Part I: Walking Into Fire
Summary of Chapter 1: “I Shall Not Give Up the Chase”
This chapter begins the story of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer who finally conquered the Congo River in the nineteenth century. He was financially supported by King Leopold, who secretly purchased the Congo and developed its infrastructure before anyone was aware of his intentions.
Morton was born in the Welsh town of Denbigh on January 28, 1841, as the bastard son, John Rowlands, of Betsy Parry, a housemaid who had many illegitimate children, some of whom were left by their mother in the workhouse with young John. John was a good student and won prizes for his work. As a teenager, he lived with various relatives and then signed on to an American merchant ship. At New Orleans, he jumped ship and worked for a cotton merchant as J. Rolling or John Rollins. He was bright, a braggart, and invented tall tales about himself. He was to become the most famous explorer of his time.
In the American Civil War, Rowlands, or Stanley as he called himself by then, first joined the Confederate side and later enlisted in the Union Navy. He deserted to become a free-lance writer for a St. Louis newspaper. He covered the Indian Wars as a journalist. His writing was part of the yellow journalism of the time, reporting sensational and biased stories based on what his publishers wanted. James Gordon Bennett, the publisher of the New York Herald sent him to cover foreign news. Stanley sent his accounts to America by telegraph, and at the age of twenty-seven became a full-time roving foreign correspondent for the Herald.
His work led Stanley to become aware of the Scramble for Africa by European powers. This race to get a piece of Africa introduced a new kind of hero: the African explorer. Like astronauts, African explorers became international celebrities for exploring the unknown and coming back to tell about it. The public was voracious for stories of adventure and exotic landscapes and primitive people. Such Englishmen as Sir Richard Burton and John Speke had mapped parts of Africa’s interior, finding Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. The Frenchman Paul Belloni Du Chaillu brought back skeletons of gorillas.
Europeans wanted Africa to furnish the raw materials for the Industrial Revolution, just as earlier, African slaves had been taken for the colonial plantations. Diamonds, gold, ivory, and rubber would be sources of wealth for the colonizers.
David Livingstone was a British physician and explorer who had been exploring in Africa for decades, searching for the source of the Nile. He was a national hero in England for being the first white man to cross the African continent from coast to coast. Livingstone disappeared on his travels, and Stanley’s American publisher, James Gordon Bennett, sent Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone and create headlines out of it.
Stanley’s melodramatic flair made a bestseller out of the subsequent book he wrote of the adventure: How I Found Livingstone. In 1872, Stanley located Livingstone at Lake Tanganyika. Stanley’s book is the only source of this now legendary story, but it made Stanley’s fame. From the beginning, he boasted of his violence and how he would shoot anyone who got in his way, like some cowboy in a western.
Commentary on Chapter 1: “I Shall Not Give Up the Chase”
The chapter’s quotation comes from Stanley, illustrating his pose as the tough explorer hero, who would find and bring back Livingstone. Hochschild builds his case through careful portraits of the main characters in the story, and Stanley was key to opening the Congo territory. Leopold carefully cultivated explorers, especially Stanley, whose aggressiveness laid the groundwork for the king’s colony. The author not only tells of Stanley’s feats but also of his background as an orphan in a workhouse and a wanderer, presenting a psychological analysis of the kind of white men who tamed the jungle. Stanley made no bones about his violent methods of dealing with the natives in his many newspaper accounts and books about his exploits. An illegitimate lower class nobody of Victorian society, Stanley was able to win wealth, fame, and respect for himself by his adventuring in Africa, turning his expeditions into sensational stories that sold his image and the image of the Congo that the Belgian king wanted to project to the public.
Though it seems clear to postcolonial readers that Stanley, Leopold, and the traders were criminal in their goals and methods, they had all been conditioned by centuries of colonial mentality, as Hochschild shows in the Prologue. Cloaking their greed for riches in moral zeal to bring civilization to Africa, Europeans felt justified in their invasion and colonization. The reports of early missionaries about the primitive and immoral nature of the Africans further fueled the rationale that the continent needed to be tamed.
Hochschild introduces disturbing facts about Stanley, such as his sexual dysfunction, based probably on sexual abuse at the workhouse dormitory. He had a lifelong fear of women. Before going off to find Livingstone he became engaged to a Welsh girl, Katie Gough-Roberts, from his hometown. When he returned he found she had already married, a bitter blow to his formidable ego.
Though a hero for finding Livingstone, he did have some early critics who cited Stanley’s violent treatment of his porters and his illegitimate Welsh birth. He constantly doctored accounts of his life, claiming to be an American. Stanley really only felt successful in his expeditions and played the role to the hilt, then turned around and made a fortune from his books and speaking tours.
Summary of Chapter 2: The Fox Crosses the Stream
Leopold II of Belgium, a German prince related to the British royal family, was following Stanley’s career in the newspapers. Belgium had become independent in 1830 as a constitutional monarchy, a small nation of French and Flemish speakers. Leopold was never interested in his studies but liked business and money instead. His father had characterized him as a sly fox, and Hochschild agrees: “Stealth and dissembling would be his trusted devices” (34-35). He married the Hapsburg Archduchess Marie-Henriette, and the two hated one another but had four children, three daughters and a son who died young. After the death of his son, Leopold neglected his daughters and wife.
From the beginning of his rule, Leopold was ambitious for colonies. He wanted to compete with other European powers that were amassing wealth from their colonies. He kept looking for land to buy. He studied ways to make money and acquire land. He visited the British colonies and read a treatise on how to manage a colony. The coffee, sugar, and tobacco plantations of Java had paid for railroads and canals in Holland, and he envisioned the same for Belgium.
Leopold invested in the Suez Canal Company, looked at land and railways in Argentina, Brazil, Fiji, and Formosa. He wanted both money and power ,and in the 1870s Africa seemed the best place to find a colony. The British and the Boers controlled South Africa; a weak Portugal claimed what used to be the Kongo and Mozambique. Portugal, Spain, Britain, and France owned islands on the west coast, but 80% of the continent was controlled by indigenous rulers. The king began compiling information on Africa and following the exploits of the explorers.
Leopold began to develop his rationale for conquest of Africa by using the common public arguments for exploration: “Curbing the slave trade, moral uplift, and the advancement of science” by mapping the continent (42). Leopold deliberately planned his image as a humanitarian and philanthropist by holding international conferences. In 1876 he held a Geographical Conference in Brussels. Representatives of all the European countries were there as well as famous African explorers. The king charmed his guests with rhetoric about needing to civilize Africa and “‘pierce the darkness’” by a crusade of scientific discovery (44). He spoke of abolishing the slave trade and creating peace. The conference ended in the establishment of the International African Association with Leopold as chairman. Now he had an organization for a smokescreen.
Commentary on Chapter 2: The Fox Crosses the Stream
Europeans truly believed they would enlighten the backward Africans with Christianity and western education. They were also on a moral crusade to defeat the Arab slavers who still traded in slaves after slavery had been abolished. They felt high-minded in their defense of science in the emphasis on exploration and mapping of the unknown continent of Africa. They believed they were exporting much needed modern knowledge and technology to the wilderness with medicine, railways, and steamboats. All of this earnest rhetoric , which many believed, and writers like Rudyard Kipling had made into the Victorian religion of colonialism, could not fully disguise the naked greed for the land and raw materials of Africa.
Hochschild, however, makes a case that Leopold II went beyond the ordinary colonial drive. He is building his argument that Leopold was guilty of crimes against humanity by showing that he spent much of his life planning carefully, like a fox, a devious scheme to get territory in Africa illegally for exploitation. He created elaborate moral subterfuges in his pose as a humanitarian interested in helping the Africans, and he pretended he wanted to abolish the slave trade carried on by Afro-Arab bosses.
In reality, Leopold would sanction his own massive system of forced labor to harvest ivory and rubber, sending tremendous wealth to his private coffers. This was all done secretly since he knew that neither his own government nor the other European powers would tolerate an open political move on his part. His real interest in exploration was that it would open up the land to commercial development.
Hochschild also provides some personal insight into Leopold’s character in his relationship with his family, to whom he was indifferent or cruel. Like Stanley, he did not like women and even tried to make a law to disinherit his daughters.
Summary of Chapter 3: The Magnificent Cake
In 1877 Henry Morton Stanley made headlines by crossing the entire African continent from east to west, following the Congo, the first white man to chart its course. It took him two and a half years to travel the seven thousand miles, and he and the remnant of his starving band barely made it. The trip had been sponsored by newspapers.
For Stanley, “combat was always part of exploring” (49). He had the latest rifles and an elephant gun with exploding bullets, used against people with spears and bows and arrows. He records in his journal that he destroyed 28 large towns and four score villages on the way. Stanley had a terrible temper that he took out on the natives and his white flunkeys as well. Porters mutinied under floggings and poor food.
When the explorer found the Lualaba river flowing north, he wondered if it was part of the Nile or Niger river, then had a hunch that it was the Congo. He risked his life and that of his followers to prove it. The river made a 180-degree turn to the south over great cataracts before flowing into the Atlantic. It began and ended below the equator, but the top part of its half-circle lay above the equator. At that time the huge river had more than five hundred species of fish and was a major source of food to the tribes living there. Stanley’s violent expedition destroying the villages became part of local legend.
Stanley viewed the Congo as a major transportation network for the Europeans. Once he got to the Crystal Mountains, however, where the river falls in 220 miles of rapids to the sea, Stanley’s expedition ran into trouble. The death toll of his company from wounds, dysentery, smallpox, typhus, exhaustion, and starvation was massive. Back home, Stanley’s feat was hailed as a great discovery and act of heroism. He was now a star. Leopold immediately began wooing him, using his International African Association as a front.
Leopold wanted Stanley to help set up bases in the Congo, so he could quietly claim and start working the territory, but he knew he had to make it sound like something else. He would send Stanley on exploration missions.
Commentary on Chapter 3: The Magnificent Cake
The chapter title refers to Africa as the cake to be divided up among the victors. Stanley’s expedition mapping the great Congo River was essential in opening up central Africa to foreign trade. Hochschild shows that Stanley was out for glory and did not hesitate to use up hundreds of lives to achieve his goal. He also seems to have gone out of his way to destroy African towns and villages as he went, a swath of destruction, prophetic of the onslaught to come.
Though Stanley was lionized, there was a “storm of outrage from humanitarian groups,” and even explorer, Sir Richard Burton, himself controversial, complained that Stanley shot negroes as if they were monkeys (50). Stanley made more money from his books, articles, and speaking tours than the money he earned on his expeditions. He created the public opinion about Africa. This particular tour was turned into the book, Through the Dark Continent, and Hochschild notes that he was careful to include the word “dark” in all the titles. He stretched all his adventures into two volumes.
Yet Stanley suffered another defeat at the hands of a woman, American heiress Alice Pike, who was engaged to him when he began his expedition, but when he returned three years later, she had already married. Stanley became deeply depressed.
Summary of Chapter 4: “The Treaties Must Grant Us Everything”
Stanley was thirty-seven and Leopold was forty-three when they met in 1878. Stanley was able to tell the king that the Congo held the potential of a powerful transportation system, that there was no military threat from the tribal people, and that there was no central political state there. Centuries of slave-hunting had weakened the tribal organizations. There were two hundred ethnic groups speaking four hundred languages. The fragmentation would make conquest easy.
Stanley agreed to return to the Congo, working for the king. They agreed that Stanley would set up a base at the river’s mouth and then construct a road around the rapids as a precursor to a railroad. Porters would carry steamboats in pieces up the rapids, assemble the boats, and then build a chain of trading stations on the river. At the time, Leopold was most interested in ivory.
Stanley was not sure who he was working for, the king, the International African Association, or the new committee called the Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo, whose stockholders were Dutch and British businessmen and a Belgian banker who held Leopold’s stock in proxy. Leopold was still playing the philanthropist. Stanley was pledged to secrecy about this new “scientific” exploration. Leopold did not want to alert his own country or any competitors about his real intentions.
Leopold bought out the other shareholders of the committee, and he continued to refer to the committee as if it were a legitimate operation. He then created another cover organization called the International Association of the Congo, which sounded much like the original society he founded. The new organization used the flag of the gold star on a blue background and became symbolic of the new governing force of the Congo.
For five years Stanley supervised crews that made a trail around the rapids up which were moved supplies. The station at the top was called Leopoldville. Stanley was a cruel taskmaster, and many blacks died building the road. He justified his brutality by saying the Africans were lazy.
While maintaining to others that the African venture had no commercial purpose, Leopold’s instructions to Stanley were to purchase land and get the chiefs to sign treaties. By now, Stanley had an army and was a good commander.
Leopold got British legal counsel, which told him that private companies could act as sovereign countries when making treaties with natives. Leopold told Stanley to lead his army up and down the river, getting treaties signed that granted his organization everything.
The king now had a complete trading monopoly in an area half the size of the United States. As attention was turned towards Africa, Leopold needed some country to recognize his Congo claim as legitimate.
Commentary on Chapter 4: “The Treaties Must Grant Us Everything”
The chapter’s title is from Leopold’s letter to Stanley on getting the African chiefs to sign over their land to him. Hochschild follows the step-by-step clever ruses that Leopold used to achieve his goal secretly. It was the age of empire, with the Russians all the way to the Pacific, the French in Indochina, the Dutch in the East Indies, and the British in Asia. Leopold went after Africa, wanting his share.
Hochschild points out that for lower class people like Stanley, Africa provided upward mobility and wealth. His motives at least were clear, while Leopold was “an illusionist,” who gave out that he wanted to found a chain of scientific outposts in the Congo, a sort of “Society of the Red Cross” (66). To Stanley, Leopold said there would be a “confederation of free negro republics” under the Belgian king, but one of Leopold’s secretaries clarified to Stanley that the blacks would have no power; only the whites would have power (67). Stanley made 450 Congo chiefs sign treaties that gave Leopold a complete trading monopoly, while Leopold told questioners that he was opening Africa to free trade. Hochschild mentions that the chiefs had no idea what they were signing, and furthermore, the introduction of alcohol to the natives was “as effective as the machine gun” (72).
Hochschild goes into a long passage on the lifestyle of the Congo peoples. They were not paragons of innocence. Some practiced ritual cannibalism and displayed severed hands or heads to prove victory in battle. However, any violence between tribes was limited and controlled by codes of native systems of justice. Africans were at peace with the environment and produced sophisticated art.
Summary of Chapter 5: From Florida to Berlin
In this chapter Hochschild documents Leopold’s efforts to get his claim of the Congo recognized by world governments. He used General Henry Shelton Sanford, the man who had helped to recruit Stanley, to influence Washington officials and President Chester A. Arthur. Sanford was a supporter of Arthur’s Republican Party. He had been corresponding with Arthur and other officials about Leopold’s plans for the Congo. Sanford and Leopold had a special telegraph code to pass news back and forth about Sanford’s progress in Washington.
Leopold wanted full American diplomatic recognition of his Congo state. In 1883, Sanford visited the White House to explain “Leopold’s great work of civilization” (77). He implied that American citizens would be free to buy land in the Congo and that American goods would be free of duties. Even Sanford was convinced that Leopold wanted free trade.
Sanford then lobbied Congress, finding an ally in Senator John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, who wanted the freed slaves in the south to go back to Africa. Leopold’s new state seemed to be a perfect opportunity for African Americans. In 1884 Sanford introduced a Senate resolution recognizing Leopold’s Congo; it passed.
Stanley publicized this coup in his book, The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State: A Story of Work and Exploration. It was telling, however, that Stanley only referred to Leopold’s International Association of the Congo, owned by Leopold. The resolution often confused the names of the organizations that Leopold had invented.
Leopold also pulled some tricky moves to get the French government to recognize him by playing on their fears of possible British claims in Africa. They gladly agreed to his demand, thinking they might be able to buy out Leopold’s Congo in the future.
No one understood the exact borders of the Congo territory, thanks to Leopold’s “sleight of hand” (82). The whole description gradually changed from a federation of states to one colony ruled by one man. Chancellor Bismarck of Germany hosted a Berlin conference on the Congo in 1884-1885, to which European nations were invited, but, as Hochschild notes, “Not a single African” (84).
The Berlin Conference was part of an effort to divide Africa among its colonial claimants, and everyone got a piece of the cake except the Africans. Everyone at the conference was under the impression Leopold was opening the Congo to free trade.
From this time on, Leopold sometimes called himself the “proprietor” of the Congo, and sometimes, “King-Sovereign” (87). The colony, however, belonged to him and not to the Belgian government. In 1885 he decreed that the area be called the Congo Free State.
Commentary on Chapter 5: From Florida to Berlin
Hochschild gives convincing evidence of Leopold’s “sleight of hand” in his diplomacy. The wording of resolutions and documents kept changing to confuse the readers about what kind of a state the Congo would be and who was running it. Leopold seemed to be a benign philanthropist who took it on himself to open the Congo territory to the world without expecting any compensation. He hid behind his committee, the International Association of the Congo, in which he was the sole shareholder. No one looked too closely because he was developing a desolate piece of land that had not as yet been recognized as valuable. He was fronting the money for the infrastructure, and other governments like France assumed they might buy out Leopold once he got things running.
Leopold and his agents played on the hopes and fears of governments to get them to agree to his sovereignty over the Congo. For America, the carrot was the idea of free trade and a place to send disgruntled African-Americans. He also skillfully used the traditional animosity between Britain and France to get them to agree to what he wanted. Hochschild’s case against Leopold seems valid from the documents he quotes showing discrepancies between Leopold’s personal communications and his public pronouncements.