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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

King Hochschild’s Hoax

An absurdly deceptive book on Congolese rubber production is better described as historical fiction.

Vandalized Stateus in Brussels, Belgium
(Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For the past 25 years, the idea of the Congo has been closely linked in the Western imagination to the 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost by the American journalist Adam Hochschild. The book is widely assigned in high schools and colleges, and it regularly tops best-seller lists in colonial, African, and Western history. Hochschild has become a sort of king of the Congo, or at least of its history. The book is reflexively cited by reputable scholars in their footnotes any time they wish to assert that it is “well known” and “beyond doubt” that sinister men in Europe wrought havoc in Africa over a century ago. Any discussion of the Congo, or of European colonialism more generally, invariably begins with the question: “Have you read King Leopold’s Ghost?”

I have read it. And I can declare that it is a vast hoax, full of distortions and errors both numerous and grave, a few of which I will detail in this short essay. Some people might view “King Hochschild’s Hoax,” as we might call it, as an empowering fable for modern Africans at the expense of the white man. But its debilitating effects on Africa, and on the Congo in particular, make the opposite more nearly the case. It is a callous and negligent chicotte (hippo whip) lash on the backs of all black Africans, narcissistic guilt porn for white liberals at the expense of the African. The Congolese lawyer Marcel Yabili calls it “the greatest falsification in modern history,” a compliment of sorts, I suppose.