wars. In return, he hoped to bring glory to the Belgian people for having done what no other European ruler dared (one in three Europeans who traveled to the Congo died, usually of illness). The EIC had nothing to do with the Belgian government. To the extent that limited abuses and misrule occurred in some parts of his domain (discussed below), this was a direct result of its not being controlled by a European state. As no less than Morel insisted (not quoted by Hochschild), “Let us refrain from referring to the Congo as a Belgian colony, let us avoid writing of ‘Belgian misrule.’”

In a pattern of misrepresentation that is repeated on other issues, Hochschild at first mentions this inconvenient fact and then proceeds to say the opposite for the entirety of the book. The fiefdom “was shared in no way with the Belgian government,” which “had no legal authority over [Léopold] as ruler of the Congo,” he alerts readers. Yet not only the subtitle of the book but laced throughout are constant smears against European colonialism. The book shows “colonial brutality” and “the wrongs of colonial rule” resulting from the “logical consequence of the very idea of colonialism.”

This distortion is no mere technicality. Rather, it is the central lie of King Leopold’s Ghost. The freelance EIC had at its peak just 1,500 administrative officers and about 19,000 police and soldiers for an area one third the size of the continental United States. As such, it exerted virtually no control over most areas, which were in the hands either of Arab slave-traders and African warlords, or of native soldiers nominally in the employ of Belgian concession companies without a white man for a hundred miles. Hochschild’s description of the EIC as “totalitarian” is bizarre, as is his claim that Léopold exerted a “framework of control…across his enormous realm.” If only this were true.

That is why Congo reformers like Morel, much to the annoyance of Hochschild, advocated either German or British colonization of the area. Morel’s view, according to Hochschild, speaking ex cathedra from the hallowed seat of modern California, “seems surprising to us today” and was among his “faults” and “political limitations.” Quite the opposite. The moment the Belgians colonized the Congo in 1908, a miraculous improvement was noted on all fronts. Seeking to debunk colonialism, Hochschild’s book demonstrates the opposite. This is the first and biggest lie at the heart of King Leopold’s Ghost.

The second, but more visible, untruth is the claim that for 23 years, EIC officials throughout the territory sponsored violent actions such as chopping off hands to force natives to collect rubber, leaving millions dead in a horror that should be directly compared to the Holocaust. There are about a dozen little cheats here, one embedded in the other like Russian nesting dolls.

Here are the facts. By 1891, six years into the attempt to build the EIC, the whole project was on the verge of bankruptcy. It would have been easy for Léopold to raise revenues by sanctioning imports of liquor that could be taxed or by levying fees on the number of huts in each village, both of which would have caused harm to the native population. A truly “greedy” king, as Hochschild repeatedly calls him, had many fiscal options that Léopold did not exercise.

Instead, he did what most other colonial governments and many post-colonial ones in Africa did: He imposed a labor requirement in lieu of taxes. In a small part of the upper Congo river area, he declared an EIC monopoly over “natural products,” including rubber and ivory, that could be harvested as part of the labor requirement to pay for the territory’s government. From 1896 to 1904, an EIC company and two private companies operated in this area, which covered about 15 percent of the territory and held about a fifth of the population. The resulting rubber revenues temporarily saved the EIC, but only until rubber prices collapsed. Still, the preservation of the EIC meant the preservation of its life-saving interventions against disease, tribal war, slavery, and grinding poverty that had bedeviled the region since recorded time.

The rubber quotas imposed on natives in this 15 percent of the territory were enforced by native soldiers working for the companies or for the EIC itself. In many areas, the rubber came with ease and the natives prospered. The rubber station at Irengi, for instance, was known for its bulging stores and hospitable locals, whose women spent a lot of time making bracelets and where “no one ever misses a meal,” noted the EIC soldier George Bricusse in his memoirs. Elsewhere, however, absent direct supervision, and with the difficulties of meeting quotas greater, some native soldiers engaged in abusive behavior to force the collection. Bricusse noted these areas as well, especially where locals had sabotaged rubber stations and then fled to the French Congo to the north. In rare cases, native soldiers kidnapped women or killed men to exact revenge. When they fell into skirmishes, they sometimes followed long-standing Arab and African traditions by cutting off the hands or feet of the fallen as trophies, or to show that the bullets they fired had been used in battle. How many locals died in these frays is unclear, but the confirmed cases might put the figure at about 10,000, a terrible number.


Hochschild thus takes a very limited, unintentional, unforeseen, and perhaps unavoidable problem of native-on-native conflict over rubber harvesting and blows it up into a “forgotten Holocaust” to quote the subtitle given to the French edition of his book. {snip}


Third, as a self-proclaimed human rights activist, Hochschild can be forgiven for his economic illiteracy. But since it is the keystone that begins his tale, it is another fib worth correcting. The EIC’s large trade surplus (more physical goods going out than coming in) was because virtually none of the revenue from the goods sold in Europe was sent back to pay for labor, which was “paid for” as a fulfillment of the EIC labor obligation. Instead, the revenue paid for European administration, infrastructure, and trade services in the Congo as well as profits that were parked in Belgium (an overall payments deficit). For Hochschild to claim that Africans were getting “little or nothing” for the goods they produced because fewer goods were being sent to Africa displays a stunning economic ignorance. It is like saying that the empty container ships returning to China from today’s port of Long Beach show that China’s workers are being paid “little or nothing.”

Fourth, the big headline of the book, a whopper really, is Hochschild’s claim that the population of the Congo fell by 50 percent or 10 million on Léopold’s watch. The EIC, he claims, caused “depopulation” and “mass murder” of “genocidal proportions” due to its drive for rubber profits. In fact, the most knowledgeable estimates today suggest that the general population of the Congo rose slightly during the EIC era and that any deaths attributable to the limited abuses in the rubber areas were far outweighed by the lives saved and created by the EIC’s direct interventions in other respects. Even if we can agree that any life lost to senseless violence and negligent governance is always and everywhere deserving of condemnation, Léopold’s regime was a monumental achievement in saving and promoting black lives.

How could Hochschild go so wrong? He was highly motivated from the start to “find” a genocide because, as he notes, his project began by reading the American humorist Mark Twain’s claim that eight to ten million people had died in the EIC. But no scholar has ever made such a charge. His source was a chapter by the Belgian ethnographer Jan Vansina, citing his own work on population declines in the entirety of central Africa throughout the 19th century that included only what became the northern areas of the EIC. In any case, Vansina’s own source was a Harvard study of 1928 that quoted a 1919 Belgian claim that “in some areas” population had fallen by half, but quoted it in order to assert that it was almost certainly false.

The first proper sample-based census was not carried out until 1949, so demographers have to reconstruct population totals from micro-level data on food supply, settlement patterns, village counts, birth records, and the like. The most sophisticated modeling by French and Belgian demographers variously suggests a population of 8 to 11 million in 1885 and 10 to 12 million by 1908. The Belgian Jean-Paul Sanderson, using a backward projection method by age cohorts, found a slight decline, from 10.5 million in 1885 to 10 million in 1910. This estimated change in total population governed by changing birth and death rates over a 25 year period represents a negligible annual net decline in population.

Even taking Sanderson’s pessimistic estimate as correct, does this mean that Léopold’s rule “killed” 500,000 people? Of course not, because, in addition to the misplaced personalization of long-term population changes, the rubber regions, as mentioned, experienced both population increases and declines. Even in the latter, such as the rubber-producing Bolobo area in the lower reaches of the Congo river, population decline was a result of the brutalities of freelance native chiefs and ended with the arrival of an EIC officer. More generally, the stability and enforced peace of the EIC caused birth rates to rise near EIC centers, such as at the Catholic mission under EIC protection at Baudouinville (today’s Kirungu). Population declines were in areas outside of effective EIC control. The modest population gains caused by EIC interventions were overwhelmed by a range of wholly separate factors, which in order of importance were: the slave trade, sleeping sickness, inter-tribal warfare, other endemic diseases (smallpox, beriberi, influenza, yellow fever, pneumonia, dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and venereal disease), cannibalism, and human sacrifice.


Hochschild is at pains to convince the reader that anyone opposing the EIC was good, whether brutal slave trader, inveterate cannibal, fetish priest, or ethnic-cleansing warlord. His treatment of the 1895 rebellion by native soldiers at a military camp named Luluabourg in the southern savannah strains to portray the rebels as noble savages pining for freedom and a return to pastoral life. In his telling, the Belgian commander Mathieu Pelzer was a “bully” who “used his fists” and thus got his comeuppance at breakfast with a knife to the throat. Actually, Pelzer had nothing to do with it. The rebels were former soldiers for a black slave king. The EIC had brought them to the southern camp to reintegrate them as government soldiers. But their loss of royal prerogatives to whore, steal, and maim caused them to rebel. The group never exceeded 300 (Hochschild speculates that it reached 2,500) and petered out in the northern jungles in 1897, a rag-tag criminal gang gone to seed.

This egregious example of “Belgians bad, natives good” is the conceptual foundation of King Hochschild’s Hoax. And it bleeds into what is, for most readers, the enduring imaginative impact of the book, to have put a nasty Belgian face onto Mistah Kurtz, the phantom who draws Marlow’s steamboat up the Congo river in Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. Like generations of English professors, Hochschild has misread the book as an indictment of colonialism, which is difficult to square with its openly pro-colonial declarations and the fact of the “adoring” natives surrounding the deceased Kurtz.