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Interview with Adam Hochschild

Felicia Herrschaft:

In the book King Leopold's Ghost you insert a quote from Mark Twain, what is it about Mark Twain that fuelled your interest in researching King Leopold's colonization of the Congo?


Adam Hochschild: I am fascinated by the moments in history when the idea, or ideas of human rights expand. A hundred years ago when people spoke about the right to vote, they didn't include women. Two hundred or three hundred years ago people spoke about human liberty, and didn't assume the right to vote. When people first started to talk about the right to vote they did not assume that an elected parliament could over-rule a king. The moment in human history where the idea of human rights expand is the point that fascinates me about the anti-slavery movement in England, and how it suddenly came into being.I begin my book in the year 1787. If one was standing on a street corner in London, and said slavery is morally wrong and should be stopped. 9 out of 10 people would have thought it completely insane. Although in theory it may have been reasonable, it was in practical terms impossible. The Economy of the British Empire would have collapsed without slaves, no sugar, no rum, and all international commerce would have been destroyed. Five years later in 1792, more than 300thousand people in Britain were refusing to eat sugar because it was a product run by slaves. 400thousand people signed petitions for parliament against the slave trade. People were able to vote in 1792 when the House of Commons passed the first law in any national legislative body anywhere on earth banning the slave trade. The house of law also had to agree on views of legislation, none-the-less it was a huge step forward and turned around British public opinions on this issue. I think there are several reasons for this sudden expansion to included the rights of slaves in general human rights. Both the American and French revolutions got the ball spinning, in the general discussion about human rights, and liberties for Europeans. It was the first step towards expanding to include slaves. The techniques used then to arouse public interest were developed and are still used today for most movements for human rights. They invented the political poster, the button on your shirt or coat for political sayings. It was by far the most wide spread human rights organization in Europe with central committees in national capitals and local committees in every town and city around the country.


The idea was a very new one. It also provides an interesting example of coalition politics. The groups in Eighteenth Century England although strictly divided by religious sects, came together to work for this mutual cause establishing an unprecedented form of unification between Anglicans, Quakers, Unitarians and Methodists. The organizational techniques crystallized a feeling that was latent in the British populations at that time. Another interesting question, which many historians before me have also posed is, why was it that this huge popular antislavery movement developed in Britain? In the six other European countries that maintained slave colonies in the Americas, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, there were small movements but none comparable to that of England.

What made England different?


I think the British people felt as though they were living in a freer more democratic society than elsewhere in Europe. During the eighteenth century the British had their own similar experience with something similar to slavery. Do you know the word Impressments? The British had the most powerful Navy in the world and could only get enough people to fill the ships by force. The navy employed what we call pressgangs. These were groups of sailors under the command of an officer to go through the port towns and some cities in London, Britain as well, and grab any strong young man they saw on the streets put them in chains and take them off to the nearest naval ship. They were to serve in the navy for five years if they survived. Many countries over the course of military history use conscription of one sort or another, but this was not an orderly military conscriptions. Kidnapping by gangs of armed men was carried out on a large scale. Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly kidnapped into the Royal Navy and there were huge popular protests against it. Some protests were so large the police had to be called out. Some local officials refused to cooperate with kidnapping gangs, some wrote books and pamphlets refuting it, but the practice remained in effect, because there was no other way to employ enough sailors.

While studying the protests on impressments I found quite often the writer so pamphlets would refer to the citizens of Britain as being treated no better than slaves. In a political cartoon of that period a man is depicted as being pulled out of his wedding procession. This scenario and its close lying comparison to slavery may have been what helped humanize the slaves in the slave trade, seeing as the British people had in effect become just that for their own British Navy, slaves. Felicia Herrschaft: While telling this story you include protagonist from the new movement. Do you use this in a way to provoke your reader?

Adam Hochschild: History consists of people doing things. You have to tell it on the individual level. In my book about King Leopold's Congo, I try to tell the story through the lives of six or eight people. They didn't control everything that happened but they control the represented forces involved. In some cased these were English men and women who were important figures in the abolition movement in England.

Thomas Clarkson is a principle figure. He was a traveling organizer for the slavery committee. As a student in Cambridge University in 1785 he entered a contest for the best Latin essay. The University head at the time was one of a handful of people concerned about slavery and the slave trade. He selected the essay topic question, is it right to enslave people? Clarkson eloquently wrote his essay on the subject thereby doing a huge amount of research. Reading and talking to people first hand, slaves, and army officers, he became very involved in his subject. He tried to pull together a movement to address this. A young lawyer, James Steven, traveled from Britain to the West Indies, in search of a more prestigious income. After arriving he worked as an observer of a murder-trail in which slaves charged with murders were found guilty and send to death by being burned alive. Steven was so shocked and horrified, that this changed the course of his live. He later returned to England to become the Chief Parliamentary strategist in the anti-slavery movement. He was the great-grand father of the right of Virginia Woolf. Those are some of the people I discuss.


Felicia Herrschaft:

The campaigns against slavery, and the trafficking of people, are discussed but you also talk about some other issues in your book. In “King Leopold's Ghost " you write about how the People of the Congo organize their properties, and how they should possibly reorganize it following the deportation of millions of people over the years as a result of slavery. How does one deal with this legacy?


Adam Hochschild: I think this is what we talk here under the word of reparations. I actually think reparation is the wrong strategy politically because it takes the focus of the things that are going on today. That makes this more an unequal world than it should be and also there is furthermore the question that payment of reparations would mean more foreign aid would going to Africa. But our whole experience with aid to Africa up till now is that a lot of it gets wasted a lot of it gets pocketed by corrupt politicians ends up in Switz-bank accounts.

I think that the important things the Western Countries should do in Africa has to do with rearranging the rules of world trade. These rules are now made mostly for the benefit of the big multinational corporations. They are not made for the benefit of poor countries. The result, you know we have from Europe and the United States very heave subsidized agriculture were you know crops crowing in Europe and the US can be sold on the World Market can be sold in Africa and African farmers can’t compete with this, because they are not getting any government subsidize for their crops of their producing and this is something a lot of people talk about. The United States is still very resistance in even recognizing that this is a problem. I think a change in the trade rules would do far more for Africa than every kind of payment or reparations.


Felicia Herrschaft:

Can you foresee change in the political strife in the Congo? Have you been to the Congo recently, and bared whiteness to the current situation?


Adam Hochschild: Not in recent years. I was there once a long time ago and traveled much elsewhere in Africa. I think the heart of the conflicts derived from colonialism over the years stem from the basic organized system for plundering the natural resources of the country. There are also other problems. European colonialism cannot be blamed for everything.

The cast systems in which women are very low perpetuate the problems Africa faces today, when a whole society is a slave society it the difficult heritage out of which develop democracy. Exactly the same thing can be said of Russia today you know hundred and fifty years ago most Russians were servant and it is no wonder that they are having problems developing a democratic culture and I think finally the problem to all of Africa is that the traditional African societies were based on loyalties to the clan, the ethnic group, the tribal chief and these are unites much smaller than modern nation-states.


The modern nation-state as it existed in Europe took a long time, many centuries to form. Many centuries to primarily think of themselves as Germans rather than Bavarians or Prussian or whatever primarily they think as themselves as French people rather than being from Lombardian or Normandian. Though these processes are pretty early in Africa. And of course the national boarders they are dealing with are those who are left behind by the European Colonizer which don’t make sense at all. We can’t change the world as we have it. Unfortunately think it is going to be a long long time before things improve dramatically I wish this were not the case but it is.


Felicia Herrschaft:

On the 27th of January we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Some criticized Arno Lustiger who held a speech in the Bundestag about the liberation of Auschwitz, because he didn't make any reference to current Genocide or murders taking place in today's global society. Do you feel such a comparison and discussion to be either beneficial, or at all appropriate?


Adam Hochschild: Definitely I am all in favour in remembering the Genocide and mass-murder and slaveries of the Past but I think we should remember these in order to help us focus on all of the injustices that are still going on in the world right now and there are certainly many of them very important to focus on Darfur and the other Genocide like situations in the world today. I guess my personal preference would be that any there is an event that can memorate to the victims of Auschwitz or can memorate in terms of Stalinism in the Soviet-Union or what ever if there is a museum on this subject or something. Hard of that museum looking at what are the similar situations that happened in the world today. For example we have now this enormously Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. in the US. When President Clinton opened the Museum it was 1993 and the US was doing absolutely nothing to help Bosnia which was then under siege by the Serbs and than similar the following year 1994 was the year that the Movie Schindler’s List was relieved and seen all over the World neither the US nor Europe did anything to stop the Genozide that was going on in Ruanda in fact the US and France and Britain are put some work in stopping the United Nations from trying to do anything about this. So I would like to see these great killings of the past to remembered and memorialized but only in the spirit of trying to find a focus us on what is happening in the present that we can possibly stop.


Felicia Herrschaft:

How do you teach journalism or young journalist to be good journalists?


Adam Hochschild: I do teach journalism at the University of California in Berkeley and I do it there because many of the students there are people who are interested in writing about human rights issues social and economic justice and I guess the main thing I try to teach them is that if you want to reach large numbers of readers with what you write you have to find ways of telling these stories through the life of individual people and that is the only reason that I am able of my books and I think all to often progressive journalists, leftwing journalists see all that if they have the correct political analysis it is enough. I think it is not enough. I think it is important to understand these things, to understand globalization and so for but you have to be more than describe the problem you have to describe these problems in a way that makes people reading and makes people to pay attention and I think the way to do that is through talking of the lives of individual people.

The basic methodologies is if you want to make someone outreached of the problem of present day slavery, trafficking women, find the life-story of one or three women and describe interview them follow them around, interview them follow them around talk to people about their lives, write about what their experience have been otherwise nobody will pay attention if you write a story with all statistics nobody will pay attention.


Felicia Herrschaft: Were you born in New York?


Adam Hochschild: I was born in New York. My grandfather was born near Frankfurt. My father was also born in New York. My grandfather came to the United States a long time ago.

He was Jewish but this was long before Hitler. He moved to New York in 1886. There are many Jews from Southern Germany who moved to New York around that time. In New York he married a women whos parents came from the same region of Germany, Than my father was born in New York and crew there as I have. The particular village where my grandfather was born is Biblis.


Campaigns: antislavery


Adam Hochschild: "Bury the Chains". The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. Macmillan, London 2005. 467 S., geb., 20,- L