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the Complete Review
the complete review - history

King Leopold's Ghost

Adam Hochschild

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To purchase King Leopold's Ghost

Title: King Leopold's Ghost
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: History
Written: 1998
Length: 320 pages
Availability: King Leopold's Ghost - US
King Leopold's Ghost - UK
King Leopold's Ghost - Canada
Les fantômes du roi Léopold II - France
Schatten über dem Kongo - Deutschland
  • A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
  • Awarded the 1999 Lionel Gelber Prize
  • Awarded the 1999 Duff Cooper Prize
  • Awarded the 1998 J. Anthony Lukas Prize

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Our Assessment:

A- : a good introduction to the horrors perpetrated in Africa a hundred years ago, engagingly told.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Spectator A- 2/1999 Algis Valiunas
Christian Science Monitor A 15/10/1998 Merle Rubin
Daily Telegraph B+ 19/4/1999 Hugh Thomas
The Economist B+ 11/9/1999 .
Foreign Affairs A 3-4/1999 Gail M. Gerhart
The Guardian A 24/4/1999 Giles Foden
The LA Times A+ 10/1/1999 Neal Acherson
Literary Review A 4/1999 Robin Blackburn
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 24/5/2000 Renate Wiggershaus
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/9/1998 Jeremy Harding
The Observer A 19/3/2000 Stephen Pritchard
Salon B- 9/9/1998 Zachary Karabell
San Francisco Chronicle A 27/9/1998 Luc Sante
The Sunday Times B+ 18/4/1999 Patrick French
The Sunday Times A+ 12/3/2000 Alex Clark
TLS A 27/8/1999 Robert Harms
The Wilson Quarterly A Winter/1999 Rebecca A. Clay

  Review Consensus:

  A terrible but fascinating story, well told and documented, possibly missing some of the larger historical context.

  From the Reviews:
  • "In the main, Hochschild has written a moving and important book about wickedness triumphant and defeated." - Algis Valiunas, The American Spectator

  • "Hochschild has written a work of history that reads like a novel." - Merle Rubin, Christian Science Monitor

  • "King Leopold's Ghost is an exemplary piece of history-writing: urgent, vivid and compelling." - Robin Blackburn, Literary Review

  • "Congo reform, however, remains a model of human rights campaigning. And King Leopold's Ghost is a model account, both of that great public movement and of the frenzy of killing and profiteering that gave rise to it." - Jeremy Harding, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Adam Hochschild writes a compelling narrative in lucid prose, one that chronicles a conveniently forgotten atrocity that stains the pages of world history." - Stephen Pritchard, The Observer

  • "Hochschild prefers to see the Congo as a sorry tale that is in the end redemptive. Unfortunately, redemption in this case can only be found by distorting history." - Zachary Karabell, Salon

  • "Hochschild's gripping narrative, as dense as a novel and laden with subplots, shows among many other things the roots of the chaos and bloodshed ravaging the Congo today." - Luc Sante, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(T)ruly gripping. All credit is due to Hochschild, who displays a mastery of material and a lightness of touch that stand in sharp contrast to the horror of what he describes." - Alex Clark, The Sunday Times

  • "Hochschild, in his thoroughly researched and engagingly written book, tells the story of one of the greatest human-rights crimes in the past hundred years" - Robert Harms, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       King Leopold's Ghost tells the story of King Leopold II of Belgium and his (mis)rule of a colony that he essentially owned, known variously as the Congo, the Belgian Congo, and Zaire. It is a wild and unpleasant story of man's capacity for evil and the peculiar manifestations of it. King Leopold II, who never set foot in his fiefdom, managed (with the help of many willing underlings) to ruin a country. Regrettably, it is not the worst example of colonial misrule, but merely a representative one. What is shocking is how many people were affected (the Congo is a huge territory) and also how recent these events were -- barely a hundred years ago.
       Hochschild effectively portrays Leopold's misrule, and, equally significantly, describes those that managed to campaign against it. There were heroes in this sordid tale, human rights campaigners at a time when the concept was still a foreign one and when it was taken for granted that the white man was superior to the natives.
       We were somewhat surprised by the reaction to the book, at how unfamiliar people are to the events described herein. Even Hochschild acknowledges that he knew little about Leopold's misrule (and the campaign against it), and near the end of the book he describes a Belgian diplomat who was also unfamiliar with these events. We always thought people knew. Apparently they didn't and they don't, and so this is a very useful book in again revealing what went on.
       Hochschild is effective in his descriptions, especially of the colourful individuals involved, both the good and the bad. His analysis of the situation is solid, though necessarily superficial (it is a short book, dealing with far flung and complex issues and occurrences). Hochschild packages the story well, and it makes a good -- though shocking -- read. Hochschild simplifies on occasion, but he does so in a reasonable and acceptable manner. The basic case of what happened is well presented, and the historical characters do come alive.
       It is a thoughtful book, with Hochschild generally reminding the reader of the dangers the text poses, e.g. in its reliance on sources that are naturally not objective. A reminder of the horrors of colonialism in any form, and of the consequences of power (corrupting, here as everywhere, absolutely), this is required reading for anyone not familiar with the story. (Those who know all about King Leopold II might find it a bit oversimplified, but it is still a decent read).

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King Leopold's Ghost: Reviews: King Leopold II, the Belgian Congo, and the modern Congo Other books under review that may be of interest:

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About the Author:

       Adam Hochschild is the author of numerous books, including The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin

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© 1999-2010 the complete review

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