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The Ghost Still Haunts

Adam Hochschild responds to Bruce Gilley, who follows in kind.

King Leopold's Statues Start To Fall, But Belgium's Historical Reckoning Has Only Begun
(Photo by Jean-Christophe Guillaume/Getty Images)

I have many points of disagreement, to put it mildly, with Bruce Gilley’s lengthy diatribe against my book, King Leopold’s Ghost (“King Hochschild’s Hoax,” April 17, 2023). 

First, a matter of terminology. Prof. Gilley declares that my “central lie,” my “first and biggest deceit,” is to equate the État independant du Congo, the regime King Leopold II of Belgium controlled for 23 years, with colonialism. Is Gilley not aware of Britain’s India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and other such entities? Just like the government-controlled colonial regimes that seamlessly supplanted them, they issued regulations, conscripted forced laborers, built prisons, and deployed police and soldiers, all for the major purpose of extracting wealth. When the Belgian government took over the administration of the Congo from Leopold’s État independent and it became the Belgian Congo, numerous officials of the king’s personal regime continued in the same or similar posts in the new one. This is noted many times in the quasi-official encyclopedia of personnel who worked for both regimes, the Biographie coloniale belge. Belgians who sought their fortunes in Africa under Leopold boasted of their conquests in the magazine, La Belgique coloniale. When he died, Leopold was building a World School of Colonialism to train more such men. He and they would be startled to find his Congo state not considered a colony.


The clearest sign of the devastating effect of Leopold’s rule, and its immediate aftermath, while the forced labor system he devised continued, was the territory’s dramatic loss of population. Although tens of thousands of people were killed outright or died in rebellions against his regime, a vastly larger part of the loss had to do with the side effects of forced labor. When the able-bodied men of a community are conscripted as gatherers of wild rubber, and their wives are chained up as hostages to keep the men at work, people stop having children. Under such circumstances, communities also have great difficulty cultivating and harvesting enough food, and so disease took a terrible toll on a population weakened by well-documented near-famine. Those who tried to flee the forced labor regime often had nowhere to go but deep in the rainforest, where there was little food or shelter, and they died. And many conquests—as when Europeans arrived in the Americas—often spread illnesses to which the local population has no immunity.

Prof. Gilley claims, astonishingly, that during the king’s rule the population of the territory actually rose. He cites one writer who makes this assertion, and says other unnamed “French and Belgian demographers” back it up. Most scholars, however, would consider this nonsense. No one can know, of course, accurate population figures from an era before there was a census, but many officials on the ground at the time and later historians, demographers, and anthropologists have made estimates of great loss. In King Leopold’s Ghost, I cited a number of these for the period from 1880 to 1920. (Things began to improve around 1920, when Belgian colonial authorities realized that if they did not lessen the harshness of the forced labor system, they would soon have no labor force left.) 

In those four decades, the colonial government’s own Commission Permanente pour la Protection des Indigènes later reckoned that the population had “been reduced by half.” Concurring in that estimate, in an interview with me, was the late historian and anthropologist Jan Vansina, a leading authority in the field of African studies, who devoted his entire career to studying the peoples of the Congo River basin. (Gilley ignores my source note, and claims Vansina was talking about something else, in a book.) Vansina repeated the estimate in the documentary film made from my book. Prof. Vansina very generously also read the manuscript of King Leopold’s Ghost, and I incorporated dozens of his suggestions and corrections. 

Many other scholars similarly estimate an immense loss of population in the Congo in the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath. The demographer Léon de St. Moulin says that it declined “by at least a third, possibly by half.” The historian Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem sets the total loss at 10 million in his Histoire du Congo: Des origins à la Republique Démocratique. (The latest edition of his book, incidentally, is published by Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, an institution Leopold founded, with a forward by the museum’s director.) 

On another point: King Leopold’s Ghost reproduces some of the photographs of Congo atrocities that fueled the worldwide protests against Leopold’s rule during the first decade of the twentieth century. These “fake photos,” Gilley declares, were “staged” by the photographer. Yes, some images appear posed—something true of most photos everywhere in an era when cameras were bulky contraptions on tripods whose subjects had to remain still for a few seconds. But does Gilley really think that the British Baptist missionary Alice Harris put Congolese women in chains so that she could take pictures of them, pretending that they were hostages? Other photos in this era, from another part of the colony, by the African photographer Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, also show people in chains. The Belgian diplomat-scholar Jules Marchal has found abundant evidence in his country’s archives of local officials ordering large quantities of chains. The regime’s own Manuel du Voyageur et du Résident au Congo, has detailed instructions for state officials about how to take hostages. Was that entire multivolume manual something faked by Leopold’s enemies?


Colonialism is but one form of the endless cycles of conquest that have defined human history. Conquest spreads things both good and bad: from languages, alphabets, and technologies to tools of war, torture, and enslavement. And sometimes decent people can be embedded even in a system focused on the latter. There certainly were some in Leopold’s Congo, like the magistrate Stanislas Lefranc, who boldly, but in vain, wrote pamphlets and articles protesting the regime’s profligate use against its subjects of the brutal rhinoceros-hide whip, the chicotte. Or like the three judges appointed by the king to an investigative commission in 1904-05, which, among other things, noted the dramatic decline in population. The verbatim testimony of eyewitnesses about the forced labor regime before this commission was so damaging that Leopold suppressed it totally, and successive Belgian governments kept it locked away from outside view for more than 60 years. Gilley ignores witnesses like these, implying that the regime’s critics were all foreigners with nefarious motives of their own.

Prof. Gilley’s view of colonialism is fundamentally different from mine, but he is entitled to it. Assessing colonialism’s impact thoughtfully, however, is a subtle and complex business. It should involve carefully examining why, by measures of social and economic well-being, some former colonies appear today far better off (Botswana, for example) than they were in the colonial era, while others, like Congo, are worse off. It should examine how the fate of various territories was affected by the nature and extent of education systems, land ownership, what kind of cash crops the colonizers wanted cultivated, and whether they were harvested by small farmers or by forced labor. It should examine what kind of societies colonial regimes replaced, with no illusions that these were all lost paradises. There is a worthwhile discussion to be had here. But it’s not one I wish to continue with someone who accuses me of perpetrating “a vast hoax,” filled with “deceit,” “falsehoods,” and “dark arts” that is nothing more than “narcissistic guilt porn.” That is the voice of an intemperate polemicist, not of a serious scholar.

Furthermore, however rosy—or critical—one’s view of any system is, no one should ever take everything its officials say at face value. To do so is not a matter of honest disagreement about the benefits and damages of colonialism; it is simply being naïve. That naïveté is at the root of most of what Gilley has to say about King Leopold’s Ghost. Gilley appears to be duped by Leopold’s pretense that it was to “eliminate endemic Arab slave empires and African tribal wars”—rather than for the making of an enormous fortune—that he colonized the Congo. Leopold was remarkably successful in that charade for much of his lifetime, but it’s a surprise that anyone should still believe his well-spun myths more than a century after his death.

Gilley similarly assumes that lower officials of the regime were all altruistic, well-meaning, and truthful, caring benevolently for the native inhabitants and conscript troops under their control. He quotes military officer George Bricusse describing a happy rubber-gathering station where the women make bracelets and “no one ever misses a meal.” Amazingly, he defends another official, Léon Fiévez, as having the best of motives even when he boasted of cutting off a hundred heads.

These men were soldiers of fortune, anything but humanitarians. Bricusse in his diary describes his pleasure at feeling no distress when he watches the hanging of an African he had ordered. Fiévez was recorded as receiving 1,308 severed hands—proof of his troops’ triumph over rebels—in a single day. Are such men reliable witnesses, with only good intentions? 

Gilley is right, however, that I was misleading in respect to one quotation I cited from another official, Charles Lemaire. I am sorry about that and it should be corrected. Lemaire was a more complicated case. His early diaries, which I quote elsewhere in the book, unroll a lengthy list of villages he ordered burned to the ground and a triumphant roster of death tolls: “20 natives killed” here, “around 15 blacks killed” there, and many more such boasts. But later in life, to his credit, Lemaire had deep regrets, and in fairness to him I should have referred to them. He wrote, for example, of his role in the colonization Gilley so admires, “My African education began in rifle and cannon shots, in burning of villages...in a word, in abuse and overabuse....I reread my first reports with horror.” 

Bruce Gilley replies:

Adam Hochschild has enjoyed a long run of success with King Leopold’s Ghost, his distortionary 1998 tale about the État Indépendant du Congo (EIC). So long, in fact, that he appears unable to come clean about its many fabrications. It is not just the doctoring of the quotation that anchors the story of “chopped hands for red rubber” (which I am grateful he has admitted), but the vast skein of distortion in which that little dodge is embedded. 

Most centrally, how did approximately 10,000 people killed in skirmishes between the EIC police and natives in a small portion of the territory over a 20-year period mushroom into 10 million dead, “mass murder on a vast scale” and “a forgotten Holocaust”? Rather than climb down from this ludicrous claim, which the doyen of Congo studies, Jean Stengers, called “absurd” and “polemical,” Hochschild repeats it. His source? The same Jan Vansina whose work, I noted, was based on an erroneous reading of an earlier report (a Harvard study that rejected the report of the Permanent Committee for the Protection of the Natives of 1919 that Hochschild cites in his letter) and whose own work was based on nothing more than “oral traditions.” 

In any case, Hochschild seems unaware that Vansina later explicitly rejected his earlier conclusion. In his 2010 book on the Kuba people, Being Colonized, Vansina said he was “misled” about population decline (pp. 145-147). Rubber and military operations by the EIC were negligible factors, he later admitted. Disease was the main factor driving population down, brought by both Arab and Western incursions into Central Africa as well as by Congolese traveling farther afield. His earlier “50% decline” claim was an “erroneous conclusion.” The Kuba population had been artificially swelled by the importation of slave women before and in the early years of the EIC. These women were serially raped to boost the population, which peaked in 1899. In 1910 all slaves were freed by the Belgians, so the population plummeted since most fled. Porters returning from the Great War introduced new diseases, pushing the population lower still. “The Kuba population was actually rising rather than falling during the first two decades of the colonial era,” he concluded. “The decline began with the [EIC] conquest in 1900 and then continued to 1919.” Conflicts with the EIC contributed only a small fraction to the estimated population decline by 1919 of 25 percent, perhaps a fifth. Most resulted from local diseases and slave emancipation, followed by global epidemics from the Great War. 

Hochschild is correct that the demographer Léon de St. Moulin assayed the 50 percent decline possibility (in 1987 and 1990 works). But Hochschild fails to mention that Moulin, like the later Vansina, believed that the EIC and rubber had nothing to do with it. The causes for Moulin were, in order, sleeping sickness, smallpox, Spanish flu, and venereal diseases. Moulin did not even mention the EIC or rubber in his 1990 chapter. Like the later Vansina, he recognized that these were footnotes in the demographic history of the Congo. 

As for the claims by the Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem (“13 million killed” in 1998, then “5 to 10 million killed” in 2008), they are hard to keep track of. Initially, the starting year for his assertions was 1880 (five years before the EIC was founded and ten years before any rubber harvesting) while the latter estimate extended the end year to 1930 (22 years after the EIC). A second edition of the latter estimate, without explanation, moved up the starting date to 1885. Ndaywel cites no data or methods. All three editions of his book merely cite Moulin. It is notable that in a lengthy essay on the EIC published in L’Histoire in 2020, Ndaywel no longer makes any specific population claims, asserting only that the effects of the EIC were “worse than grim” (“plus que macabres”). In the end, Ndaywel is not credible. His works are published by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium because he is black. This helps them to “decolonize Eurocentric narratives,” which means using blacks as shadow puppets to shield their radical accounts from criticism.

By contrast, dozens of serious demographers and statisticians—not just the Jean-Paul Sanderson I mention—have concluded the overall population rose slightly or was unchanged at around 8 to 10 million from 1885 to 1908. Others include Bruce Fetter, Guy Vanthemsche, Jean-Luc Vellut, Pierre-Luc Plasman, Anatole Romaniuk, and, as mentioned, the later Jan Vansina. Taken on its own, the EIC was a positive influence on the black population in the Congo because of its campaigns against slavery, endemic tribal warfare, cannibalism, and polygamous rape and torture. Infrastructure and trade brought life-saving income. Population remained unchanged only because of the persistence of endemic disease and slavery. According to Romaniuk, venereal disease alone can explain the depression of population growth after 1900 when the EIC had finally brought a modicum of peace and prosperity to the region.

Let’s move to other issues. Hochschild insists on calling the EIC an example of “colonialism”, stretching the term beyond its meaning. European colonies were governed by and accountable to the institutions of a liberal state at home. That was the fundamental structural fact of a European colony, meaning the characteristic that explains its behavior. This fundamental fact was absent from the EIC. This explains its evolution and eventual takeover by Belgium. The EIC was a second-best solution to the absence of colonialism. Hochschild will have none of it because his intention all along was to use his tale as an indictment of European colonialism (“A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”, as the subtitle put it). A fevered ideological agenda does not collapse a valid conceptual distinction.

Comparing the EIC to the Nazis is grotesque. Hochschild has nothing to say about this odious rhetorical maneuver, an insult not just to Jews but to the Congolese who fought and remained loyal to the memory of the EIC. Referring to my essay as “polemical” in defense of a book that makes regular references to Auschwitz is rich indeed.

Hochschild’s sweet reason in his letter on the complex question of European colonialism appears to have abandoned him while writing the book (or is newfound). “Communism, Fascism, and European colonialism each asserted the right to totally control its subjects’ lives,” he wrote grandly in the book. How is it possible that he now writes about the “subtle and complex business” of assessing colonialism?

I am glad that Hochschild admits that the photographs in his book are fake. Still, to his point, I do not doubt that the traditional African hippo whip was used by EIC officials. Nor do I doubt that chains were used to confine prisoners in the EIC when prisons were not available. Nor do I doubt that the Arab tradition of chopping off the hands of fallen enemies persisted well into the EIC era, even among natives employed by the government or concession companies. So what? If Hochschild’s argument is that the area should have been colonized from the start (as his hero Edmund Morel argued), I would agree. If his argument is that the EIC should have been financed by liquor imports or village hut taxes rather than the 40 hours per month labor requirement for those who could not pay individual taxes, I will side with the King.

I wish that Hochschild would come clean on the litany of other errors I catalogue in my essay: Conrad could not have seen any of the alleged rubber atrocities; Léopold did not burn his archives, and nothing was “locked away from outside view”; Kurtz’s head-strewn compound was not based on a Belgian official but on African warlords; Léon Fiévez’s African troops killed 100 warriors of local tribal chiefs who had reneged on a promise to supply food, not 100 hapless villagers who failed to turn in rubber; the trade surplus of the EIC reflected payments that went for infrastructure, administration, and security, not a slave economy. 

As I wrote, despite the malicious craft practiced by Hochschild and others, I am glad that an extensive documentary record of the EIC and of European colonies more generally survives, not that I expect any honest use of them in our current moral panic. Hochschild was merely an early entry into a genre that has since blossomed into an industry of scholars who “interrogate” the archives to cough up evidence of the evils of the West. There is of course no such documentary record of the horrific conditions the Europeans replaced, and in any case most Western readers would not buy a book on endemic venereal disease in Africa or stool disputes among the Kuba. A salacious tale on the Belgian king and his mistresses torturing black people to pay for their follies? Now you’re talking!

I also do not begrudge Hochschild his millions, although, unlike him, I have untold praise for the capitalist system that produced them (he recently compared Amazon warehouses to slave plantations and in a 2016 book he lamented the failure of a socialist revolution in Spain). But to write history requires an immersion in the context, constraints, and worldviews of those involved. Hochschild just can’t seem to get over the fact that life was very, very different long ago. I, for one, am less ready to leap to condemnation for the petty abuses of the EIC, especially against people who are no longer alive to defend themselves. If he wants to join the Congo Reform Movement, so be it. It has been going on for over 100 years and is not likely to stop. When I call this white guilt porn, I do not intend it as polemic, but merely description. 

Much is at stake. In giving Hochschild its Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award in 2008, the American Historical Association claimed that King Leopold’s Ghost “broke through one of the most impenetrable silences of history” by revealing the “mass death” and “rampant atrocities” in the EIC. Be reminded that the AHA is the representative of professional historians in the United States, not the editorial board of Dissent magazine. The AHA went on to call the book “a key text in the historiography of colonial Africa for college and graduate students.” 

The AHA and Hochschild are also agreed on the really excellent quality of the 1619 Project, which Hochschild calls (micro-aggression notwithstanding) “masterful.” He has described the writing of history as uncovering “shame.” The AHA, warming to the idea, praised Hochschild’s “humanist agenda” with its mission “to combat inhumanity.” History should have no agenda other than uncovering the truth. It should combat only ignorance about the past. If this is the state of public history in the West, we are in a very bad place indeed.


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