Documentary about the history of the Congo and how the greedy and incredibly ruthless King Leopold II of Belgium turned a vast country into his private estate from 1885-1908. How he plundered the land and caused countless victims; and how his lasting impact is still felt in the country as international powers and corporations fight to take and profit from the Congo’s many resources.
I knew little of the history of the Congo before watching King Leopold’s Ghost, all I really knew was that King Leopold II wasn’t a good person but what his crimes actually were, I had no idea. I presumed it was to do with slavery and taking the country’s resources (like most European nations did with countries in Africa) but the extent to which he took over the country and had the people enslaved – while running a PR campaign saying he was doing no such thing – was incredible. What’s also shocking is that King Leopold II never even went to the Congo but still caused so much damage that had a knock-on effect for decades.
King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting but hard-hitting documentary that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of colonial rule. It’s narrated by Don Cheadle which was an excellent choice as you can often hear the barely contained anger and disgust over what he’s explaining. It includes photos, videos, interviews with historians, and extracts from various people’s diaries and letters including King Leopold II, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and writer Joseph Conrad.
I liked how King Leopold’s Ghost incorporated what other nations were doing at the same time as what was happening in the Congo. I find it difficult to understand how close certain historic events were to one another so this added extra context. For example, by the time King Leopold was getting involved in the Congo and stealing the land off its people and forcing them to work for him, Britain had stopped being involved with the slave trade. While Britain obviously has its own terrible colonial history, I found it interesting that it had moved away from the slave trade while Belgium was only just getting started.
One of the stats that really shocked me, is that it was estimated that in 40 years from the start of King Leopold’s influence in the Congo, half the population had died – which was 10 million people. And that’s just an estimate. Records of the hangings and killings weren’t kept by the Belgium people who were working out there and some weren’t even really aware of what they were out there for. King Leopold and Belgium’s atrocities have been covered up so that it’s only fairly recently that both Belgians and the Congolese have been taught about these things in schools. In school textbooks in the 1940s-1960s, King Leopold and his involvement in the Congo is framed as a good thing and he helped the people.
King Leopold’s Ghost goes from the nineteenth century to the early 2000s and shows how even when the Congo is supposed to be independent and has elected someone the people want, the Belgian and American secret services will protect their interests, to the detriment of the Congolese.
It’s disappointing but not surprising that still today so many other countries and international corporations have a vested interest in the Congo due to all of its resources. Uranium, ivory, gold, diamonds, coffee, and more are valuable commodities but few Congolese people actual benefit from the sale of it.
King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting and comprehensive guide to the history of the Congo and how what King Leopold put in place in the late 1800s, is still having a negative affect on the country and its people today. It’s a great documentary if you have little to know knowledge of the country and its history as it explains everything clearly and draws the links between various people, countries and events without being condescending to the audience. 5/5.