Rubber Barons in a Hit-and-Run Empire

A Review of 'King Leopold's Ghost'

(A story of greed, terror and heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild)

 

This book has certainly been written at the right time, now that the conscience of Europe and America has been stirred by the movement to cancel the Third World debt and thereby make some attempt to compensate for the appalling degradation and persecution inflicted on the native peoples of Africa, America, Australia and elsewhere over a period of a few centuries.

 

Adam Hochschild's book traces the beginnings of Belgian colonialism in Africa and examines carefully the background to a truly tyrannical situation where the native population were treated as slaves and forced under threat of the most gruesome punishments to bring in quotas of rubber as laid down by the Belgian officials. The natives of the Congo were certainly victims of new scientific advances because, as a result of the development of transport and especially the internal combustion engine, rubber for tyres became more valuable as a raw material than ever before.

 

It is an appalling tale of man's inhumanity to man, but at the same time it shows what can be done by even a few conscientious people who are prepared to stand up and make sacrifices for justice. The people who succeeded in bringing the true story of what was happening in the Congo to public attention included the historian George Washington Williams, the journalist E.D. Morel and, of course, our own Roger Casement. It is of some satisfaction to know that an Irishman played a pivotal role in ending the terror. And terror it certainly was because Hochschild estimates that Belgian colonialism in the Congo cost ten million lives.

 

The book is very necessary for people interested in understanding the present situation in the third world. Those who read it will also possibly agree with my belief that not just Ireland, but humanity in general, owes a great debt of gratitude to the leaders of the 1916 Rising who set in train a series of events that led not just to the unlamented demise of the British empire, but all other empires also. People might also agree with my contention that by way of reparation to the Third World, not alone should its debt be cancelled immediately, but a serious attempt should be made to pay substantial compensation to the descendants of the unfortunate victims of English and other imperialists during the past two centuries.

 

The Western World and western capitalism surely has the resources to make this atonement and generous actions on their part now would be way more valuable for humanity and world peace that the massive sums of money invested in weapons of destruction.

 

Mr. Adam Hochschild, hopefully, will proceed to make studies of other countries who suffered under imperialism, including the virtual extermination of the Australian aborigines and the native Indians of North America.

 

Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin.

 

(First Published in The Irish Examiner 27-11-1999)

 

Further Reading:

 

In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong

(Fourth Estate - Paperback 334 pages - 13.99).

 

 

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