King Leopold’s Ghost has the most compelling opening I have ever read
The beginnings of this story lie far back in time, and its reverberations still sound today. But for me a central incandescent moment, one that illuminates long decades before and after, is a young man’s flash of moral recognition.
The year is 1897 or 1898. Try to imagine him, briskly stepping off a cross-Channel steamer, a forceful, burly man in his mid-twenties, with a handlebar mustache. He is confident and well spoken, but his British speech is without the polish of Eton or Oxford. He is well dressed, but the clothes are not from Bond Street. With an ailing mother and a wife and growing family to support, he is not the sort of person likely to get caught up in an idealistic cause. His ideas are thoroughly conventional. He looks-and is- every inch the sober, respectable business man.
Edmund Dene Morel is a trusted employee of a Liverpool shipping line. A subsidiary of the company has the monopoly on all transport of cargo to and from the Congo Free State, as it is then called, the huge territory in central Africa that is the world’s only colony claimed by one man. That man is King Leopold II of Belgium, a ruler much admired throughout Europe as a “philanthropic” monarch. He has welcomed Christian missionaries to his new colony; his troops, it is said, have fought and defeated local slave-traders who preyed on the population; and for more than a decade European newspapers have praised him for investing his personal fortune in public works to benefit the Africans.
Because Morel speaks fluent French, his company sends him to Belgium every few weeks to supervise the loading and unloading of ships on the Congo run. Although the officials he works with have been handling this shipping traffic for years without a second thought, Morel begins to notice things that unsettle him. At the docks of the big port of Antwerp he sees his company’s ships arriving filled to the hatch covers with valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory. But they case off their hawsers to steam back to the Congo, while military bands play on the pier and eager young men in uniform line the ships’ rails, what they carry is mostly army officers, firearms, and ammunition. There is no trade going on here. Little or nothing is being exchanged for the rubber and ivory. As morel watches these riches streaming to Europe with almost no goods being sent to Africa to pay for them, he realizes there can be only one explanation for their source: slave labor.
Brought face to face with evil, Morel does not turn away. Instead, what he sees determines the course of his life and course of an extraordinary movement, the first great international human rights movement of the twentieth century. Seldom has one human being- impassioned, eloquent, blessed with brilliant organizing skills and nearly superhuman energy- managed almost single-handedly to put one subject on the world’s front pages for more than a decade. Only a few years after standing on the docks of Antwerp, Edmund Morel would be at the White House, insisting to President Theodore Roosevelt that the United States had a special responsibility to do something about the Congo. He would organize delegations to the British Foreign Office. He would mobilize everyone from Booker T. Washington to Anatole France to the Archbishop of Canterbury to join his cause. More than two hundred mass meetings to protest slave labor in the Congo would be held across the United Sates. A larger number of gatherings in England- nearly three hundred a year at the crusade’s peak- would raw as many as five thousand people at a time. In London, one letter of protest to the Times on the Congo would be signed by eleven peers, nineteen bishops, seventy-six members of Parliament, the presidents of seven Chambers of Commerce, thirteen editors of major newspapers, and every lord mayor in the country. Speeches about the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo would be given as far away as Australia. In Italy, two men would fight a duel over the issue. British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, a man not given to overstatement, would declare that “no external question for at least thirty years has moved the country so strongly and so vehemently.”
This is the story of that movement, of the savage crime that was its target, of the long period of exploration and conquest that preceded it, and of the way the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history.
This kind of thing is my heroism porn. Most movies are about people that set out to be heroes; they look at the costs and benefits and decide it is a trade off worth making. That is great, and I don’t want to diminish it. But they can build their lives around it, and that does reduce the costs. What I find most affecting is people that were living ordinary lives who encounter something they cannot let stand, and don’t. It was particularly touching in the case of Morel, who didn’t have to know what he knew. Lots of people were on that dock and didn’t know or didn’t care. He figured it out and switched tracks in his life when it would have been easy to pretend everything was okay. Everyone I talked to for the last two weeks heard how beautiful I found that. I used the story to talk myself into doing things that were a little bit hard because they were so much less hard than what Morel did.
Here’s the story I told: Under a humanitarian guise that fooled most Europeans at the time, Leopold created a form of slavery even worse than that of North America or even the Caribbean. Men were worked to death attempting to free their wives and children from slavery. Against that, Edward Morel and and increasing number of allies publicize the atrocities until Leopold backs down.
This would be a really good story, and it’s what I thought was happening for most of the book, even while my knowledge that the modern Congo isn’t all sunshine and roses gnawed at me.
In the last hour, it gets more complicated. Yes, slavery went away and the rubber harvest (driver of much of the atrocities) declined. But… the rubber decline could have been caused entirely by cultivated rubber farms coming online. And Belgium may have stopped anything called slavery, they got about the same amount of financial value for about the same amount of violence out of their taxation system. I realize the phrases “taxation is slavery” and “taxation is theft” are fairly loaded, but I think everyone can agree that people coming in from elsewhere to demand taxes and provide nothing of value to their subjects is Bad.
And while there are the statistics that make the Congo look particularly bad, they’re mostly an artifact of size. Per capita the other European powers in Africa were just as bad, and at the same time England (Morel’s home) was exterminating aborigines in Australia and America was going scorched earth on the Philippines (plus its usual policy towards American Indians).
I could forgive Morel for advocating for a gentler form of colonialism. People can only be so much better than their time, and a more correct person possibly couldn’t have accomplished as much because no one would listen to them. But my admiration for this man was very tied to the fact that he saw something he didn’t have to see, and chose to pursue it. If he was blinding to himself to similar atrocities closer to home- especially when a great deal of African colonization, including Leopold’s rape of the Congo, was done under the guise of protecting Africans from Arab Slave Traders.
We don’t know Morel did nothing. He went on to lead the pacifist movement against WW1, which was probably the right side but it’s even harder to argue he changed history for the better there. But we don’t know he did something either.
This is a disappointing ending for a man I was well into planning how to get a Petrov-day style holiday. He did better than average at seeing the horrors in front of him, but still not the ones that were done by his in-group. It’s debatable if he accomplished anything. He still sacrificed a lot, but I’m not prepared to valorize that alone. It’s not even a good effective altruist cautionary tale because even with 100 years of hindsight it’s not clear what he could have done better. Even focusing on Leopold’s horrors instead of England’s might have been the correct decision, since it let him gather stronger allies.
The book is beautifully written and read. For whatever reason I was sadder and less callous listening to this than I am to most atrocities- maybe it was the writing, maybe because it was entirely new to me and I hadn’t had time to develop a shell. And as heartbroken as I was to have my new hero brought down, I really admire the book for being willing to include that complexity when it could have gotten away with ignoring it. So I can’t recommend it highly enough, assuming you want to be very sad.