The Metal Merchant's Ghost
Updated: Jan 16
This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
A trainee metal merchant might do well to read some of the wider literature on the iniquities of the resource industry before crossing the threshold into a life in metals. And I would put Adam Hochschild’s ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’ high on the list.
Would I have entered the metal trade, had I been more aware of its dark side when young? It is a question I cannot answer. Back then, sitting in a small metal broking office in a converted post office opposite Billingsgate Fish Market, with a huge desk covered by phones of every hue, and a white board recording prices on the London Metal Exchange, I was sheltered from the places in which metals were mined.
In those days, 1979, I had never visited Africa. If the price of copper wire bars rose or fell, I had little idea of what a wirebar looked like, why it was called such, or the conditions under which it might have been mined or smelted. My main interest, apart from my pay cheque, was tracking the progress of Kate, one of our secretaries, as she crossed the room in her thigh length boots.
The glamour in my early 20s was having a job, wearing a suit, and taking orders from customers, such as those from the Russian Trade Delegation in Highgate, whose deep throaty accents sounded as if they emitted directly from an office in Red Square, and just as remote from my experience.
‘Copper is the bellwether of the market’, my boss used to say, and I didn’t know what a bellwether was. The one thing I half understood was that the metals market was as glamorous as the film industry judging by the high jinks and heady atmosphere, the long lunches in our basement which were occasionally interrupted by the rat catcher who would walk in unannounced to put down some more thallium sulphate.
It’s taken a lifetime, I’m afraid, to learn a few things I wish I’d known at the outset. In fact, not until a chance visit to Mufulira in 2008 did I connect the beginning with the end, a place where one base metal, copper, starts its life with a hole in the ground and is then shipped, bought, sold, and speculated upon, in Whittington Avenue or latterly Plantation House (it’s all in the name), Leadenhall Street, and its final resting place in Finsbury Square. With this last forum now seemingly gone the disconnect is complete, and a computerised system replaces this last zone of physical interaction.
But how distant is it possible to be from real truths? With what ease is it possible to remain unaware of the mixed history beneath a company’s name, building, or statue? It is something some parts of society are reflecting upon, while others feel threatened by the overturning of former certainties. For those, like me, hanging up their boots after a very average metals career, I am glad to dwell on matters I was once too busy to address.
Adam Hochschild, whose family name remains well known in the metals industry, was the grandson of Berthold Hochschild, a founder of Amax in 1887, the American offshoot of Metallgesellschaft. Indeed, the same company responsible for opening the Mufulira mine and smelter in the 1930s in which it owned a two thirds stake.
Hochschild’s disagreements with his father, Harold, diverted him from the industry that built the family wealth and took him to the Congo to investigate further. Via his book, the trainee metal merchant I once was would have read (had the book been written by then) of the whole ghastly ‘scramble for Africa’, and how the ambition of one member of minor European Royalty in the 1880s saw the area around the Congo River as his opportunity for Empire.
As the book explains, it was a personal empire, which King Leopold called ‘Congo Free State’ (as much a travesty of a name as the present one – ‘Democratic Republic of Congo’). It was his personal plot on the Dark Continent which he brutally controlled under the guise of a Christianising, humanitarian endeavour. In the book we read of how Henry Morton Stanley’s initial trek from E Africa in search of Livingstone, and his pioneering traverse of the continent from East to West inflamed Leopold’s ambition. Through sleight of hand, Leopold obtained backing from the U.S. for his venture under the guise of promoting free trade from the Congo, when all the while his militarised ‘Force Publique’ used nothing more than brutality to reap the harvest of resources.
Like reading Solzhenitsyn’s factual record of the iniquities of the Stalin years in Gulag Archipelago, King Leopold’s Ghost unravels the system that led to the loss of millions of lives; in this case, African ones, dragooned by unutterable violence to collect first ivory and then natural vine rubber from the rain forests. It describes in detail how when rubber quotas were not met, villages were burned and villagers routinely subjected to sadistic hand amputations, beatings with the ‘chicotte’ (a whip made from strips of hippopotamus hide) and other gratuitous murders and tortures. All this, after the abolition of the slave trade.
In my own case, reading Hochschild’s history, I feel a sense not just of learning but of unlearning too. The assumptions that came with the metals trade I set forth in, were that the influence of colonialists had been benign; that European countries such as Britain had, for example, brought to the colonies the razor blade, the railway, and the English Language; that countries in receipt of such gifts were grateful; that the account was more good than bad. Examples of failure after colonial departure – the slow death of ZCCM in Zambia after nationalisation, or the triple kleptocracies of Mobutu and the two Kabila’s in Zaire/Congo are used as proof.
What takes greater effort is to try to divine the legacy of colonialism without using what followed as a reason to claim it wasn’t that bad. A more nuanced way of judging the matter, to my mind, would be to observe how a form of colonialism lives on in the corporations that replaced sovereign states. Colonialism in Northern Rhodesia was still strong when Amax acquired Mufulira in the 1930s. Independence came in 1964 with the creation of Zambia, and nationalisation of copper followed in 1970. By 1999, a famine, and Zambia’s failure to maintain and invest in their copper industry, resulted in a shotgun sale of copper assets which resulted in, for example, Glencore’s acquisition of the Mufulira Mine and Smelter complex for $450 mln. 20 years later, in Zambia, this is playing out as a nationalist leader, President Edgar Lungu, seeks popularity via re-nationalisation. All the investment I have seen with my own eyes, some of the most amazing engineering and mining, and an astonishing training school, will be left in state hands either to be run into the ground or perhaps one day re-sold to a Chinese mining company.
But, is it all so simple? Do these facts prove superiority of Western systems and corporations? Judged by the benefit that commodities and resources have brought to individuals in African countries, the ledger suggests not. In fact, it suggests most commodities might have been better left in the ground. What’s the point in mining tantalite if few citizens can afford a mobile phone, or supplying cobalt if there is almost no prospect of them ever driving an electric vehicle? And what is the point of mining resources, if the average income in the mined country remains a dollar a day?
Another narrative, and one of the conclusions to be drawn from Hochschild’s book, is that the dead hand of colonialism never left and that a huge act of collective forgetting has prevented the descendants of colonialists from acknowledging their origins. If we take the Congo, King Leopold’s legacy was merely relinquished (albeit unwillingly) to the Belgian nation, which continued to mine for precious metals, such as gold, as well as Zinc and Copper under UMHK (Union Miniere du Haut Katanga) and then Societe Generale de Belgique, whose direct descendent is Umicore, a company that boasts of itself as the modern world’s leading recycler. And yet, on Umicore’s website under the section marked ‘history’ there is an empty gap between 1837 and 1906 as if nothing happened. Clearly even Umicore today, in our enlightened era, is unable to grapple with its past.
Some may say I am being unfair to entities who are more open and accountable than their forebears. After all, is it not true that entities listed on the London Stock Exchange must obey rules of governance? 20 years after Glencore’s investment in Mufulira, via an entity listed in the British Virgin Islands called Carlisa Investments, Glencore is said to be leaving. What the balance sheet says after 20 years of operation is hard to decipher. Glencore will say that it made great investments which it certainly did. But it is not clear how much was earned because an entity such as Carlisa Investments is not transparent to the investors who placed their faith in Glencore during its float in May 2011. All we know now is that while the Mufulira entity and other copper interests have been sold to the Zambian Government entity, ZCCM IH, the Government of Zambia now has $1.5 bln of debt to its former owner, which is to be paid in copper.
Meantime, the much-trumpeted green economy powers ahead fed by cobalt for cathode materials much of it supplied by the largest trader of cobalt in the world, Glencore, operating from the world’s largest cobalt producing country (DRC) while continuing to supply the world’s most friendly recycler (Umicore in Belgium) with what is regarded as ‘conflict free’ cobalt.
Look at it clearly and you will note that the carve-up of Congo and Africa remains alive and well in the gentle hands of Glencore, the Trump-pardoned Dan Gertler, and the rest.
The continued silence on this subject in the metal trade and my own personal ignorance of quite how bad matters were under King Leopold’s rule astounds me.
If the fancy takes you, read and despair.
King Leopold’s Ghost ‘A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa’ by Adam Hochschild
Edition: First published in 1998, Picador Classic from 2019 with introduction by Barbara Kingsolver and afterword by Adam Hochschild