Way Back When Discussions

  • King Leopold's Ghost

    Posted by: Joseph Ferreira



      An on-line enrichment discussion of the horrors of King Leopold II's rule over the Congo Free State.


      In 1998, author & historian Adam Hochschild published King Leopold's Ghost, a fascinating and horrifying history of enslavement, greed, genocide, and the effects on post-colonial Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo.  In 2006, Journeyman Pictures and documentary film director Pippa Scott released a documentary version of the book under the same title.


      Enrichment Assignment: As a review/enrichment opportunity to keep everyone on track and thinking about how all peoples are connected in ways which we never actively consider, I have uploaded the documentary to my school YouTube channel.  As an enrichment assignment only, I am recommending that everyone who can, and is willing to do so, watch this film, then respond to just two of the questions posted below using the King Leopold Discussion segment below.  I will read your responses and offer my own views/comments by way of discussion.




      1. All commentaries need to be respectful, suitable for a school assignment, and any responses to posted comments need to be held to the same standards. 

      2. Comments should be thoughtful and, where possible, use active links to supporting evidence (on-line articles, primary sources, etc.)

      3. You need not use full sentences, but your discussion commentaries need to be presented in complete thoughts, even in bullet points.

      4. Assume this film and questions/commentary will be part of the actual class once we return to school.  Likewise, even if on-line access isn't available to all students until we return, information from the film will be included in any test/quizzes/exams scheduled for this unit and for the finals.

      5. At the end of this description, where you see the highlighted link for "Comments," click the link, and proceed to enter your discussion comments.  You should not need to log in.

      6. When posting a response, please be sure to include your name, class period, and the question to which you are responding for the benefit of everyone as this is an open discussion for all of my students.  Please use this layout for identifying your question response:

      Question Number 1, Mr. Ferreira, Period A, B, C, F, G (obviously, use only the class period applying to you!).


      Video Linkhttps://youtu.be/jLDEGNXK0cg


      WARNING NOTE: Graphic images and narrations of murder, mutilation, rape, slavery, and other forms of human exploitation are included in this film.


      Discussion Questions:

      1. Between 1880 and 1920, the population of the Congo was slashed in half: some ten million people were victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, disease and a plummeting birth rate. Why do you think this massive carnage has remained virtually unknown in the United States and Europe?


      2. Hochschild writes of Joseph Conrad that he “was so horrified by the greed and brutality among white men he saw in the Congo that his view of human nature was permanently changed.” Judging from Hochschild’s account and from Heart of Darkness, in what way was Conrad’s view changed? How is this true of other individuals about whom Hochschild writes? In what way has this book affected your view of human nature?


      3. The death toll in King Leopold’s Congo was on a scale comparable to the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges. Can Leopold II be viewed as a precursor to the masterminds behind the Nazi death camps and the Gulag? Did these three and other twentieth century mass killings arise from similar psychological, social, political, economic, and cultural sources?


      4. Those who plundered the Congo and other parts of Africa (and Asia) did so in the name of progress, civilization, and Christianity. Was this hypocritical and if so, how? What justifications for colonial imperialism and exploitation have been put forward over the past five centuries?


      5. Morel, Sheppard, Williams, Casement, and others boldly spoke out against the Congo atrocities, often at great danger to themselves. Many others rationalized those same atrocities or said nothing. How do you account for Leopold’s, Stanley’s, and others’ murderous rapaciousness, on the one hand, and Morel’s, Casement’s, and others’ outrage and committed activism, on the other?


      6. The European conquest and plunder of the Congo and the rest of Africa was brutal, but so was the European settlement of North America and, long before that, the conquest of most of Europe by the Romans. Hasn’t history always proceeded in this way?


      7. Hochschild begins his story with what he calls Edmund Morel’s “flash of moral recognition” on the Antwerp docks. What other flashes of moral recognition does Hochschild identify, and what were their consequences? In what ways may Hochschild’s book & film be seen as a flash of moral recognition? What more recent flashes of moral recognition and indignation can you identify of events taking place even today?


      8. Hochschild quotes the Swedish missionary, C. N. Börrisson: “It is strange that people who claim to be civilized think they can treat their fellow man — even though he is of a different color — any which way.” How may we explain the disregard of “civilized” individuals and groups for the humanity and life of others because of skin color, nationality, religion, ethnic background, or other factors? Why do this disregard and resulting cruelties persist?


      9. What are the similarities between the colonial and imperial aspirations of pre- and early twentieth-century nations and the corporate and market aspirations of today’s multinational companies? Whether rapacious or beneficent, most actors in the Congo, and in Africa at large, seem to have been motivated principally by profit. In what ways do business objectives continue to shape the policies and actions of national governments and international organizations?


      10. Hochschild writes that Leopold “found a number of tools at his disposal that had not been available to empire builders of earlier times.” What new technologies and technological advances contributed to Leopold’s exploitation of the Congo? What impact have these tools had on both the advancement and degradation of colonial or subject peoples?


      11. The “burgeoning hierarchy of imperial rule” in the Congo Free State was, Hochschild writes, reflected in “the plethora of medals” and attendant grades and ranks. What were the reasons for this extensive hierarchy and for the bureaucracy it reflected and maintained? Are there any contemporary parallels? Of what historical examples can we say that the more heinous the political or governmental crimes, the larger and more frequently rewarded the bureaucracy?


      12. How does Hochschild answer his own question, “What made it possible for the functionaries in the Congo to so blithely watch the chicotte in action and . . . to deal out pain and death in other ways as well”? How would you answer this question, in regard to Leopold’s Congo and to other officially sanctioned atrocities?


      13. Hochschild quotes Roger Casement as insisting to Edmund Morel, “I do not agree with you that England and America are the two great humanitarian powers. . .. [They are] materialistic first and humanitarian only a century after.” What evidence either supports or refutes Casement’s judgment? Would Casement be justified in making the same statement today?  Why or why not?


      14. After stating that several other mass murders “went largely unnoticed,” Hochschild asks, “why, in England and the United States, was there such a storm of righteous protest about the Congo?” Do you find his explanation sufficient? Why do some atrocities (the mass murders in Rwanda, for example) prompt little response from the United States and other western nations, while others (the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo, for example) prompt military action against the perpetrators?

    Comments (152)