The King Incorporated
by Neal Ascherson
Doubleday, 320 pp., $4.95
If you would understand the Congo—its enmity, its brutality, its orgiastic relish of hatred, the strength of Tshombe, or the passion of Lumumba, this is the book to begin with, for Leopold II created the Congo—its misery, its slavery, its impotence, and its anarchy. And he did more besides. The notoriety of his life, the evil of his methods, threw into vivid relief the greed, the indifference, the moral bankruptcy and public hypocrisy of high capitalism of western Europe in the late nineteenth century. About money, power, sex, family obligations, Leopold II was totally amoral: his egocentric needs dominated his actions. And towards the gratification of his ego, he dedicated his not inconsiderable powers—great cunning, immense industry, high concentration, and untiring physique. He was a remorseless man of almost intolerable vigor. And so long as he had his own way with money or with whores, he was largely indifferent to private abuse or public condemnation. He was the unloveliest scion of one of the more unpleasing minor royal families of Germany—the house of Coburg, whose blood, through Victoria of England’s marriage with Albert of Saxe-Co-burg-Gotha, ran its unlovely course through most of Europe’s nineteenth-century dynasties. Leopold’s father, Leopold I of Belgium, had been an object of Victoria’s veneration, and his squalid son never lost her affection although he came to be detested by nearly every other crowned head in Europe. Not that they minded his treatment of Africans, but they were deeply disturbed by his offensive behavior to his wife, the daughter of an Archduke of Austria, whom he ignored for years. They were shocked by his tyranny to his daughters. He set up what amounted to a judicial enquiry when Princess Louise took a pear without permission from a tree in the glasshouses at Laeken, and he spent the last years of his life trying to cheat them out of their inheritance. But, above all, his brother monarchs were outraged by his sexual life. The fact that he liked prostitutes naturally did not offend them—after all many of them did—but he openly consorted with them, the younger the better, and insisted on ennobling one of them, Caroline Lacroix, afterwards Baroness de Vaughan, and marrying her on his deathbed. Even though his brother monarchs could not, posterity might have forgiven such faults, for divided and acrimonious royal families are not uncommon and the gigantic sexual appetite of Leopold, like Charles II’s, could have become an object of amused wonder. But the squalor of Leopold’s spirit ran through muddier channels than these.
He hungered for power and money more than for pre-pubescent girls and they proved far harder to get. Leopold wanted an empire from the very first moment that he entered public life. He became wildly excited when he learned that his sister’s husband, Maximilian, was to become the Emperor of Mexico, and the next year he went off to Seville to work in the archives of …