In the 1880’s, as the European powers were carving up Africa, King Leopold II of Belgium seized for himself the vast and mostly unexplored territory surrounding the Congo River. Carrying out a genocidal plundering of the Congo, he looted its rubber, brutalized its people, and ultimately slashed its population by ten million–all the while shrewdly cultivating his reputation as a great humanitarian.
Heroic efforts to expose these crimes eventually led to the first great human rights movement of the twentieth century, in which everyone from Mark Twain to the Archbishop of Canterbury participated. King Leopold’s Ghost is the haunting account of a megalomaniac of monstrous proportions, a man as cunning, charming, and cruel as any of the great Shakespearean villains.
It is also the deeply moving portrait of those who fought Leopold: a brave handful of missionaries, travelers, and young idealists who went to Africa for work or adventure and unexpectedly found themselves witnesses to a holocaust. Adam Hochschild brings this largely untold story alive with the wit and skill of a Barbara Tuchman.
Like her, he knows that history often provides a far richer cast of characters than any novelist could invent. Chief among them is Edmund Morel, a young British shipping agent who went on to lead the international crusade against Leopold. Another hero of this tale, the Irish patriot Roger Casement, ended his life on a London gallows.
Two courageous black Americans, George Washington Williams and William Sheppard, risked much to bring evidence of the Congo atrocities to the outside world. Sailing into the middle of the story was a young Congo River steamboat officer named Joseph Conrad. And looming above them all, the duplicitous billionaire King Leopold II.
With great power and compassion, King Leopold’s Ghost will brand the tragedy of the Congo–too long forgotten–onto the conscience of the West.
Adam Hochschild (pronunciation: ”’Hoch”’ as in “spoke”; ”’schild”’ as in “build”) published his first book, “Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son,” in 1986. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called it “an extraordinarily moving portrait of the complexities and confusions of familial love . . . firmly grounded in the specifics of a particular time and place, conjuring them up with Proustian detail and affection.”
It was followed by “The Mirror at Midnight: A South African Journey,” and “The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin.” His 1997 collection, “Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels,” won the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the Art of the Essay. “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa” was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award. It also won a J. Anthony Lukas award in the United States, and the Duff Cooper Prize in England.
Five of his books have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. His “Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves” was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History.
“To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918,” Hochschild’s latest book, was a New York Times bestseller. It was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction and won the 2012 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction.
The American Historical Association gave Hochschild its 2008 Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, a prize given each year to someone outside the academy who has made a significant contribution to the study of history.
“Throughout his writings over the last decades,” the Association’s citation said, “Adam Hochschild has focused on topics of important moral and political urgency, with a special emphasis on social and political injustices and those who confronted and struggled against them, as in the case of Britain’s 18th-century abolitionists in ‘Bury the Chains’;
‘The Mirror at Midnight’, a study of the struggle between the Boers and Zulus for control over South Africa in the 19th-century Battle of Blood River and its contentious commemoration by rival groups 150 years later; the complex confrontation of Russians with the ghost of Stalinist past in ‘The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin’; and the cruelties enacted during the course of Western colonial expansion and domination, notably in his widely acclaimed ‘King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa’, among his many other publications. All his books combine dramatic narratives and meticulous research. . . .
” ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ had an extraordinary impact, attracting readers the world over, altering the teaching and writing of history and affecting politics and culture at national and international levels. Published in English and translated into 11 additional languages, the book has been incorporated into secondary school curricula and appears as a key text in the historiography of colonial Africa for college and graduate students.
But it is within Belgium that Hochschild’s work has had the most dramatic impact, demonstrating the active and transformative power of history. The publication of ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ forced Belgians to come to terms for the first time with their long buried colonial past and generated intense public debate that so troubled Belgian officials that they reportedly instructed diplomats on how to deflect embarrassing questions that the book raised about the past.
The book offered welcome support for others in Belgium who sought acknowledgment and accountability for Belgian actions in the Congo. . . . Few works of history have the power to effect such significant change in people’s understanding of their past.”
Hochschild teaches narrative writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He and his wife, sociologist and author Arlie Russell Hochschild, have two sons and two granddaughters.