King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa


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Again I was lifted, and dashed on the bench with a shock that almost broke my spine. Other students later recalled no mutiny, much less one led by Stanley; they remembered Francis as a gentle man and Stanley as a teacher's pet, often given favors and encouragement and put in charge of the class when Francis was away. Workhouse records show Stanley leaving not as a runaway but to live at his uncle's while going to school. Equally fanciful is Stanley's account of his time in New Orleans. He lived, he says, at the home of the benevolent cotton broker, Henry Stanley, and his saintly, fragile wife.

When a yellow fever epidemic struck the city, she sickened and died, in a bed curtained with white muslin, but at the moment of death "she opened her mild eyes, and spoke words as from afar: 'Be a good boy.

Dan Jacobson reviews ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ by Adam Hochschild · LRB 1 April

God bless you! But sadly, in , Stanley's generous adoptive father followed his beloved wife into the next world. As I contemplated the body I vexed myself with asking, Had my conduct been as perfect as I then wished it had been? Had I failed in aught? Had I esteemed him as he deserved? Although they did adopt two children, both were girls. According to city directories and census reports, young Stanley lived not in their home but in a series of boarding houses.

And Stanley the merchant had an angry quarrel and permanent rupture with his employee, after which he asked that the young man's name never again be mentioned in his presence. Stanley's wishful description of his youth clearly owes something to his contemporary Charles Dickens, similarly fond of deathbed scenes, saintly women, and wealthy benefactors.

It also owes much to Stanley's feeling that his real life was so embedded in disgrace that he would have to invent whatever self he presented to the world. Not only did he make up events in his autobiography, but he created journal entries about a dramatic shipwreck and other adventures that never happened. Sometimes an episode in his African travels appears in strikingly different form in his journal, in letters, in the newspaper articles he sent home, and in the books he wrote after each trip. Psychohistorians have had a feast. One of the more revealing episodes Stanley describes or invents took place soon after he arrived in New Orleans, when he was sharing a bed in a boarding house with Dick Heaton, another young man who had come over from Liverpool as a deckhand.

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

When I rose in the morning I found that he was not undressed. I sat up I know! Dick, you are a girl. Whether real or made up, the episode's emotional message is the same: Stanley's horror at the idea of finding himself so close to a woman.


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On the second day of fighting he was surrounded by half a dozen Union soldiers and soon afterward found himself in a crowded, typhus-ridden prisoner-of-war camp outside Chicago. The only way out of this miserable place, he discovered, was to enlist in the Union Army, which he promptly did, only to fall ill with dysentery and receive a medical discharge.

After working his way back and forth across the Atlantic as a sailor, in he enlisted in the Union Navy. His fine handwriting got him a post as ship's clerk on the frigate Minnesota. When the ship bombarded a Confederate fort in North Carolina, Stanley became one of the few people to see combat on both sides of the Civil War. The Minnesota returned to port in early , and the restless Stanley deserted.

Now the pace of his movements accelerates. It is as if he has no more patience for confining, regulated institutions like the workhouse, a merchant ship, or the military. He goes first to St. Louis, signs on as a free-lance contributor to a local newspaper, and sends back a series of florid dispatches from ever farther west: Denver, Salt Lake City, San Francisco. He writes disapprovingly of "debauchery and dissipation" and the "whirlpool of sin" of the Western frontier towns.

After an adventure-seeking trip to Turkey, Stanley returned to the American West, and his career as a newspaperman took off. For most of he covered the Indian Wars, sending dispatches not only to St. Louis but to East Coast papers as well.

It did not matter that the long, hopeless struggle of the southern Plains Indians against the invaders of their land was almost at an end, that the expedition Stanley accompanied saw little combat, or that most of the year was devoted to peace negotiations; Stanley's editors wanted war reporting about dramatic battles, and this he gave them: "The Indian War has at last been fairly inaugurated He hired Stanley to cover an exotic little war that promised to sell many newspapers: a punitive expedition the British government was organizing against the Emperor of Abyssinia.

At Suez, on his way to the war, Stanley bribed the chief telegraph clerk to make sure that when correspondents' reports arrived from the front, his would be the first cabled home. His foresight paid off, and his glowing account of how the British won the war's only significant battle was the first to reach the world.

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In a grand stroke of luck, the trans-Mediterranean telegraph cable broke just after Stanley's stories were sent off. The dispatches of his exasperated rivals, and even the British army's official reports, had to travel part of the way to Europe by ship. In a Cairo hotel, in June , Stanley savored his scoop and the news that he had been named a permanent roving foreign correspondent for the Herald. He was twenty-seven years old. In a Europe confidently entering the industrial age, brimming with the sense of power given it by the railroad and the oceangoing steamship, there now arose a new type of hero: the African explorer.

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King Leopold's ghost : a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa

To those who had lived in Africa for millennia, of course, "there was nothing to discover, we were here all the time," as a future African statesman would put it. But to nineteenth-century Europeans, celebrating an explorer for "discovering" some new corner of Africa was, psychologically, a prelude to feeling that the continent was theirs for the taking. In a Europe ever more tightly knit by the telegraph, the lecture circuit, and widely circulating daily newspapers, African explorers became some of the first international celebrity figures, their fame crossing national boundaries like that of today's champion athletes and movie stars.

From Africa's east coast, the Englishmen Richard Burton and John Speke made a bold journey to the interior to find Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world, and Lake Victoria, the continent's largest body of water, and capped their adventure with a spectacle the public always enjoys from celebrities, a bitter public falling-out. From Africa's west coast, the Frenchman Paul Belloni Du Chaillu brought back the skins and skeletons of gorillas, and told riveted audiences how the great hairy beasts abducted women to their jungle lairs for purposes too vile to be spoken of.

Expectations quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds in South Africa in and gold some two decades later. But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives. The British, in particular, fervently believed in bringing "civilisation" and Christianity to the natives; they were curious about what lay in the continent's unknown interior; and they were filled with righteousness about combating slavery.

Britain, of course, had only a dubious right to the high moral view of slavery. British ships had long dominated the slave trade, and only in had slavery's vestiges been abolished in the British Empire. But the English quickly forgot all this, just as they forgot that there had been slave revolts in the West Indies and that economic factors had hastened slavery's end by making it less profitable. In their opinion, slavery had come to an end throughout most of the world for one reason only: British virtue. When London's Albert Memorial was built in , one of its statues showed a young black African, naked except for some leaves over his loins.

The memorial's inaugural handbook explained that he was a "representative of the uncivilised races" listening to a European woman's teaching, and that the "broken chains at his feet refer to the part taken by Great Britain in the emancipation of slaves. Instead, righteous denunciations poured down on a distant, weak, and safely nonwhite target: the so-called Arab slave-traders raiding Africa from the east. In the slave markets of Zanzibar, traders sold their human booty to Arab plantation owners on the island itself, and to other buyers in Persia, Madagascar, and the various sultanates and principalities of the Arabian peninsula.

For Europeans, here was an ideal target for disapproval: one "uncivilised" race enslaving another. Arab was a misnomer; Afro-Arab would have been more accurate. Although their captives often ended up in the Arab world, the traders on the African mainland were largely Swahili-speaking Africans from territory that today is Kenya and Tanzania. Many had adopted Arab dress and Islam, but only some of them were of even partly Arab descent. Physician, prospector, missionary, explorer, and at one point even a British consul, he wandered across Africa for three decades, starting in the early s.

He searched for the source of the Nile, denounced slavery, found Victoria Falls, looked for minerals, and preached the gospel. As the first white man to cross the continent from coast to coast, he became a national hero in England. In , Livingstone set off on another long expedition, looking for slave-traders, potential Christians, the Nile, or anything else that might need discovering. Years passed, and he did not return. A journalist, Stanley wrote with the self-importance that had now become part of his public persona, is "like a gladiator in the arena Any flinching, any cowardice, and he is lost.

There, a dramatic conversation about Livingstone climaxed with Bennett's saying, "I mean that you shall go, and find him wherever you may hear that he is, and to get what news you can of him, and perhaps But nothing like this conversation seems to have happened. The pages of Stanley's journal for the dates around the alleged meeting with Bennett have been torn out, and in fact Stanley did not even begin looking for Livingstone until well over a year later.

However inflated, Stanley's story of Bennett's dramatic summons to Paris sold plenty of books, and to Stanley that mattered. He was after more than fame as an explorer; his melodramatic flair made him, as one historian has remarked, "the progenitor of all the subsequent professional travel writers.

With every step he took in Africa, Stanley planned how to tell the story once he got home. In a twentieth-century way, he was always sculpting the details of his own celebrity. To leave no clues for possible competitors in the search for Livingstone, Stanley carefully spread the word, as he headed for Africa, that he was planning to explore the Rufiji River. He first went to Zanzibar to recruit porters to carry his supplies, and from there wrote a stream of letters to Katie Gough-Roberts, a young woman in his home town of Denbigh.

Theirs had been a brief, stiff, nervous courtship, punctuated by Stanley's many departures for journalistic assignments, but in his letters he poured out his heart to her, confessing the painful secret of his illegitimate birth. Stanley planned to marry her on his return from finding Livingstone. If alive, you shall hear what he has to say; if dead I will find and bring his bones to you.

Livingstone, I presume?

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Because Stanley was the only source of information about the search his two white companions died during the expedition, and no one ever bothered to interview the surviving porters , the legend remained heroic. There were the months of arduous marching, the terrible swamps, the evil "Arab" slave-traders, the mysterious deadly diseases, the perilous attacks by crocodiles, and finally Stanley's triumphant discovery of the gentle Dr. Livingstone was haloed in Stanley's prose, for he was the noble father figure the younger man had long been looking for and, to some extent, had actually found.

According to Stanley, the experienced sage and the bold young hero became fast friends as they explored together for several months. They sailed around the northern end of Lake Tanganyika, hoping to find the Nile flowing out, but to their disappointment found only another river flowing in. The older man passed on his wisdom to the younger before they sadly bade each other farewell and parted forever. Conveniently for Stanley, Livingstone remained in Africa and died soon afterward, before he could come home to share the spotlight or to tell the story at all differently.

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Stanley cannily sprinkled his tale with picturesque chiefs, exotic sultans, and faithful servants, and he introduced it with the sweeping generalizations that allowed his readers to feel at home in an unfamiliar world: "The Arab never changes"; "The Banyan is a born trader"; "For the half-castes I have great contempt. Although they are softened by successive revisions, his writings show him given to explosive rage.

He drove his men up hills and through swamps without letup. Navy, but now he noted with satisfaction how "the incorrigible deserters Like many whites who would follow him, Stanley saw Africa as essentially empty. See, it is broad enough to support a large population. Fancy a church spire rising where that tamarind rears its dark crown of foliage, and think how well a score or two of pretty cottages would look instead of those thorn clumps and gum trees!

Pilgrim Fathers among the Anglo-Saxon race yet, and when America is filled up with their descendants, who shall say that Africa On his return to Europe, the French press compared his finding Livingstone to Hannibal's and Napoleon's crossing the Alps.

King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa
King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa King Leopolds Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa

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