King Leopolds Ghost Human Rights Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Human Rights: King Leopold's Ghost

King Leopold's Ghost: Human Rights

Conflicting arguments have been put forth in response to the question of whether or not colonialism is justified. Proponents of colonialism argue that it helps to bring civilization, progress and growth in the colonizer's religion. However, evidence shows that colonialism only benefits the colonialist nation at the expense of the colonized population. This text demonstrates why this is so using the book 'King Leopold's Ghost' by Adam Hochschild.

Those that plundered the Congo and other parts of Africa did so in the name of progress, civilization, and Christianity? Was this hypocritical? How? What justifications for colonial imperialism have been put forward over the past five centuries?

Simply stated, colonial imperialism is the establishment and maintenance of a nation's ruler over an alien nation that is subordinate, yet separate from the ruling power. Imperial powers from ancient to modern periods have put forth a number of justifications for extending their rule to other subordinate nations. Napoleon III, former Emperor of France, for instance, justified his attempt to conquer and gain control of continental Europe using the argument that it was the best way to unify the region and spread a common code of law[footnoteRef:2]. In his view, colonialism helps to bring unity and a sense of oneness between the colonizer and the colonized population. [2: Adam Hochschild. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 40]

Besides the creation of unity, civilization and religious growth have also been put forth as possible justifications for imperialism and colonial rule. John Stuart Mill, for instance argued that colonialism provides a universal platform for the spread of civilization from the superior races of the world to their less superior counterparts[footnoteRef:3]. Moreover, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the expansion of the Ottoman Empire beyond continental Europe was driven by the need to spread Islamic governance to the rest of the world[footnoteRef:4]. [3: Adam Hochschild. King Leopold's Ghost, 84] [4: Ibid]

In his 1899 award-winning poem, 'the White Man's Burden', French spokesman, Rudyard Kipling, argued that the imperialist nations, who were a superior race, had a moral responsibility to establish effective rule over other inferior races, who being 'half-devil and half-child', required oversight, discipline and governance to be able to stand on their own[footnoteRef:5]. In other words, Kipling implied that colonialism serves as a form of guardianship for the colonized population, and a way for them to learn how to survive the strenuous conditions of the century. Finally, there is the argument by Lord Lugard (1922), who suggested that colonialism provided the machinery for the developed nations of the world to secure the advancement of their less-developed counterparts and to consequently develop them in the interest of the greater world[footnoteRef:6]. [5: Hochschild. King Leopold's Ghost, 310] [6: Thomson Gale, "Colonialism," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences,2008, accessed October 1, 2015, ]

These entire arguments summarized give rise to the notion that colonialism is done for Christianity, civilization and progress of the colonized population. I, however, think that this is purely hypocritical. Well, to begin with, this notion is based on the assumption that the nations of the world care so much about each other that they strive to see each other succeed, even when such success jeopardizes one's own survival and global positioning. We all know that it is not in any country's nature to look out for another, unless there is some sort of incentive or reward. Moreover, colonialists argue that it is a way of bringing civilization, religion, and progress to the colonized population. Well, we all know that human life is at the center of these things -- humans are needed to work in order for there to be progress, and Christianity and civilization are meaningless if there are no people to practice them. Towards his end, human life is central, and we cannot, therefore, advance progress, civilization and religion at the expense of human rights. In his book, Hochschild shows that King Leopold and others who had a hand in plundering Africa had no regard whatsoever for the rights of their colonized populations -- the author explains how African workers were exploited and forced to work to the point of exhaustion at a degrading pay, and with no food or water. He mentions, for instance, that "unceasingly, we meet these porters ... miserable, with only a loin cloth for clothing, frizzy and bare head supporting the load; most of them sickly, drooping under a burden increased by tiredness and insufficient food"[footnoteRef:7]. This is pure violation of human rights, and there is no way one can claim to be out to help someone get a better future if they are not at all concerned about whether or not they will even have the strength to make it to the next day. In my view, all that colonialists are interested in is improving their own selves at the expense of those that are dependent on them. [7: Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 119]

Question 2: How does Hochschild answer his own question, "What made it possible for the functionaries in 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?

One would expect the European functionaries in Congo to have spoken against or at least shown sympathy for the colonized Congolese, who had been turned into slaves in their own country. However, that is not what happened -- the functionaries seemed more or less comfortable with, if not in support of the atrocities that Leopold and his men committed against the Africans. Hochschild provides three possible explanations for this. First, Victorian ideas about race had made the Africans inferior to their European counterparts. Towards this end, the European functionaries considered the Congolese, "inferior beings; lazy, uncivilized, little better than animals ... beasts of burden"[footnoteRef:8]. To them, Africans were less than human and needed to be treated as such, which is exactly what Leopold and his men were doing. A second reason why the functionaries just watched as the natives suffered was because playing along was the easiest way out. Rebelling and challenging the system meant challenging the very hand that feeds you, and there obviously would be repercussions -- for instance, one stood to lose out on their source of livelihood, as well as the rewards that would normally be accorded to loyal subjects, including promotions and awards[footnoteRef:9]. A third possible reason why the functionaries just played by the system was because everyone else was playing by it, and it perhaps would be impossible to gather sufficient numbers to put up a revolt against the system[footnoteRef:10]. Finally, Hochschild mentions that the functionaries just watched because they had become accustomed to the concept of terrorizing people -- it was done so often that they viewed it more or less as a normal phenomenon[footnoteRef:11]. [8: Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 121.] [9: Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 122] [10: Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 122] [11: Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, 123]

Hochschild seems to suggest that the European functionaries under Leopold's rule had no choice in the decision of whether or not to align with the system -- they just had to play along for their own survival. As such, they watched as atrocities were committed against the Africans simply because they had no choice. I believe that whereas their lack of choice was a factor, it did not play as great a role as the lack of adequate international law on the protection of human rights. Well, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been enacted by the United Nations in 1948 to protect the rights and liberties of all individuals; however, the proposal was at the time based merely on ethical aspects, with no legal status[footnoteRef:12]. It was not until 1976 that a legal status was established for the Declaration's proposals through the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights[footnoteRef:13]. This, however, was long after the Congo had achieved independence. [12: Eva Brems, Human Rights: Universality and Diversity (London, UK: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2001), 20. ] [13: Ibid. ]

It is highly likely, therefore, that the functionaries in the Congo watched and did nothing as atrocities were committed against the Congolese because they knew that neither the Congolese nor other independent countries in the world could build a legal case against them based on the Universal declaration of Human Rights, which was the only document governing human rights in Africa then. We see renowned figures such as Alice and John Harris…

Sources Used in Document:


Brems, Eva. Human Rights: Universality and Diversity. London, UK: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2001.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

Gale, Thomson. "Colonialism," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. Accessed October 1, 2015,

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