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The "Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism" in the Congo's Colonial History

Journalist Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa" (Houghton Mifflin) about the brutal reign of King Leopold II of Belgium over the Congo in the 1880s. His regime sparked the creation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Leopold plundered the Congo's rubber, instituted forced labor, and reduced the population by half, committing mass murder. All the while, Leopold cultivated a reputation as a humanitarian. It took a group of travelers, journalists and missionaries to uncover the truth about Leopold, and help bring about international pressure to end his regime


Other segments from the episode on September 9, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 9, 1998: Interview with Adam Hochschild; Commentary on first-person pronouns.


Date: SEPTEMBER 09, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090901np.217
Head: "King Leopolds' Ghost"
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: On today's FRESH AIR, the story of a forgotten holocaust.

We talk with journalist Adam Hochschild about his new book on the colonization of the Congo, when it belonged not to one country, but to one man, King Leopold of Belgium. He created a slave labor system to harvest rubber. People who didn't cooperate were killed, many villages were destroyed. Starvation spread. The population decreased by an estimated 10 million during his rule.

Now the Congo is in the midst of a civil war that African leaders have been unable to end through negotiations.

And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers possessive expressions, like "my Yahoo!" and "my Excite."

That's all coming up on FRESHAIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Adam Hochschild has written the history of what he describes as a forgotten holocaust. His book "King Leopold's Ghost" is about the early colonization of the Congo. As Europe began carving up Africa, the Congo was claimed in 1885, not by a country, but by one man, King Leopold of Belgium.

He made a fortune creating a slave labor system to harvest rubber. Although Leopold never set foot in the Congo, under his rule, villages were destroyed, slaves were worked to death, hostages were raped and starvation spread. The population decreased by an estimated 10 million as a result of his rule.

The colonial history of the Congo helps explain some of the country's post-colonial problems. The current government is now under attack in a civil war which broke out in the middle of the summer.

Adam Hochschild is a former editor of "Mother Jones" magazine, and teaches writing at the University of California at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

I asked him about the historical context of the early colonization of the Congo.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD, FORMER EDITOR, "MOTHER JONES" MAGAZINE; PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM; AUTHOR, "KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST: A STORY OF GREED, TERROR AND HEROISM IN COLONIAL AFRICA": The colonization of Africa by Europe, which happened in a remarkably short space of time, really between about 1870 and 1910 -- boom -- which was a very quick historical period, you know -- 40 years. About 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa was gobbled up in that period.

We know in theory today, although we've sort of forgotten a lot of the details, that this was really a very, very bloody business. And as it happens, the Congo was really at the center of the bloodiest part of that business, which was the seizure of equatorial Africa. And people were interested in equatorial Africa because it was extremely rich in wild rubber.

And this was just at the time when they had invented the inflatable bicycle tire, they'd invented the automobile, and there was a worldwide rubber boom that began in the 1890s. Anybody that had territory that had wild rubber in it stood to become very, very, very rich.

GROSS: The Congo used to be called the Belgium Congo, but it started out as a colony of one man, not one country. And that man was King Leopold. Why did he want his -- his personal colony?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, Leopold was a very strange and interesting guy. He became king of Belgium in 1865, and even from the time he was a young man, from when he was 17, 18-years old, if you look at his letters, the letters that he wrote to friends and aides, and things that he wrote in speeches that he gave, he was obsessed with the idea of acquiring colonies.

He traveled all over the world in search of colonies. He wrote to people everywhere, asking if there were Pacific islands for sale, if there were pieces of territory in Latin America for sale. When he was in his 20s, he went to Spain, and he spent a full month in Seville studying the great Spanish archive of the Americas, where they had all of the records from their conquests in Latin America; things like the manifests of cargo from Christopher Columbus' ships; all of this was kept in Seville. Leopold spent a month studying this and calculating how much money Spain had earned from its colonies in the Americas.

Leopold's problem was that the country that he was a king of was very small, and it had no interests in colonies. People in Belgium felt that a colony would be a money-losing extravagance for a small country that had no navy, had no merchant marine; and they weren't interested.

Leopold though: that's no problem; I'll get my own colony.

GROSS: Well, first he tried to just buy himself a colony in Africa. That didn't work, so he figured you'd have to conquer the land. How did he go about trying to conquer the Congo?

HOCHSCHILD: He was very shrewd. He hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley -- the man who found Livingston -- sent Stanley to Africa for five years to work as his man in Africa. And he sent Stanley to Africa in 1879. This was at a point in time when the other European countries had not really embarked on their own conquests in Central Africa. So the land was there for the taking.

I mean, of course there were 10s of millions of Africans living there, who assumed that this was their land. But that didn't stand in Leopold's way. He sent Stanley to the base of the Congo River, had him spend five years going up and down this great river and all its tributaries, staking out land for Leopold, signing treaties with chiefs who made their mark on documents in a foreign language in "legalese." They didn't know what they were signing, most of these people. The idea of a treaty of friendship between clans was something familiar to them; the idea of signing their land away to somebody on the other side of an ocean was inconceivable.

But Stanley did this for five years, then went back to Europe with this sheath of treaties in his pocket. Leopold put the treaties on the table, or had his people on the table at a conference in Berlin in 1884 or '85, where the European countries were beginning the process of carving up Africa. And in fairly short order, he got his claim to the Congo -- most of the Congo River basin territory that essentially has the same borders as the Congo today.

He got his claim recognized by virtually all the major nations of the world.

GROSS: Now, Henry Morton Stanley, the African explore who was at that time working for Leopold, was later accused of trying to fool Africans into thinking that he and his white assistants had supernatural powers, and they could use those powers against the chiefs unless the chiefs agreed to hand over their land to Leopold. Is there any truth behind that, do you think, that they were trying to fool chiefs into thinking they had supernatural powers?

HOCHSCHILD: I think there is. I mean, this is one of the ways that Stanley got all these to sign these treaties, giving their land to Leopold. And he would use tricks, like using a magnifying glass to use the sun's rays to set a dry leaf on fire. And then he would tell people: look, I've got this special relationship with the sun, and I can tell it to set your whole village on fire if you don't sign the treaty.

He brought with him batteries from London, and ran wires up his sleeve, and had them attached to his hand so when he gave somebody a handshake, there was an electric shock. There were other little tricks like this that he used. And we know what we do about Stanley's trickery of the Africans largely through the work of a remarkable and totally unknown African-American journalist, George Washington Williams, who went to Africa in 1890, and was the first outsider, and really the last for many years, to interview Africans about their experience of their white conquerors. And it was Williams who wrote the description of what Stanley had done.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Hochschild, and he's written a new book that's a history of the early colonization of the Congo. It's called "King Leopold's Ghost."

It was Leopold's ambition to build a rubber empire and make himself a fortune. And he managed to do both in the Congo. He grew the rubber in areas that had been villages. Did he have to get rid of the people before turning them -- before turning these areas into rubber area?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, he didn't actually grow the rubber. The rubber was growing wild. You know, the rubber that we're familiar with now as a source of natural rubber is cultivated rubber trees, which grow on plantations and require a lot of cultivation and care. This was something else. These were wild rubber vines, which grow in the rain forest; they twine up around these gigantic palm and other tropical trees, and then they leap across to the next tree and go, you know, many trees, far above the ground. And these vines have rubber in them. And they grow in the wild.

And the way that Leopold had this rubber harvested is that he would have his private army into village after village after village; they would immediately take the women of the village hostage, and they would hold them until the adult males of the village have gone into the forest, for days and sometimes weeks at a time, to gather their quota of wild rubber. And of course the more he did this, the scarcer the rubber became, the farther away from the village men would have to go to find it. But they would always do this, because their wives and sometimes their children were being held hostage. It was an extremely brutal system.

And it is amazingly well-documented. You can even find a printed manual they wrote in Belgium for agents in the Congo, giving instructions on how you go into a village and take hostages.

GROSS: What do the instructions say?

HOCHSCHILD: The instructions say: surround the village; separate the village from the places where they're growing vegetables, so they won't have access to food; and then wait for people to come out. You can starve them out, essentially. And then when the chief sends out a representative, make him a little symbolic present, and then you do your bargaining; about how long you're going to hold the hostages; how much rubber each man has to produce; and so forth.

GROSS: You even have a photograph in the book of a couple of women chained together, being held hostage, while their husbands are forced to gather rubber. Where did the photograph come from?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, the photographs were taken by a remarkable British missionary, woman named Alice Harris. And one of the reasons we know as much as we do about what went on in the Congo at that time was that there were British and American and Swedish Protestant missionaries working there who had gone to Africa, as missionaries do, to try to save souls. But they'd gotten there and they'd found they had a very hard time finding souls to save when everybody in a village would just vanish into the jungle the moment they heard the whistle of a steamboat on the river.

And they were aghast to find themselves in the midst of this ongoing African holocaust. Some of them took pictures; some of them wrote articles; they tried as best they could to get information about all this to the outside world.

GROSS: You describe this as an African holocaust. What else did Leopold's people do to decimate the population of the Congo?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, the population got decimated through about four or five different ways. As I mentioned, they were holding women hostages to force the men to go and gather wild rubber. A lot of these women hostages were treated terribly; they were raped repeatedly; a lot of them simply starved to death, because sometimes their men had to be in the forest for weeks at a time to get their rubber quota.

A lot of the men who were gathering rubber were simply worked to death doing it. Many of them died falling out of trees, because as the portions of rubber vines near the ground got tapped and drained dry, you had to climb higher and higher and higher into the trees to get any rubber. This is difficult to do.

Furthermore, once you have this kind of slave labor economy in place, it completely disrupts the normal economy, the system of harvesting of fruits and vegetables and so forth, the things that -- the ways that these villages had always lived. So there was starvation and near-starvation everywhere, because everyone was put to work in this rubber slavery system.

Then there were hundreds of thousands of people who fled this system, because they didn't want to be enslaved to gather rubber. But the only places that they could go were deep in the rain forest, where there was virtually no food and no shelter. And so they died.

Then there were rebellions, sometimes very fierce rebellions, by African villages, African ethnic groups which had access to arms, had been able to buy and trade to get some armament. But these were all brutally suppressed, usually with a vast loss of life.

Probably the largest number of people died -- as in the conquest of Native Americans in the American West, the largest number of people died from disease.

GROSS: Now, in addition to everything that you just described -- as if that weren't horrible enough -- there's also a degree of just, I think, out and out sadism in this story, too. For instance, there were many people who had their hands chopped off. What was the point of that?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, one of the particularly hideous means by which King Leopold's army operated was that white officers would tell their African soldiers: you know, we want you to go into this village and shoot everybody there, because they haven't their quote of rubber.

But the officers were very anxious that bullets not be "wasted" on non-human targets; that is, used in hunting; or worse yet, saved for use in a mutiny. And so they demanded that for every person who was claimed as killed, the soldier had to bring back a severed right hand as proof.

And sometimes the platoons of soldiers who were sent off on these punitive expeditions were a long way away from their officers. The hands had to be preserved and brought back to be shown, and -- so a soldier would get credit for the kill, you know, a week or two later. And they preserved the hands by smoking them over fires. It was really quite hideous.

One of the great American missionary witnesses actually discovered this whole process by coming on a fire in a forest clearing where a group of African soldiers were smoking a group of 87 hands. And he asked them: what on earth is going here? And they explained.

My guest is journalist Adam Hochschild. His new book is called "King Leopold's Ghost." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Adam Hochschild. His new book "King Leopold's Ghost" is about the early colonization of the Congo, when it was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium. Even while Leopold was turning the Congo into a living hell, he made himself look like a philanthropic ruler. How did he do that?

HOCHSCHILD: He was very shrewd. He was a genius at manipulating the press. He did all kinds of things that would bring him good publicity. For example, he 3 or 4,000 artifacts and objects of art from the Congo to the Museum of Natural History in New York. And anytime he did something like that, his PR people made sure that he got credit for it.

He had a huge, very well-organized propaganda operation, where in all of the major countries in Europe, and in the United States, he had people on retainer who wrote books praising his wise and thoughtful and philanthropic rule in the Congo. He had journalists on retainer who wrote favorable articles; he had people who wrote pamphlets. And he passed out bribes under the table to reporters and editors at newspapers all over Europe, to insure a steady flow of favorable articles about him. And you can actually look at specific newspapers whose line on the Congo changed after the point at which they began receiving these bribes.

It's quite funny, actually, one of the reasons we know as much of Leopold's bribery operations as we do came because the guy who was his "briber-in-chief" in Germany, after the bribery operation was shut down, this man couldn't bring himself to cease doing this interesting work, or perhaps he didn't get the message that he was supposed to stop passing out bribes -- we don't know -- but he kept on bribing people. And then he began sending anguished letters to Brussels, saying: I made all my January payments, I made all my April payments, and I haven't been reimbursed yet. What's wrong.

And he wasn't reimbursed because they closed the bribery operations, but he kept sending these letters to people higher and higher up in the Belgian government. And miraculously they got preserved, and a scholar discovered them about four years ago, and we sort of know all this stuff from correspondence on the inside; which makes it a lot of fun to read about.

GROSS: So while Kind Leopold turned the Congo into his private slave colony and was making a fortune doing it, while making himself look like a philanthropist in the process, while he was doing this, no -- most of the world didn't really know what was happening. But he was finally exposed, in part, through the work of Edmund Morrell (ph). Tell us who he was and how he went about -- how he discovered what Leopold was up to.

HOCHSCHILD: Edmund Morrell is really the central hero of this book; to me, a great man, and one of the great heroes of this century, and someone who's unduly neglected. And I find it an extraordinarily exciting story how he discovered this.

At the turn of the century, there were very few people in Europe who had any idea what a house of horrors there was in the Congo. There was a tiny handful of missionaries who'd sent out reports, but these were almost totally ignored. People who'd gotten rich in the rubber trade, when they came back to Europe they didn't want to talk about the slavery and the chains and the whips and all that. They just kept quiet about it.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, the year 1897 or 1898, Edmund Morrell was a 25-year old official of a British shipping line, the Elder Dempster Company (ph) of Liverpool. The Elder Dempster Company had the monopoly on all the trade between the Congo and Europe. And every couple of weeks, they sent this young man from their firm across the English Channel to the Belgian port of Antwerp, to supervise the loading and unloading of ships on the Congo run. And Morrell began to notice something; he noticed that when his company's ships arrived from the Congo, they were filled to the hatch covers with immensely-valuable cargoes of rubber and ivory.

When they were reloaded, turned around and sent back to Africa, they carried no trading goods, they carried no merchandise. They only carried soldiers, arms, ammunition. And Morrell looked at this month after month and began to understand there could only be one explanation for all these riches coming back to Europe: slave labor. There's clearly no trade going on here, nothing is being exchanged for these things. The only possible explanation can be slave labor.

And we know today that he was absolutely right. Now to me, that's a great moral moment: imagining this young, junior shipping company official, 25-years old, standing on the docks of Antwerp, looking up at this ship being unloaded, and realizing this.

So here he was, brought face-to-face with this enormous evil. And what did he do? He went to the head of the shipping company and said: something terrible is going on here. This cargo is stained with blood. We can't be a party to this. We have to drop this contract.

The head of the shipping company told him to get lost. When that didn't work, they tried to promote him to another job in another country. When that didn't work, they tried to pay him some money to shut up. He wouldn't shut up. He quit his job, and in the space of about three or four years, he became the greatest British investigative reporter of his time. And he was a man of absolutely torrential energy, who devote himself really full-time for about 10 or 12 years to putting this story on the world's front pages.

GROSS: Did he go to the Congo himself?

HOCHSCHILD: No, Leopold would not let critical journalists visit the Congo. So that was not a possibility. He did go elsewhere in Africa somewhat later, but he never was able to go to the Congo.

But he succeeded in putting this story on the world's front pages. He stormed over to the United States, stormed into the White House, told President Theodore Roosevelt: you've got a special responsibility to do something about the Congo, because you were the first country to recognize it as King Leopold's possession. He met Mark Twain, he met Booker T. Washington, he galvanized the two of them to go off on a speaking tour about the Congo, in the United States.

He went back to England, he corralled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes books, and was a very popular figure in England. The two of them went around England on a speaking tour.

He really single-handedly created a worldwide human rights movement. And by the year 1908, the pitch of international fervor about this had reached such a point that Leopold was forced to give up the colony as his private possession and to turn it over to Belgium.

GROSS: Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost." We'll talk more about the colonization of the Congo in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Adam Hochschild. His new book "King Leopold's Ghost" is about the early colonization of the Congo, when it was the private colony of one man, King Leopold of Belgium. He made a fortune by instituting a slave labor system to harvest wild rubber. International pressure forced him to give up the Congo as his private possession. In 1908, it became a Belgian colony.

How would you say the Congo compared to other colonies in Africa during this period? Is the kind of behavior your describing typical of other colonists?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, the sad thing is, that in large part it was. It would be much nicer if we could say that all these terrible things happened in the Congo just because of the villainous figure of King Leopold II and his enormous greed for rubber, and so forth. But in fact, if you look at the other territories in equatorial Africa that were also rich in wild rubber -- these wild rubber vines, where the rubber could be harvested so easily and bring such a profit in Europe. There were sizable patches of forest with wild rubber vines in Portuguese-controlled Africa and Angola, in French equatorial Africa, and in the Camerons, which was at that point owned by the Germans.

All of these places operated under a very similar system, and all of them demographers estimate the population as being about 50 percent. This is best documented in the French equatorial territories, where the statistics and data are simply quite good. And it was all for the same reason. The difference was that Leopold had vastly more of this rubber-rich equatorial rain forest than anybody else did.

GROSS: Up until that point, how much money did he amass?

HOCHSCHILD: The best estimate today is that from the Congo, during the period that he controlled it totally, which was a period of about 23 years, he managed to clear about $1.1 billion in today's dollars.

And you can see how he spent a lot of this. If you go to Belgium today, look at the splendid Palace of Laaken on the outside of the city, where the royal family lives. It has the world's largest array of greenhouses. You can walk for an entire kilometer through greenhouses without ever going outside. The royal palace downtown, similarly relevated (ph). There's a triumphal arch in Brussels, the Arcave de Son Continaire (ph), which is kind of like a swollen Arc de Triomphe. These were all things that were built with the Congo profits.

GROSS: Now you -- you wanted to tell this story. Some of the documents you might have wanted to use were destroyed by King Leopold.

HOCHSCHILD: That's right. One of the curious things about this was that in 1908, when the international movement forced Leopold to give up the Congo as a private possession and become a Belgian colony, he ordered furnaces lit at the palace in Brussels in the middle of summer. And they burned for eight days, and he destroyed virtually every scrap having to do with internal administration in the Congo in the 23 years that he controlled it.

And he said to an aide at the time: "I will give them my Congo, but they have no right to know what I did there."

So a lot of the documents were destroyed. There's also an important set of documents that survived this fire that Leopold set. In 1904, 1905, there was a quasi-independent judicial investigating commission that went to the Congo -- which Leopold had organized -- and he hoped it was going to clear his name; that they were going to investigate and find that he'd been a good, philanthropic monarch, after all, and wasn't guilty of all these atrocities.

But the whole thing backfired, because the judges got there and they actually did their job. And they took testimony, they took account after account after account from African witnesses. They came back home. They wrote a report that was quite critical, but in very general terms. It didn't publish any of these eyewitness testimonies that they'd taken from Aficans.

These remained locked up in the state archives in Belgium. Leopold was not able to get at them to destroy them. And the Belgians kept them locked up, under lock and key, would not show them to scholars or researchers until the 1980s; a most amazing story.

Finally in the 1980s, they became available and I was able to draw on them as other people have been able to draw on them.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what was in these first person accounts.

HOCHSCHILD: Well, you have people describing, you know, "the soldiers came into my village, and they asked 'had we met our rubber quota' and we said 'no we haven't' and then they seized my brother and they shot him, and then they seized my sister and they shot her, and then they cut off their hands. And I pretended that I was dead and that I had fallen down from the shots, too. And while I was lying there, they came and cut off my hand, and I tried to say nothing and not to scream so they would think I was still dead. And then I lay there until the soldiers left. And that's why I don't have a hand."

So it's this kind of thing that you can see in these eyewitness testimonies. And we can see sort of similar things in stories that the missionaries recorded at that time.

GROSS: When King Leopold, under pressure, handed the Congo over to his country, Belgium, did Belgium rule any better than Leopold did?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, it would be nice to say that they did because a splendid movement, and this really was a splendid human rights movement that galvanized people all over the world, deserved splendid results. But the answer's not so clear.

Basically, the sad truth is that this rubber slavery system persisted not just in the Congo under Belgian rule, but in other parts of equatorial Africa under French, German and Portuguese rule. It persisted as long as the price of rubber was high. And the price of rubber didn't collapse, really, until several years after Leopold died.

At that point, things started to change. Things started to change and get better for another reason, too, which is that by about 10 or 12 years after Leopold's death, the Belgian colonial officials who had inherited his control of the Congo began to realize that if they continued things in the present way, they were not going to have any labor force left. It was they who were the first people who made this estimate that the population of the Congo had been cut in half -- by 10 million people. And you can actually find official documents saying: "If we go on like this, we're not going to have any workers."

So at that point, they began to clean things up. They made the slave labor system much less onerous. They substituted taxes for going into a village and chaining everybody up. But instead, they made people pay taxes. And people had to get jobs and work in order to get money to pay their taxes. And things became quite a bit milder.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Adam Hochschild. His new book is called "King Leopold's Ghost." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


My guest is Adam Hochschild. His new book "King Leopold's Ghost" is about the early colonization of the Congo, when it was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium.

The Congo got its independence from Belgium in 1960. And you say that when the Congo got its independence, there were fewer than 30 African university graduates in the Congo; no Congolese Army officers; no Congolese engineers, agronomists or doctors. And of some 5,000 management level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans.

Do you think that colonialism is a very large factor in explaining the problems that post-colonial Africa has had?

HOCHSCHILD: I think it is. I don't want to blame everything on colonialism because I think that makes things too simple. It's too simple to make colonialism into the villain and say that that's the source of all problems. All history -- African history included -- is much more complicated than that, and there are a lot of other things in that heritage, too.

We mustn't forget that slavery of one sort of another existed in most of sub-Saharan Africa before the white people arrived. So there's a much longer burden of history they're dealing with here. But certainly in the Congo, even more so than anywhere else on that unhappy continent, I think they're laboring under a very heavy burden of history because the regime that Leopold ran was really the most rapacious on the continent in terms of the number of deaths it produced.

After his death, when the Belgians took over and for 50-60 years it was a Belgian colony, it was still run in quite an exploitative way. Very few preparations were made for it becoming independent and self-ruled. And then of course, after independence came to the Congo in 1960, it was a very stormy period. They chose -- their first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was really the first and last democratically chosen leader of that territory. And two months after he was chosen, the CIA ordered his assassination. And that was carried out a few months after that.

Then for the next 30 years or so, the United States and France and Belgium and our European allies put a vast amount of support behind the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was reliably anti-communist during the Cold War years, but was a man who simply robbed his country blind. He gave the word "kleptocracy" to the English language. And this was not laying a good groundwork for democracy.

When the Cold War faded away and Bush was replaced by Clinton, there was some thought that: well, maybe we ought to push Mobutu towards doing some democratic reforms. But it -- that was a pretty hard thing to do when people had been supporting this guy as he imprisoned and killed all his opponents for the preceding 30 years.

So this is the heritage that the Congo has had to work with, and it's no surprise to me that they're having a lot of trouble making things work today.

GROSS: War broke out a few weeks ago in the Congo, and the heads of African nations have been trying to organize some kind of peace treaty. That hasn't happened just yet. I know you haven't been in the Congo recently, but you are a very informed reader of the newspapers. Do you see any connection between what you're reading now and what you read in your historical research?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, you know, one connection I see is simply to be reminded of the fact that the borders between countries that we see when we look at a map of Africa today, are borders that were placed there by the European powers with absolutely no regard to who lived where. These are not borders that surround particular ethnic groups. Indeed, they're part of Laurent Kabila's problems today -- are that there are Tutsis on both sides of the border -- on his side and on the Rwanda side as well.

There are several hundred different ethnic groups in the Congo. Even Europe, which has had many hundreds of years to work on this, has found unifying many different nationalities and languages into one federation to be a fairly difficult kind of thing to do. The people who tried to do it by force in Europe -- Hitler and Napoleon -- failed. It's only been partially and gradually done in more recent years.

And I think we just have to realize that when we talk about countries in Africa and say: well, you know, why don't things work as efficiently as they do in Europe, where the French and the Italians manage to get along -- and so forth.

We have to remember that these are not nations which sort of arose naturally. These are arbitrarily drawn boundaries. Many of them were drawn in Berlin at that conference that took place in 1884, 1885, when Leopold first solidified his hold on the Congo. They surround people of many different ethnic groups. They cut right through different ethnic groups.

It's just no surprise to me that Africa's having a hard time sorting things out.

GROSS: Let's look at the United States for a minute. How does the United States come out looking in the story of the Congo?

HOCHSCHILD: Well, not very good. The United States was crucial to Leopold's seizure of the Congo because Leopold had a lot of trouble getting the countries of Europe to recognize this vast territory in Africa as his own -- as belonging to him personally, which was what he wanted.

But he knew that diplomatic recognition is a matter of precedent, and that if he could get one major country to fall in line, the others would follow suit. So he concentrated on the United States. He got a friend of his, who was a former American ambassador to Belgium, Henry Sanford; sent him across to Washington; sent him to the White House to talk to President Arthur -- President Chester Arthur, who was President of the U.S. in 1883. President Arthur conveniently had been a guest several months before at Sanford's estate in Florida. And Sanford managed to get President Arthur to insert into a message to Congress some kind words about Leopold's philanthropic intentions in the Congo.

And then Sanford went to work as Leopold's chief Washington lobbyist; for the next six months, wined and dined Senators; brought his French chef and his wife over from Belgium; had fabulous dinner parties at his house; got the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution praising Leopold's good work in the Congo. And after about six months, the U.S. Secretary of State in effect recognized Leopold's hold over the Congo.

So this was probably the most brilliant Washington lobbying coup by a foreign leader during the 19th century.

GROSS: If we were going to school in Belgium or in the Congo, would we be learning the information that's in your book?

HOCHSCHILD: You wouldn't. One of -- part of the problem in the Congo is that at this point, the educational system is in such a terrible state that they virtually have no textbooks. But to the extent that they ever did, they were mostly using textbooks left over from the old regime. There's very little in these books about the period of the rubber terror. It's simply something that's not -- not known there.

The same is true in Belgium, and I'll give you a dramatic example of how little the Belgians know about this period -- actually two examples. You know, we give the Germans and the Japanese a hard time for not fully coming to terms with what they did in World War II -- the Japanese especially. But really, when it comes to the period of the colonization of Africa, there is far much more unfinished business in Europe than there is in regard to World War II.

If you go to Brussels today, the -- one of the largest museums in the city is something called the Royal Museum of Central Africa on the outskirts of Brussels. And it's a huge museum that has one of the largest collections of African art and artifacts anywhere in the world, probably the best collection. In fact, part of this collection toured the United States on exhibition last year.

But in this entire museum, 20 large exhibition halls, there is not one word saying that during the time when many of these objects were brought back to Europe, millions of people in the Congo, which is where almost of the stuff comes from, were meeting unnatural deaths.

Now to me, that's as if you or I went to Berlin, saw a museum of great art and artifacts created by Jews, and there was no mention of the Holocaust. Same thing by and large is true in Belgian school books. I had an interesting encounter with a man whom I subsequently became friends with, who is a Belgian historian, whose written about this period. He's actually written the best scholarly treatment of this period -- a book in French in four volumes that I drew on, and anybody who writes about this time will draw on.

And I'm always fascinated by what makes people interested in what they write about. And I went to see this guy in Belgium, and I asked him: How did you get interested in this subject? And he told me his story, which was quite a remarkable one, and that bears on this question you asked about how much do Belgians today know about this period. His name is Jules Marschal (ph). And he said that he was a retired diplomat.

Twenty-five years ago, he was a Belgian ambassador in Africa. And he noticed one day in a newspaper in Liberia a passing reference to 10 million people killed in King Leopold's Congo. And he was startled and he sent a message to the foreign ministry in Brussels saying there's been this peculiar slander on our country in the newspaper here, but I don't know the history of that period. Can you have somebody send me some information so that I can write a proper letter to the editor in reply.

And, he said to me many years later, I got no reply. And that's when my curiosity began. And he subsequently returned to Brussels. He tried to get into the archives of that period. He discovered that Leopold had burned all the important archives. He tried to get this surviving collection of testimony of African witnesses before the 1904-1905 commission of inquiry. They wouldn't show it to him because it was in a closed government archive.

He got so furious that they wouldn't show it to him that he devoted all of his spare time for the next 15 years, when he remained in the Belgian foreign service. And then working full-time since he retired seven or eight years ago, to writing a comprehensive history of this period.

And it never would have happened if he hadn't seen this article in a Liberian newspaper, telling him something that he didn't know about his own country's history.

GROSS: You write in the book not only, you know, about the history of the Congo, but you also write about "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad's famous book. And you study that as a great work of literature, filled with, you know, your teachers had all kinds of Freudian analysis and everything.

And upon rereading the book, you saw there a lot of history. And make one of the historical connections for us that you were disturbed to find actually existed.

HOCHSCHILD: We think of "Heart of Darkness" as fiction, and it is fiction. But it's also fact. You remember Mr. Kurtz, the villain with his palisade of severed heads around his house -- the heads on fence posts? Well, Conrad didn't just make this up. I found records of three different people in the Congo, all of them white officers in King Leopold's private army, who all collected severed African heads. And one of them actually had them arranged as the border for his garden.

And Conrad, I'm almost positive, met this man, because by comparing their diaries, I figured out that they were at the same place in the same time. And this is one of many, details in "Heart of Darkness" which is based on things that Conrad actually saw during the six months he spent in the Congo as a steamboat captain.

GROSS: And the most famous words from that novel: "the horror, the horror" -- I'm sure can summarize what you found in writing your history.

HOCHSCHILD: I think that's true. And also one other phrase from the Congo, which I was reminded of when you were asking me if the Belgians were alone in the terrors that they inflicted on Africa, Conrad says: "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz."

GROSS: Adam Hochschild, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HOCHSCHILD: Well, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost" about the colonization of the Congo. He teaches at the University of California at Berkeley graduate school of journalism.

Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers "My Yahoo!" "My Excite," "My Computer."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Adam Hochschild
High: Journalist Adam Hochschild is the author of "King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa" (Houghton Mifflin) about the brutal reign of King Leopold II of Belgium over the Congo in the 1880s. His regime sparked the creation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Leopold plundered the Congo's rubber, instituted forced labor, and reduced the population by half, committing mass murder. All the while, Leopold cultivated a reputation as a humanitarian. It took a group of travelers, journalists, and missionaries to uncover the truth about Leopold, and help bring about international pressure to end his regime.
Spec: Adam Hochschild; "King Leopold's Ghost"; Belgium; King Leopold II; Congo
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "King Leopolds' Ghost"

Date: SEPTEMBER 09, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090902NP.217
Head: The Linguistics of "My"
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:42

TERRY GROSS, HOST: People are spending more and more time talking to computers, and the software people are trying to turn it into a friendly conversation, right down to providing users with ready-made first person pronouns they can use, like that icon on the Windows desktop that says "My Computer."

According to our linguist Geoff Nunberg, it's a game that even an eight-year-old can understand.

GEOFF NUNBERG, LINGUIST, STANFORD UNIVERSITY: Every once and awhile, my eight-year-old daughter Sophie comes up to me when I'm working. She puts her arm around me in a transparently insincere display of affection, then walks away giggling.

I know this trick, and as soon as she's gone I pat my back looking for a Post-It that says something like "I'm A Knucklehead."

It's funny. You'd think that pronoun wouldn't mean anything if I didn't put it there myself. But somehow it makes me implicate in the utterance. She's visited a small indignity on me and we both know it.

This is about the most powerful magic you can work with writing, putting a first person pronoun into somebody else's mouth. It was probably no more than a couple of weeks after the invention of cuneiform and Sumer five millennia ago, that some scribe had the idea of pressing the characters for "kick me" on a clay tablet and fastening it to the back of the robes of some passing priest.

But the game didn't really come into its own until recent times, as writing spread to every aspect of our lives. Buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, magazine inserts, credit agreements, all of them full of first-person pronouns that other people have obligingly fashioned for our use.

"I 'heart' SF," "My Grandmother Went to Hawaii and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt," "Bill me now."

Most of these we tack on more or less willingly, but some of them just come with the job.

You have to feel for those drivers who have to roll around in company vans with stickers on the bumpers that say "How am I driving? Call 555-1234."

It's just a sophisticated version of the "kick-me" game, where the object is to make the driver a party to the message. I don't know who came up with the idea, but I will give you odds the word ownership came into the conversation somewhere.

As in: "McNalley, we want you to feel a sense of ownership about your turn signals."

The people who design new technologies were quick to catch on to this maneuver. You log in and there's a page label "My Yahoo!" or "My Excite," where you can set your own interest profile.

You turn on your own PC and there is a little icon on the Windows desk top that's labeled "My Computer." The first time I saw this, I couldn't figure it out. Who did that "My" refer to? Bill Gates?

It was a second before I realize that it was just Microsoft's way of trying to provide me with a proprietary sense about my file directories.

In a way, this is the biggest breakthrough in pronoun control since Sumer. It isn't like the "How Am I Driving" bumper sticker, where the company that owns the truck is talking to the driver's voice to the other people on the road. Here you have Microsoft or Yahoo! supplying both ends of the conversation, referring to the user with "My" at the same time they're referring to themselves with "We."

That's what a lot of interactivity seems to come down to, online or off. It's the same story whether you're consulting a Web page, filling our a customer satisfaction survey, or trying to get your Visa balance over the a telephone voice menu.

They can try to create the illusion of real conversation by putting in first person pronouns for you, but everybody is aware that it's a menu-driven world.

It's like in a restaurant, when that friendly waiter asks you how you want your salad. You know that there are only three choice: Russian, French or oil and vinegar.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Geoff Nunberg
High: Linguist Geoff Nunberg's insight into the "my" world.
Spec: Computers; Business; Science

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Linguistics of "My"
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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