Adam Hochschild on history, storytelling and the prospect of a ‘South African dusk’
In shaping a better present and future world, it does well to remember the past. World-renowned American author and historian Adam Hochschild spoke to Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood about public history, stories from Africa and the prospect of a ‘South African dusk’.
“I like to feel that a well-told story about people who passionately wanted to change the world for the better in some way will affect other people — in a different place, in a different time — who also want to change the world for the better.”
These were the words of Adam Hochschild, world-renowned American author and historian, in his conversation with Maverick Citizen’s Mark Heywood on Thursday.
Much of Hochschild’s writing deals with issues of human rights and social justice. The self-described ‘public historian’ is the author of 11 award-winning books, including King Leopold’s Ghost; Bury the Chains; and his most recent book, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis.
Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘This is no mystery, we’re making history’: Celebrating the writings of Adam Hochschild
“I have read six-and-a-half of Adam’s books, and I’ve always found them to be meticulously researched, beautifully written, inspiring stories of men and women, where a common theme is to tell the stories of people who have fought for justice and altered the course of history,” said Heywood.
A ‘public historian’
In the United States, the term “public history” refers to history that is told not just through books, but through other mediums such as museum exhibits and historic sites — something Hochschild considers “tremendously important”, as dramatising what has happened in the past and its connections to present life should be accomplished in “any way” possible.
“The other way in which we use the word public history is people who write about history for normal people, and not for other historians. I’m always amazed at how much history is badly written or obscurely written because it’s historians writing for other historians,” he said.
“I am not in the academic world… and so I don’t need to worry about getting promoted up the professorial ranks. And I write for the general public, as many historians have done over the years, and have done over the years before they even invented history departments and universities.
“I’m looking for ways to dramatise history by writing first about issues that I feel have some kind of relevance for today… I look for stories that I can dramatise through the lives of people who participated in them, who fought for justice in one way or another. Or who tried to prevent justice from happening, and the villains are just as much fun to write about as the heroes. I talk about heroes and villains but of course, unlike novelists, we historians are not allowed to invent anything.”
Speaking on his writing process, Hochschild explained that sometimes, a story just “grabs hold of you”, but it can take a long time to figure out how to “focus it”.
“To End All Wars, which is basically about the First World War and the resistance to it in Great Britain, took me six years to write… I wrote too much. The final book is 140,000 words, which is not an unreasonable length of a book, but the actual draft was 230,000 words.”
Hochschild looks to find original ways to tell stories from history. In the case of To End All Wars, he elected to focus on divided families during this period of historical conflict.
Connection to Africa
Hochschild spoke about two of his books that deal with key periods of history for Africa. The first, King Leopold’s Ghost, explores the colonisation of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the second, Bury the Chains, focuses on the anti-slavery movement in the United Kingdom.
“My connection to Africa is a quite personal one because, in a way, I was a direct beneficiary of colonialism. My father was an American business executive who worked all his life for a multinational mining company. During the time that I was growing up, most of the value of that company’s holdings were shares of mines on the copper belt of what was then northern Rhodesia. Today, it’s Zambia,” said Hochschild.
“My father made what may have been the mistake of taking me with him on a business trip to Africa when I was a teenager, and I began to realise that my university education and our comfortable life here in the United States was actually being paid for by the labour of African miners working far under the earth in hot, damp, often dangerous conditions. And that was my first introduction, really, to the way the world worked; to the enormous inequalities of wealth in it.”
King Leopold’s Ghost looks at the period, between 1885 and 1908, when a colony in Congo was privately owned by one man, King Leopold II of Belgium — a “greedy, ambitious, unscrupulous man” who made a fortune from the territory, primarily by setting up a forced labour system to gather wild rubber in the central African rainforest.
“This caused a huge number of deaths. Remember, labourers were worked to death, people fled this forced labour regime deep into the rainforest where there was no food, no shelter. They died. And through the efforts of a combination of people — American and European missionaries who were eyewitnesses, some brave Africans who spoke out and an extraordinary business executive turned journalist in England, Edmund Dene Morel — this became the major human rights scandal of the first decade of the 20th century,” said Hochschild.
Bury the Chains explores the abolition movement in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the abolitionists as early human rights campaigners, and the repeated slave revolts in the British West Indies around that time.
On the anti-slavery movement involving abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Hochschild said, “It was a remarkable movement… Its first formal meeting was May 22nd 1787… They were extremely determined, and over the next year or two, they invented every technique that civil society organisations use today.”
South African Dusk
Hochschild’s book American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, published in 2022, covers a four-year period between 1917 to 1921 when the country suffered what he considers the “worst political repression since the end of slavery”.
“During this four-year period… more than 1,000 Americans were sent to prison for a year or more and a much larger number for shorter periods of time, solely for things that they wrote or said… It was also a period… when press censorship took place on a large scale in the US. More than 75 newspapers and magazines were shut down. It was a period of vigilante violence again on a huge scale, encouraged by the US Department of Justice,” he said.
“I see in all of those things — political repression, the impulse to censorship, tremendous rage against immigrants and refugees… — a lot of parallels to what we’re facing in the US today.”
When asked about the “South African dusk” and the current state of affairs in the country, Hochschild reflected on his visits to South Africa down the years, starting with the summer he spent working for an anti-apartheid newspaper in 1962, when he was a 19-year-old student.
“It was in some ways a life-changing experience for me because it was the first time I was somewhere where politics was really serious business. It was not just a matter of polite disagreement over a dinner table… What you believed could affect whether you had to spend many years in jail,” he said.
Another of Hochschild’s visits to South Africa was in 1994, when he covered the first democratic elections for the Village Voice in New York City. While he emphasised that he was no expert on what was happening in the country today, he said he — like many others — was disappointed that everything did not “become totally wonderful as soon as apartheid ended”.
“But we ought to know enough by now that when any totalitarian system comes to an end, its replacement by something better is not something that happens easily,” he continued. “I think it’s been especially difficult in South Africa because of the enormous disparities of wealth that have continued just as they were under the apartheid regime.
“I celebrate the fact that you’ve got a society with active civil society organisations, with something like the Daily Maverick… There are all too many parts of the world — Russia, for example — where after a big change, that has come to a stop.” DM