Writer and journalist Adam Hochschild's 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost offers “lay audiences” a glimpse into an atrocity largely abandoned by popular historical consciousness. Rejected by nine publishers before being picked up by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hochschild reflects in his personal afterward – “it may have to do with the way most of us have been brought up to think that the tyrannies of our time worth writing about are communism and fascism.” In other words, stories of colonial violence and exploitation in non-western contexts are rarely remembered vis-à-vis the Holocaust and similar tragedies. This dynamic may be attributed to both constructions of foreign, enemy ideologies and the ethnic, or cultural, proximity of the victims to sympathizers. King Leopold's Ghost, therefore, offers us a meta-narrative on the making and unmaking of white memory and self – a history of Euro/American saviorism and barbarism as told through Christian gospel, the body, and the archives.
Christianity intervenes in the motivations and self-representations of several historical actors in this account. Hochschild readily illustrates how King Leopold professed his faith to justify and promote his own agenda. In the beginning, Leopold was considered “philanthropic” for opening the Congo to Christian missionaries and ousting slavers (1) – a model of white saviorism. He continued to present himself as a pious man when interviewed by Black American historian George Washington Williams, speaking of his “Christian duty to the poor African" (106). He also wielded this rhetoric when appealing to the Pope, seeking funds to “encourage the spread of Christ's word" (93). However, Hochschild does not fully investigate the “Christian duty” of the missionaries, journalists and politicians who campaigned against Leopold – opting to highlight their altruism over their ulterior motivations. Though he briefly discusses the confluence of European schemes cast onto Africa – economic and ideological alike (28) – the role of white Christian guilt and spectatorship deserves more thorough treatment.
"Demons/Devotees I, 2012." Ayana V. Jackson. Accessed October 9, 2018. https://www.ayanavjackson.com/archival-impulse.
"Alice Seeley Harris with Congolese children." International Slavery Museum. Accessed October 9, 2018. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/exhibitions/brutal-exposure/alice-seeley-harris.aspx.
Consider the selection of photographs between pages 116 and 11, attributed to Anti-Slavery International. Further investigation reveals they were produced by Alice Seeley Harris, passingly mentioned on pages 216 and 236 in relation to the evocative images she captured – moving white men to blanch or shed a tear, and white women to hurl their valuable jewelry at fundraisers. As Kevin Grant puts it in his 2001 article “Christian Critics of Empire,” Harris and her husband “invok[ed] their faith in the essential morality of Britain and their shame over Britain's complicity in the creation of the Congo regime … rally[ing] their audiences to protest as an act of Christian duty" (42). Indeed, missionary lantern slide lectures had not always centered on Leopold’s crimes, but rather the aforementioned altruism of the king and his civilizing mission amidst “the savagery of the Congolese (highlighting practices of cannibalism, slavery, and polygamy).” In this way, both Leopold and his opponents advanced their economic and ideological agendas in the Congo by appealing to the “Christian conscience” of whites – of the empire itself.
Both Christians and agents-cum-slavers were colonizers. The former merely positioned themselves against the state because they believed it was preventing the religious conversion of the Congolese. In the aforementioned article, Grant uses the papers of ex-agent and campaigner Edmund Dene Morel (who features prominently in Hochschild’s work) to describe this conflict of interests. Missionaries proclaimed Congolese people were “willing to learn” and “listen to the white missionary,” until enslavement “drove them from the mission stations" (42). In turn, these missionaries rallied their audiences to demand “suitable sites … for the erection of mission stations,” and threatened war with Leopold if their terms were not met (42). Rather than the courageous people that Hochschild makes them out to be – “Brought face to face with evil, Morel [did] not turn away” (2), Morel and those with whom he allied himself had their own colonizing agendas.* In this way, those who rallied against Leopold were much like Euro/American abolitionists who recognized slavery as a dying economic system and favored racial separatism (i.e., white purity). These “white saviors” were not morally superior, but rather economically and ideologically driven to action.
Consequently, imagery of Congolese people as passive bodies pervades the text – not only as recipients of Christian gospel and victims of brutal acts, but as units of (un)productive potential. For example, rubber-company agents and state courts excused their atrocities by referring to the “great difficulties” of deriving labor from “a population absolutely resistant to any idea of work, and which respects no other law than force, and knows no other means of persuasion than terror" (220). Thus, the white man’s burden was abuse, disguised as “discipline.”
In all of these accounts, Congolese people are spoken of or spoken for, but rarely speak for themselves. Not only physical violence, but what Saidiya Hartman refers to as “the violence of the archive” is ever-present in Hochschild’s book – from Leopold’s delusions of the Congo as an exotic “empire of his dreams” (175) to the missionaries’ “civilizing” agendas. As he passingly concedes in his introduction, “we do not have a full-length memoir or complete oral history of a single Congolese during the period of the greatest terror. Instead of African voices from this time there is largely silence" (5). The violence of the archive – almost entirely composed of colonizer perspectives – is the retrospective disempowerment of a people through a lack of resources. Hochschild’s treatment of historical gaps and omissions (or rather, his avoidance of them until the end of his work) obscures a complex and contested past – an issue worthy of fuller integration into his narrative. Indeed, his discussion of censorship is relegated to the intentional destruction of state records (294) and the act of forgetting (295) – that which shapes white memory.
Death and brutalization render the Black body the lone primary source for atrocity in this work. The primary historical actors of this “little-known” history are silent, yet embody violence. Congolese experiences are commodified and consumed by the white gaze. Missionary photography both objectifies and immortalizes without word, without first-person narrative. In these instances, Congolese individuals are depicted but do not describe their own circumstances or histories. Their bodies were read and interpreted for Christian missionaries’ agendas, and are presently reproduced for the purpose of illustrating an inherently one-sided history. How do we negotiate the politics of gazing? What does it mean for a historian to gaze for the sake of learning, retelling and remembering?
* Indeed, Morel was a white supremacist who believed in the biological inferiority of Black people. He even rejected the French “civilizing mission” in Africa for attempting to “uplift” Africans to the status of Europeans through cultural erasure/assimilation. See Iris Wigger, The 'Black Horror on the Rhine' Intersections of Race, Nation, Gender and Class in 1920s Germany (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 55-56.