Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I was utterly impressed and moved by this brilliant book. I was one of those students Hochschild mentions briefly, who read Heart of Darkness in high school, where it was taught as a parable, a cautionary tale akin to Lord of the Flies, about what can happen when one man holds absolute power with no oversight. But Joseph Conrad based his account on several men he had met in Africa--station managers for King Leopold II (of Belgium)'s vicious, brutal extortion of ivory from the Congo. And the forced labor, kidnappings, and brutal treatment of Congolese only grew worse during the subsequent mad scramble for rubber (for tires for bicycles and automobiles). I am appalled and not a little ashamed that until I found this book, I knew next to nothing about any of this. The second half of the book offers a slightly less dismal conclusion to the story--the account of the first great human rights movement of the 20thC, spearheaded by E. D. Morel, Roger Casement and others, that helped put an end to some of the abuses. 

I appreciated how painstaking his research was, and how adroitly the author organized the material into a narrative that was as compelling as a novel. And his afterword, with its cautionary notes about "pretend[ing] to acknowledge something [such as a history of brutality] without really doing so," the need to look at causes, and "the cultural tolerance and even hero-worship" of men such as Mobutu, who, like Leopold II, exploited the Congo to enrich his own coffers, is still a relevant message and points to the need for ongoing dialog about the long shadows that are cast by brutality and the flagrant abuse of power.

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