Summary: King Leopold's Ghost tells the story of King Leopold II of Belgium and his (mis)rule of a colony that he essentially owned, known variously as the Congo, the Belgian Congo, and Zaire. It is a wild and unpleasant story of man's capacity for evil and the peculiar manifestations of it. King Leopold II, who never set foot in his fiefdom, managed (with the help of many willing underlings) to ruin a country. Regrettably, it is not the worst example of colonial misrule, but ...show more merely a representative one. What is shocking is how many people were affected (the Congo is a huge territory) and also how recent these events were -- barely a hundred years ago.
Hochschild effectively portrays Leopold's misrule, and, equally significantly, describes those that managed to campaign against it. There were heroes in this sordid tale, human rights campaigners at a time when the concept was still a foreign one and when it was taken for granted that the white man was superior to the natives.
We were somewhat surprised by the reaction to the book, at how unfamiliar people are to the events described herein. Even Hochschild acknowledges that he knew little about Leopold's misrule (and the campaign against it), and near the end of the book he describes a Belgian diplomat who was also unfamiliar with these events. We always thought people knew. Apparently they didn't and they don't, and so this is a very useful book in again revealing what went on.
Hochschild is effective in his descriptions, especially of the colourful individuals involved, both the good and the bad. His analysis of the situation is solid, though necessarily superficial (it is a short book, dealing with far flung and complex issues and occurrences). Hochschild packages the story well, and it makes a good -- though shocking -- read. Hochschild simplifies on occasion, but he does so in a reasonable and acceptable manner. The basic case of what happened is well presented, and the historical characters do come alive.
It is a thoughtful book, with Hochschild generally reminding the reader of the dangers the text poses, e.g. in its reliance on sources that are naturally not objective. A reminder of the horrors of colonialism in any form, and of the consequences of power (corrupting, here as everywhere, absolutely), this is required reading for anyone not familiar with the story. (Those who know all about King Leopold II might find it a bit oversimplified, but it is still a decent read).