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In this episode of Who Belongs? we hear from Adam Hochschild, a prominent historian, journalist, and a best selling author who wrote King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, among many other books. He's also a lecturer in Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Professor Hochschild gives us his take on the efforts around the world to topple statues and other monuments that memorialize historical figures known for their brutality and racism, including the campaign in Belgium to remove statues of their former king, King Leopold II, who plundered central Africa, leading to the deaths of millions of people.

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Interview Transcript

Adam Hochschild: Yes, the statues are part of one's history, but I don't think that's necessarily a reason to leave them up. I lost relatives in the Holocaust, and I would be offended, and I would hope other people would be offended if I saw statues of Hitler here in the United States, or in Germany, or anywhere else, even though he indisputably was a part of history.

Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs? podcast from the O&B Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, and in this episode, we'll hear from Adam Hochschild, a prominent historian, journalist, and a best-selling author who wrote King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, among many other books. He's also a lecturer in Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Professor Hochschild gives us his take on the efforts around the world to topple statues and other monuments that memorialize historical figures known for their brutality and racism, including the campaign in Belgium to remove statues of their former king, King Leopold II, who plundered Central Africa, leading to the deaths of millions of people. Here was our conversation.

Marc Abizeid: Professor Hochschild, I came across your remarks last week that caught my attention about the protests that erupted following the killing of George Floyd and, specifically, about the targeting and toppling of these statues, not just in this country, but around the world that pay tribute to racists and colonizers. And the one I want to focus on is King Leopold II in Belgium and his statue, from what I'm reading is like everywhere in the country, and they did take one down recently in Antwerp, and there's some other ones that there's a lot of campaigns to remove them. And you wrote a book, actually, a really famous book in the 1990s, about King Leopold II called King Leopold's Ghost and the plunder of the Congo, the campaigns of terror in Central Africa. So, just to contextualize these events that are happening in Europe and across the world, can you just start us off real briefly telling us about King Leopold II, who he was, what he did in the Congo and the significance of the targeting of these statues that pay tribute to him in Belgium?

Adam Hochschild: Sure. Well, King Leopold II became king of Belgium in 1865. He was a young man, 30 years old, and he was a very ambitious, greedy, extremely smart, clever guy. But he became king at a time when, in Europe, it wasn't so much fun to be a monarch anymore because you had to share power with elected parliaments, and with a cabinet, and a prime minister that wasn't necessarily of your choosing. So, like all European monarchs, he was gradually losing power to the electorate. He wanted some place in the world where he could rule supreme and where he could make a lot of money. And in the 1870s, the Scramble for Africa, as it was called, was just beginning, where the various countries in Europe had their eyes on the African continent as a source of great riches, and over a span of remarkably few years, most of the continent was colonized by the European countries.

Adam Hochschild: Leopold got in on this process early on by hiring the explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, the man who had found Livingston, to essentially stake out the boundaries for him of a vast colony in Central Africa, the same territory, roughly, that is the Democratic Republic of Congo today. And by 1885, Leopold had gotten all the major nations of the world, starting with the United States, to recognize this territory as belonging to him personally. It was not a Belgian colony. It did not become the Belgian Congo until 23 years later. For its first 23 years of existence, it was Leopold's personal possession. He referred to himself as its proprietor. And during that time, he made a huge fortune, estimated at well over a billion dollars in today's American dollars, by essentially turning much of the male population of that territory into forced laborers.

Adam Hochschild: The commodities he was after was first ivory and then rubber. In the 1880s, they invented the inflatable bicycle tire, and very soon after that, the automobile, and this set off an enormous demand for rubber all over the world. And rubber was something which in the rain forest of equatorial Africa grew wild, not as trees, but in the form of vines that twined themselves around a palm tree or other tree up to where they could get some sunlight. And what Leopold did was he sent his private army into the village after village, many contingents of his private army, and they would take the women of the village hostage, chain them up in order to force the men of each village to go into the rainforest, first for days and eventually weeks at a time, gathering a monthly quota of wild rubber. So, he essentially created a forced labor system, which existed for many years for gathering wild rubber, and it was from this that he made his fortune.

Marc Abizeid: And so how do you interpret the significance of this movement today to remove these monuments in Belgium? And actually, before we get into that, you wrote in your book that millions of people were actually killed during this period. Can you talk a little bit about that, about those death tolls of that campaign?

Adam Hochschild: Yeah. There was a horrendous death toll from this forced labor system that was exacerbated by the fact that, as everywhere in colonial Africa, the Europeans often introduced diseases that the Africans had no resistance to. But the forced labor system was particularly deadly because when you have in a particular village the women are all being held hostage, the men are in the rain forest desperately trying to gather their monthly quota of wild rubber, there is nobody to plant and harvest crops, to go hunting, to go fishing, to do all the things for which a community in that area normally feeds itself. So, there was near-famine in much of the country. In addition, a lot of these rubber gatherers were essentially worked to death. Plus, tens of thousands of people were killed in failed uprisings against the regime. And then when you... And tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more died because they fled into the rainforest to avoid the forced labor system, but the only places they could go were deep in the forest where there was no food, no shelter, and many of them died.

Adam Hochschild: And then when you have a large traumatized population where many people don't have enough to eat, people succumb to diseases that they otherwise would have survived. Plus, when you have women turned into hostages and men turned into forced laborers, people stop having children. So, for all these reasons, the deaths, the deaths from the disease, the deaths in combat, the drop in the birth rate, demographers estimate that between about 1880, when Leopold started to get his hands on this territory, and 1920 or so when the worst of the forced labor system began to come to an end, the population of the territory was slashed by roughly 10 million people, cut in half.

Marc Abizeid: So I want to ask a little bit about what you think about the resistance to removing these monuments in Belgium and other also other countries. And I wanted to make a connection, and maybe you can tell me if you think this is an appropriate connection to make, but when you publish your book on King Leopold, wasn't there quite a bit of resistance in Belgium? Wasn't it a little bit controversial that people were kind of pushing back against it and that it challenged the kind of the official story over there? And so what, I mean, what do you make of that? And how do you, I guess, interpret this kind of like pushback against this movement and what you think that says about those governments and those societies?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I think Belgium, like all colonial countries, tended to sanitize and glorify its colonial past. Here in the United States, for example, you don't find very many people talking and you don't find very many high school history books talking about the brutal colonial war the United States waged, 1899 to 1902, to take over the Philippines. Instead, you'll find a much more sanitized story about how we generously gave the Philippines their independence in 1945. So, well, same thing in Europe, Britain, France, Belgium, Germany was also colonial power, pre-World War I Germany. They tend to have a pretty sanitized version of the colonial past, ignore the fact that in most African colonies forced labor was the foundation stone of the economy. In Belgium, I think this was particularly so because this was a small country that had quite a large colony, really the largest territory in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Belgians who went there as priests, missionaries, doctors, civil servants, army officers like to think they were doing their patriotic duty, and civilizing the uncivilized, and all that sort of thing.

Adam Hochschild: So, Belgian schoolbooks had always portrayed Belgian colonialism as a very, very benign, uplifting, helpful thing. When my book appeared in 1998, it was published in this country and simultaneously in French and Dutch, the two main languages of Belgium, it created a bit of a stir, not because I told anything new because I think all of this story was certainly fully known to serious scholars, historians of Central Africa, and, indeed, several Belgian historians have been very helpful to me, steering me to research materials as I was writing the book, but because it was a book written for a general audience. It was really the first book written about this aspect of history for a general non-scholarly audience in close to a hundred years. So it created quite a big stir in Belgium and, in a peculiar way that's very unfair, I think a book written by an American creates much more of a stir than one written by somebody else because we are the world's superpower, and I think the identical book had it been written by an Albanian, or a Hungarian or a Sri Lankan, people might not have paid much attention.

Adam Hochschild: So, the book received sympathetic reviews in Belgian newspapers because the newspapers would usually give it to their Africa correspondent to review, and anybody who knows something about Africa knows that this was a pretty terrible piece of history. There was tremendous pushback though because there was a very strong sort of old colonials lobby in Belgium. These were people who have worked in the Congo when it was a Belgium colony, and they had a federation of former army officers who were stationed there, former Congo civil servants, former employees of this or that company, something like 24 different old colonial groups in the Federation, and they issued a enormous denial, a denunciation of my book, which I was happy to see it get some more publicity. But then, I think it helped kicked off a reaction in Belgium because something else happened around the same time. The year after King Leopold's Ghost was published, a Belgian author, Ludo De Witte, published a book on Belgian complicity in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independent Congo's first democratically chosen prime minister, and Belgian and American forces had conspired in his overthrow and assassination.

Adam Hochschild: And I think the two books together started something of a reconsideration of this period of history in Belgium. And also, as in much of Europe, there is a population of African descent in Belgium, nowhere near as large a proportion of the population as it is in Britain or France, so for example, but enough so that there are people who feel that their own history is not being adequately acknowledged. And then, when George Floyd was so brutally murdered and that that killing was captured on video for the whole world to see, it ricocheted around the world in a way that I think made people in many countries question are there parts of our history that haven't been sufficiently acknowledged, parts of our experience in the present day that aren't sufficiently acknowledged, and one reflection of this was the toppling of statues. In part, I think because taking down the statue is a pretty easy thing to do. Rooting out systemic racism that's embedded, both in European societies and our own, is going to be much harder.

Marc Abizeid: There's a lot of debate going on over should we remove them, should we not. And the people who defend the statues, they say, "We need to keep these statues because they're a part of our history. Removing them is like erasing our history. Even if we don't agree with it, it's still something that we need to acknowledge, whether we're talking about the Confederate monuments in this country or King Leopold or whatever." But you're a historian. As a historian, how would you respond to that argument?

Adam Hochschild: Well, yes, the statues are part of one's history, but I don't think that's necessarily a reason to leave them up. I lost relatives in the Holocaust, and I would be offended, and I would hope other people would be offended if I saw statues of Hitler here in the United States, or in Germany, or anywhere else, even though he indisputably was a part of history. So, in general, I'm glad to see the statues come down. I think it raises a question how much history is all around us that we take for granted. Street names, place names, places we... a plaque on a building that we walk by every day and don't even think about. There's actually a scholar, an American scholar, who's worked in Belgium who's tabulated a list of more than 440 statues, busts, monuments, plaques, street names in various places in this rather small country that all commemorate figures from the colonial period, Belgians who worked in the Congo, starting with King Leopold.

Adam Hochschild: So they're all over the place there. And I think it's probably time for them to come down and for those names to be changed. And I would say the same thing about the statues of Confederate heroes in this country because I can understand how an American whose ancestors were slaves is just as offended by seeing a statue of Robert E. Lee as I would be, and I hope they would be, by seeing a statue of Hitler. And I think that also raises the question of what statues should we put up in their place? And that forces us to do another kind of examination of history to look for who some of the forgotten heroes were.

Marc Abizeid: And again, listening to a lot of interviews from this debate, I think that they go even further to say it's not only is it offensive, but it's actually like an attack on their being, and I can give you an example. Over the weekend, I listened to an interview with a Black woman from Belgium. She's actually the director of a museum there. And one of the things she was saying was, she and others were talking about these monuments as there being like a spiritual element to it, too.

Speaker 3: We all know that those statues have a symbolic power. And I'm totally convinced that for some people they don't want us to demonstrate, or they don't want people to demonstrate and to say, "Stop with these statues," not because they want to keep those statues there, they want to keep us in our statues of inferiority.

Marc Abizeid: So, I bring that up, and what I'm hearing is that it really captures the sentiments a lot of these people around the world who are, especially ancestors of people who were directly affected by these figures, whether we're talking about native Americans in this country who want to see Columbus gone, or we're talking about the Confederates, or whoever is it's really about dominance. It's about the defenders of the statue just wanting to maintain like a system of white supremacy. And so you can imagine that it's just more than offensive, it's actually trying to preserve these archaic systems. So, what do you make of that perspective?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I think that's certainly the case in some of these cases. I mean, I think there are a lot of cases where nobody thinks in particular about the meaning of a particular statue, and I'm sure that there are some statues of obscure, colonial figures in the small Belgian towns where everybody's forgotten who this person originally was. But that's certainly not the case for the Confederate statues in the United States. There are millions of White Southerners who know who Robert E. Lee was, and who Stonewall Jackson was, and who, in some deep way inside, I think are nostalgic for a time before the end of slavery. It's hard to get people to say that openly, but I do think that's there. I do think that's one reason why so many White Southerners are attached to those statues and why so many Black Southerners and Black Americans elsewhere in the country are offended by it.

Marc Abizeid: I guess one of the last questions I want to ask is... Well, I want to present an idea and then get your thoughts on it. And it's about if you think that there's an opportunity to use history and the movements that we're currently seeing here in this country and around the world to actually create a path towards reconciliation and healing. I'll give you an example. The example I want to use is actually about genocide in Rwanda, and what's happening today, what's been happening since then, is that the government's been undertaking these initiatives to try to heal the country, to try to bring different ethnicities together and say, "It's not the fault of this group or that group. It's actually a product of colonization. It's actually, the Belgians actually created the system that led up to this." And I think that similar things were happening in South Africa after apartheid. And so, I mean, the question is in these kinds of examples, do you see opportunities now to use history to be able to at least set the stage for that, for some kind of reconciliation and healing?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I'm not sure I'd take Rwanda as a model. It's true that the mass killings have stopped. There have been none since the genocide. But it is a dictatorship, and it is a dictatorship that is basically under the rule of one ethnic group, the Tutsi. So, I wouldn't take it as a model. But I do think that honestly looking at history is always something that's a wonderful thing to do because you can't understand who we are now unless you understand how we got here. And how we got here in the United States today involves all kinds of things. They involve the experience of slavery for the ancestors of Black Americans. They involve the experience of being conquered for the ancestors of Native Americans. Those things are all part of our history. And I think the debate over symbols, like statues and so forth, forces us to acknowledge that and to think about what parts of history we want to honor.

Adam Hochschild: I think it's fine to take down these old statues, but a more important question is how we teach history in schools, and who we put up statues of instead. Who are the people we want to choose for our heroes and heroines? And what does that tell us about parts of American history? Or, if we're talking about other countries, their history that could be remembered instead. In Belgium, for example, now at last Patrice Lumumba, the deposed Congolese Prime Minister has a square named after him in Brussels. But he's got a long way to go before he catches up with the dozens and dozens of things that are named after King Leopold. Here in the United States, I'd love to see those statues of Robert E. Lee come down and see statues go up of great figures from American history like Ida B. Wells, the great anti-lynching crusader. There are many people like that that we could honor, and I hope do it in a way that would make schoolchildren interested, would make people think about why didn't I hear more about this person when I was in school?

Marc Abizeid: And that wraps up this episode of Who Belongs? I'd like to thank our guest, Adam Hochschild, a historian, journalist, and author of numerous books, including King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. For a transcript of this interview, visit our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/who belongs. Thank you for listening.