Like many of the historical topics that I am interested – like comprehensive, well written histories of ancient and medieval China – I was unable to find books on the wars of independence in Africa involving ageing European imperial powers like Portugal and Belgium that wind up being a playground for the CIA and worse….
If you know of any good books about Portugal’s involvement and wars in Angola, let me know…
King Leopold’s Ghost is one of the few books that did come in the course of my search. Of course, this is not about Portugal and Angola, but rather, Belgium and the Congo. Close enough.
During the 1840-1914 “Scramble for Africa” – the height of European imperialism – little Belgium’s constitutional monarch, the lonely, somewhat tortured Leopold II – desperately wanted a colony. And lacking both the military means, much less a domestic drive to acquire a colony, he essentially dedicated his life to acquiring a colony and running it himself. He stands out as more CEO than “king.”
By carefully manicuring an image of philanthropy and backing famous explores of Africa – especially the (also tortured and lonely) Henry Morton Stanly – Leopold managed to wrangle a rather unique situation. He cobbled together “treaties” signed by African Kongo chiefs which seceded their land into an “independent state” based on “free trade.” After furious lobbying and international campaigns that can only be described as propaganda – perhaps the first true use of “lobbying” in the way we mean it today – the US recognised the “Free State of the Kong.” Not ruled by the civilian government of Belgium, in effect the Congo became the personal property of Leopold.
The result was a humanitarian disaster – the Congolese were not just exploited as slave labor for ivory and rubber, their treatment was such that Leopold’s regime can be considered a genocide. This devastation, and the humanitarian response in Europe constitute the first example of both that we see in history. Leopold made millions. And Joseph Conrad wrote his brilliant Heart of Darkness from it.
King Leopold’s Ghost does a great job balancing human interest and telling the stories of the major personalities involved with facts as they can be ascertained. Narrative and factual rigour are well matched in this book. Informative, eye-opening and despite the rather tragic topic, quite enjoyable.