Narrativizing the Injustice: King Leopold’s Ghost and Hayden White’s Interpretations of History, Reviewed by Alanna



In his analysis of the interpretation of history, Hayden White looks at the construction of narrative as a way to build history out of events. White claims that to be real history, an account must manifest a proper concern for evidence, chronology and narration, bringing structure and meaning to the narrative.[1] Adam Hochschild wrote King Leopold’s Ghost with the express aim of bringing attention to the scandal of King Leopold’s slave trade and plundering in the Congo, a reign of terror under which the population was reduced between 1885 and 1908. Hochschild intended this to be a piece of popular history, with the potential to reveal to modern audiences the atrocities that had been committed,[2] and therefore the way in which he constructs his narrative is particularly interesting. He delves deep into the history of this time, and situates Leopold’s crimes in a wider context of European and African history while at the same time underscoring the modern nature of his efforts to exert “spin control” over his actions. In considering the international relations, personal aims and societal pressures that led to the horror that was perpetrated in the Congo and in the first great human rights movement that would end it, Hochschild brings attention to the voices of a wide range of characters in constructing his narrative, building a plot that encapsulates all the moving parts which came together to allow this to happen. King Leopold’s Ghost is a piece of investigative history, with the author seeking to uncover and expose the details of this forgotten piece of history. Looking at King Leopold’s Ghost through the theories of Hayden White exposes how Hochschild created this narrative, processing and interpreting it in such a way that would provide the reader some insight into the meaning and significance of what he wanted to convey.

White alleges that narrativity is essential to our comprehension and belief of history,[3] and this distinction exposes the value of popular histories such as Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. Popular history is in its essence the building of a narrative, and through these works, wider audiences are able to interact and understand events of history. However, the creation of a narrative requires significant interpretation of events, and this leaves space for the author to inflect his personal experience through the choices they make in what is included in their account and the meaning they choose to encourage. Hochschild builds a narrative that is focused on the injustice of King Leopold’s actions, encouraging the reader’s distaste through his use of language and construction of characters.  He takes the narratives of multiple actors and placing them into one story, giving space to little heard voices, and concentrating on building a narrative that incorporates all elements. As White notes himself, this interpretation and explanation raises the problem of the possible content of that truth and the form its affirmation must take.[4]

Hochschild’s construction of his characters as vivid, larger than life creatures further increases the narrative elements of his account, and through this influences how its audience interacts with the story. Leopold comes across as a megalomaniac, a greedy king obsessed since adolescence with the idea of running a colony of his own and duplicitous in his presentation of himself as possessed of higher motives, philanthropic and selfless. Henry Morton Stanley, the world-famous explorer whom Leopold retained as his agent, is depicted as a bully and chronic liar who allowed his own celebrity to be used by Leopold for the worst possible ends, persuading hundreds of Congo basin chiefs to sign over their land and their rights to the king of the Belgians. As Hayden White describes, there is an immense value to the creation of narrative as it has the ability to fashion human experience into a form similar to structures of meaning that make it easier to understand knowledge across cultural boundaries.[5] Furthermore, he raises the notion that there is significant appeal in the idea that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story.[6] These sorts of character details which Hochschild provides build a protagonist-antagonist element to the plot, perpetuating the narrative element, but also his interpretive aims.

Hochschild persists in his view that what happened in the Congo has long been forgotten, but his reliance on published sources, some new, some old, shows that it did gain considerable attention. For example, Jules Marchal’s scholarly four-volume history of turn-of-the-century Congo, “The Scramble for Africa,” and the vague yet vivid depictions of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, allowed academics and the public to encounter this time and place, but these histories were situated in their time or historiographical specificity, with little applicability to modern popular audiences. However, the fact remains that King Leopold’s Ghost brought the awareness of the King Leopold’s brutal acts to an audience of today, using language and ideas with are more amenable to our audience as Hochschild has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions. White writes that the explanation of events into history requires the interpretation of the individual historian[7] in order to encourage the cultural function of narrativizing discourse.[8]  This cultural element to the narrative is critical to how the audience perceives and accepts the historical narrative, and Hochschild exercises this in his retelling of the tale of Leopold’s duplicity, lubriciousness and greed, and of the cruelties and depredations which occurred in the Congo Free State for a modern audience. He translates the findings of specialist historians into a narrative of popular history by incorporating modern cultural reference. This is particularly notable in his choice of ‘holocaust’ as a term to define Leopold’s reign in the Congo, linking it with those for which Hitler and Stalin were responsible and which modern audiences find it easier to identify with.

Leopold tried to ensure that his crimes would never make it into the history books and shortly after the turnover of the colony he burned most of the Congo state, “I will give them my Congo,” he said, “but they have no right to know what I did there.”[9] White writes that there can be no explanation in history without a story, and that can be no story without some plot that makes it a certain sort of story – the provision of a plot-structure by the historian.[10] This perspective leads to the centrality of the historian, and the power that they have in interpreting a story. The very construction of popular history is reliant on the creation of narrative, as its nature is based in easy consumption and comprehension of history by wider audiences, and it is often written with express purpose toward a specific interpretation. There is little doubt that Hochschild viewed his book as a quest to bring to justice the atrocities of King Leopold and impress upon his audience the gravity of what had happened, continuing the work of the human rights movement that ended the reign of Leopold. The use of narrative provided Hochschild by which to transform a chronicle of events into a history understood by its readers as a story of a particular kind.[11] This exposes the problems of popular histories, as due to narrativization playing such a major role in their construction, so does the personal interpretation of the author. In the case of Hochschild, he is fighting for justice and condemning Leopold’s reign in the Congo, but the same elements which make this narrative could be equally used to promote less honorable histories.




[1] Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980), 9.

[2] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa (Boston: Mariner, 1999),3.

[3] White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 16.

[4] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973), 293.

[5]White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 5.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] White, “Interpretation in History,” 302.

[8] White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,”  8.

[9] Hochschild, 294.

[10] White, “Interpretation in History,”  297.

[11] White, “Interpretation in History,”  296.

One response to “Narrativizing the Injustice: King Leopold’s Ghost and Hayden White’s Interpretations of History, Reviewed by Alanna”

  1. Marian says:

    Thank you Alanna. I really enjoyed reading your piece. Your choice of book and the extensive way you linked it to Hayden White’s theories is particularly astute. There seems indeed to be a serious intermingling of narrativity and historical facts: while reading, I had the impression that Hochschild used King Leopold’s story as a political statement – the book, for sure, has a political purpose. It looks to me like a very example of subversion of history, using it as means to an end. But then again, are we using it much differently?
    What struck me most was your depiction of Hochschild’s characters as “larger than life”. Do you think that has an impact of the way the reader sees history? In other words, I felt the author made his protagonists almost mythical, especially given the enormous implications of his narrativity regarding human rights. Did this “dehumanization” also impact your read?
    Also, I noticed some emphasis was put on the characters. How were the events themselves portrayed? When you mention the notion of holocaust, for example: do you think we can trust Hochschild’s treatment of Congo’s history, and if so, to what extent? In that case, would you recommend this book to beginners, or people who lack knowledge or expertise on the matter?
    Again, thank you so much for an interesting piece. I’ll look further in Leopold’s reign, and then, I’ll definitely give the book a try.

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