Deliberate Awareness: What We Learned from Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”
Half a world away from the United States, in the Arab country of Qatar, some 800,000 workers are laboring tirelessly in inhumane conditions to build a stadium ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup (Human Rights Watch). Both their efforts and their forced exploitation are going largely unnoticed by the international community while the Qatari government boasts its progress ahead of the global event. And, while some activists are calling for better working conditions for laborers, the Qatari government’s failure to keep adequate records about the migrant working community makes it impossible to understand how grave of a danger such working conditions in the modern world pose. While Qatar may face a moment of reckoning, both the plight of the laborer at the hands of a government and the activist community’s rallying cry to expose the truth are not new. Over a century earlier, a coalition of journalists fought to expose presumed philanthropist and Belgian King, King Leopold II, for his colonization of the Congo — systemically exploiting and slaughtering the Congolese people his own pursuit of riches. In his book, King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild traces journalists’ campaign to expose King Leopold II for his exploitative business practices and abuses of the Congolese people. In outlining a network of activists working at the forefront of the Congo’s labor rights at the turn of the 20th century, Hochschild traces the importance of journalists as truth-based coalition builders in advocacy work. Yet, in doing so, Hochschild at times replicates the power structures he sought to critique: highlighting the priorities and identities of outsiders (in this case visiting journalists) without returning power to the Congolese people themselves. Where King Leopold II colonized the geographic area, Hochschild’s recount — which places the onus solely on journalists to coalition-build and make change — colonizes the story.
Hochschild’s work speaks to the capacity of journalists to expose truth. Hochschild acknowledges that at the time E. D. Morel discovered the conditions in the Congo, Americans and Europeans knew little about the subject. In sharing what he learned, Morel became the world’s educator on the issue, exposing King Leopold and placing attention on the Congolese people. Regarding effective human rights communication, Political Scientist Matthew Powers explains, “NGOs have come to be viewed as ‘boots on the ground’ who blur the lines separating journalism, advocacy, and public relations” (“NGOs As Newsmakers” 29). While Morel was not affiliated with a specific NGO, his positionality within the situation as someone with first-hand access to information, allowed him to blur the lines between advocate and journalist. Morel’s position as an insider working for Elder Dempster (a shipping company working in Congo) gave him first-hand access to information about worker exploitation in the area. Where previous efforts had relied on Belgium strategically sharing selective information about the labor force in Congo, Morel was able to investigate the records himself. While the first-hand information gathering is an important technique that brought the story closer to the affected community, Morel’s initial efforts that focussed solely on production before he began publishing photos failed to highlight the humans at the forefront of the work, perpetuating the nameless, faceless identity of the Congolese people for the public.
Initial documentation may have focussed explicitly on economics, yet Morel and his colleagues’ act of documentation was itself an act of resistance to slavery in the Congo. The journalists’ diaries, correspondences, and even published work marked a stark departure from the Belgian government’s practice of keeping very few — or no — records about the atrocities they inflicted the Congo. As Hochschild explains, “Few officials kept statistics about something they considered so negligible as African lives” (226). This acknowledgment indicates the government’s choice not to keep records, while seemingly passive, was a values-based decision demonstrating the government prioritized capital over human life. As Powers notes, “advocacy groups see communication as… a way to gain credibility as actors in international politics” (“Structural Organization” 5). Journalists’ documentation validated and legitimized the problem for a network of international supporters by identifying and quantifying the harm done by the government. For journalists working to expose King Leopold, documentation as a means for their communication efforts was the first step in gaining credibility to build a coalition.
The coalition of journalists reporting on the Congo did far more than simply raise awareness about the abuse. They ultimately used mass media outlets and engaged policy makers who could affect macro-level policy change. In doing so, the activists employ both leverage politics and salience politics Social Scientists Cullen S. Hendrix and Wendy H. Wong describe. Hendrix and Wong identify leverage politics as an NGO’s efforts “to influence powerful western states to mobilize around a cause” (31). And, they describe salience as, “NGOs target[ing] countries and issues for coverage because they are important to the organization’s membership and funders” (31). Colonel Henry J Kowalsky’s media publication is one key moment that highlights both tactics. King Leopold first identified Kowalski as part of his own leverage politics. As Hochschild explains, “The king saw an American who was active in the Republican Party then in power, and a man who portrayed himself as a lobbyist extraordinaire” (246). Yet, instead of keeping quiet as he had promised after the king took him off payroll, Kowalsky published his correspondence with the Belgian government in one of America’s most popular newspapers and exposing, what he called “King Leopold’s Amazing Attempt to Influence Our Congress” (Hochschild, 246). In framing his cry within the context of the American government, he appeals to the American public. While pragmatic and effective in engaging an international community, these tactics usurp the Congolese’ own story and place the emphasis on America.
While Morel and his colleagues raised awareness about slavery in the Congo, measuring their success presents challenges. If their goal was to end forced labor in Congo, they failed spectacularly. When King Leopold died, his work continued in different ways and with new techniques such as building plantations and implementing taxes (Hochschild, 278). Such tactics continued to make Belgium rich while oppressing, exploiting, and ultimately killing the Congolese people. Moreover, such conditions were not unique to the Congo, with many other colonized nations in Africa experiencing the same atrocities. While their primary objective had to be situated in one specific location, the fact that this problem occurred globally — even in America — went untouched by the activists. While they ultimately failed to end forced labor, Morel and his colleagues succeeded in crafting a long public moment — one that put pressure on King Leopold, united allies and exposed grave abuse. But, ultimately, the moment faded in historical memory, with the largest Africana collection in Belgium failing to mention the slavery (Hochschild, 292) and with the complicit participants able to move onto other business ventures with no repercussions (294). Moreover, slavery of this sort — while veiled in other terms — continues around the world. Still today, the practice of colonization exploits populations to sell rubber, to grow cotton farms, or even to build a stadium for the benefit at the small few at the cost of the mass people.
Hochschild’s recount outlines a new charter for activists — one that uses media tactics as a call for moral clarity, one that relies on fact-based research to expose the truth and one that uses discourse to make public conversations that had previously happened behind closed doors. Hochschild touts Morel and his colleagues’ greatest achievement as having established “a way of seeing the world, a human capacity for outrage at pain inflicted on another human being,” (305). Morel and his colleagues crafted a new world by illuminating the human story in slavery. Yet, even in his own recounting, Hochschild casts Morel and his colleagues as the heroes and protagonists of the efforts to end slavery in the Congo. How might future scholars tell this story to truly reimagine “a way of seeing the world” such that those colonized are at the forefront of their own liberation? If deliberate forgetfulness is the most weaponized form of colonization, perhaps deliberate awareness holds the keys to dismantling such systems of oppression.
Hendrix CH & Wong WH. Knowing your Audience: how the structure of international relations and organizational choices affect Amnesty International’s Advocacy, Review of International Organizations, 9 29–58. 2014.
Hochschild, A. King Leopold’s Ghost, First Mariner Books. New York, New York. 1998.
Human Rights Watch. Qatar: Take Urgent Action to Protect Construction Workers. 2017. Retrieve from: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/27/qatar-take-urgent-action-protect-construction-workers
Powers, M. NGOs As Newsmakers: The Changing Landscape of International News, Columbia University Press. 2018.
Powers, M. “The Structural Organization of NGO Publicity Work: Explaining Divergent Publicity Strategies at Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations,” International Journal of Communication. 2014.