BROOKE GLADSTONE: A collective nation scratched its head in 2006 when the President said he was reading The Stranger, Camus' existentialist classic. And we were just as puzzled around Christmas, when he told The Washington Post that he just finished King Leopold's Ghost, the tragic history of colonial Congo. The President didn't elaborate, but, unlike Camus, the author could, and did.
Adam Hochschild said his nearly 10-year-old account of Belgium's King Leopold resonates today as a study of a ruler's foreign ambitions, whose motives are unclear to his countrymen and kept unclear through secrecy, misdirection and public relations.
Hochschild said Leopold was a spinmeister of Karl Rovian caliber; only Leopold was spinning the torture, starvation and murder or millions in the pursuit of ivory and rubber. His media manipulations ranged from the crude bribery of editors to the clever exploitation of celebrity. In fact, he hired the era's bestknown earlier, Henry Morton Stanley, the famous finder of Dr. Livingston, to map his new colony. The king's task was to find a way to claim it. ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Leopold was a master of public relations, and he realized that the only way he was going to get all the nations of Europe and the United States to recognize his hold over this territory was if he could convince them that he was doing something philanthropic. He wanted to bring civilization and Christianity to the poor benighted natives and to stop the slave trade from Africa to the Arab world, which was indeed something that was going on. But Leopold turned much of the adult male population of the Congo into slave laborers of a sort himself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Leopold put a sturdy lock on any critical information coming from the country for nearly 10 years. What did that silence allow Leopold to accomplish? ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Beginning in the early 1980s, Leopold established this forced labor system. And there was this tremendous loss of life. It was a holocaust in that sense.
And, you know, most Americans, if they graduated from high school or college, they've actually most likely read a book, which comes from that time and place. And I'm speaking of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Conrad spent six months in the Congo in 1890 as a steamboat officer, and he was there long enough to really get a sense of the atmosphere of a Gold Rush, where you could have all the fun of getting rich, and, at the same time, of shooting down Africans. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you write that he had any number of models for Kurtz.
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: That's right. The Belgian officer named Captain Leon Rom, whom the evidence seems to indicate that Conrad met briefly. And some years later, a British journalist visiting the Congo noticed that Captain Rom had 22 severed African heads as a border around his garden. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there were other reporters in the Congo, but you write that at this point no one reported honestly what they'd seen. In fact, the first man who broke the story wasn't even there. He was a shipping clerk in Belgium. And you liken him to a railway employee in, say, Nazi Germany, who might have wondered what was happening to all those Jews. ADAM HOCHSCHILD: His name was Edmund Dene Morel. And at the turn of the century, he found himself working as a shipping clerk for a British shipping company that had the monopoly on all the cargo traffic between the Congo and Belgium. The company used to send him over to the Belgian port of Antwerp every couple of weeks to check in their ships.
He noticed that when these ships arrived from Africa, they were carrying these enormously valuable cargos of rubber and of ivory, but that when they turned around and sailed back to the Congo, they carried nothing to Africa to pay for all this stuff coming to Europe. He realized that he was watching evidence of a slave labor system.
Morel quit his job and turned himself, in the space of a few years, into the great British investigative reporter of his time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: His main outlet was a paper that he said up, called The West African Mail. I wonder what kind of influence could a specialty newspaper about West Africa have in England in the 1980s? ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, he started off there, but he also very soon started something called the Congo Reform Association. The Congo Reform Association published a long string of pamphlets and photographs that had been taken by the missionaries of, you know, people with their hands cut off, people being whipped, hostages in chains. They used every possible kind of media of the day to get their message out, and they were really very effective in doing this.
Morel wrote many, many articles for the mainstream British press, and came over to the United States, went to the White House, saw Theodore Roosevelt, told him about it.
He and Conan Doyle, you know, the man who wrote the Sherlock Holmes books, made a lecture tour together. Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington appeared together in the United States speaking on this subject, at Morel's instigation. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did he get the evidence he needed?
ADAM HOCHSCHILD: People inside the Congo bureaucracy with guilty consciences knew that he was the person to whom they should leak their documents, and they did. When, for instance, Morel exposed this hostage-taking system for forcing people to gather wild rubber, Leopold and his people, of course, denied it. Well, Morel was then able to reproduce the blank form, in French, that was sent to every district post head in the Congo where you were supposed to list how many hostages you were holding and for what period of time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've got these two characters, Leopold and Morel, squared off over a country that neither of them ever visited. And they're both masters of P.R. But how did Leopold counter Morel's arsenal of irrefutable evidence? ADAM HOCHSCHILD: He paid various people to go to the Congo and write books about how enlightened his administration was, got some of them to make lecture tours as well. He published a trilingual magazine called The Truth about The Congo that you found on your seat if you booked a sleeping compartment on a European train during this era, and that reached a very elite audience. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, ultimately it was two huge P.R. disasters that turned the tide against Leopold. One was when his chief lobbyist in the United States got frustrated at being sidelined and went public, and the second was when his own, quote, unquote, "official investigation" of Congo atrocities blew up in his face. Let's take that second one. How did he let that happen? ADAM HOCHSCHILD: There was this mounting tide of criticism, so Leopold said, well, I'm shocked at these accusations and I'm going to send an investigative commission to the Congo. So he picked three judges, people who owned him favors or were hoping for jobs from him. But, amazingly, these three judges actually did their job. And Leopold knew he was in trouble when he began getting reports back in Europe that, when hearing from African witnesses, one of the judges had broken down and wept. His governor general in the Congo, after being interviewed by the three judges, had committed suicide. And these judges were going to release their report in French on a certain date. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that's when he pioneered a stunningly clever ploy that's still used today. ADAM HOCHSCHILD: He knew that his real trouble was going to be in England and the United States. So what he did was he prepared a so-called summary of the report, in English, and arranged to have a fake front organization that he'd set up release it the day before. And, of course, newspaper reporters always like to have their work done for them, and they wrote their stories based on this summary.
Then Leopold managed to do something else as well. He had only limited control over these judges, because he'd set them up as an independent commission. But he managed to get the actual transcripts of the hearings that they held, the testimony of several hundred African witnesses, embargoed, locked up, inaccessible to anybody until 1984, more than 75 years later. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nearly a decade has passed since your book was published, and you call this the first international atrocity scandal in the age of the telegraph and the camera. Is it as easy now to manipulate the media? ADAM HOCHSCHILD: I think maybe it's a little bit harder. When Rumsfeld was forced to step down as Secretary of Defense, somebody asked him what was the worst thing that happened during his reign? And he said it was the day the Abu Ghraib photos were released. Didn't say it was the day I first found out this was happening or the day that these kinds of mistreatments of prisoners [LAUGHS] began. He said it was the day that the photos were released.
I like to think that even though horrible atrocities still go on in this world of ours today, we do have means of getting the information out that didn't exist before. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam, thank you very much. ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Pleasure being with you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adam Hochschild is the author of King Leopold's Ghost, a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, are Presidential campaigns getting longer or does it just seem that way? – and why hiccups matter. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
"You're a Big Girl (Now)"
by Bob Dylan