I don’t demand much from my nonfiction. If you’re teaching me something and can convey it even in a lightly poetic prose then I’m going to love you. Maybe I’m just cheap, maybe I’m just easily impressed by people who know things that aren’t in my wheelhouse.
Regardless, Hochschild hits most of these notes rather well, it still feels like it’s missing something. He constructs a biting, visceral portrait of the Congo. It is offensive, vulgar, all the things colonialism must be it just lacks a foil. It needs a few more fleshed out human characters. There are some, but too few to truly humanize the accounts beyond the general inhumanity of the history on display.
The character in most desperate need of exploration is King Leopold himself. He is just sort of glossed over, built as the mystical man-behind-the-curtain who is so preoccupied with keeping the illusion of decency that he feels rather more like a dime-store psychopath pulling strings from a distance rather than an actual layered human being. Hochschild seemed to have no interest in exploring him. We are given no history of his youth, no rise to power, nothing beyond a smattering of pulled examples of a callous egomaniac. Maybe Leopold was just that boring, but I doubt it. History is rarely that simple.
Hochschild does an admirable job uncovering a piece of history deliberately forgotten, but he never manages to delve beneath the surface of the horror.
“As the years passed, new myths arose to explain the mysterious objects the strangers brought from the land of the dead. A nineteenth-century missionary recorded, for example, an African explanation of what happened when captains descended into the holds of their ships to fetch trading goods like cloth. The Africans believed that these goods came not from the ship itself but from a hole that led into the ocean. Sea sprites weave this cloth in an “oceanic factory, and, whenever we need cloth, the captain … goes to this hole and rings a bell.” The sea sprites hand him up their cloth, and the captain “then throws in, as payment, a few dead bodies of black people he has bought from those bad native traders who have bewitched their people and sold them to the white men.” The myth was not so far from reality. For what was slavery in the American South, after all, but a system for transforming the labor of black bodies, via cotton plantations, into cloth?” – Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost