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Heart of Darkness – Conrad, Casement and The Congo

Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness (1899) focuses on the era of European Colonialism in Africa, specifically on the exploitative activities of export workers in the Belgian-owned Congo – and was also an inspiration for John Milius to pen the screenplay for 1979’s Apocalypse Now, with the narrative transposed on the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975). This novella has become established as a classic of early modernism and remains an essential work in the history of European literature as one of the first major works to engage self-critically with the issue of colonialism. However, it has also received immense criticism for its depictions of native Africans and the symbolism the “dark continent“ is intended to represent. The esteemed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1977) declared “clear“ that Conrad was a “bloody racist“. Postcolonial readings such as Achebe‘s explore “how imperial Western thinking infuses literary texts through spoken and unspoken assumptions about the colonised world, and how those texts bear out and share in colonisation’s violence and repression“ (Francis, 2014, p. 147).

This article examines Conrad’s time in the Congo, which informed the story, using a particular comparative reference to another prominent chronicler of the colonial atrocities in the region: Irish diplomat and activist Roger Casement. In 1903, Casement was commissioned by the British Parliament to document and report on alleged abuses taking place in the Congo. The Casement Report of 1904 proved a decisive moment in the international community turning against the regime of Leopold II (1885 – 1908). Due to the controversy surrounding Heart of Darkness, it is useful to examine it in parallel with Casement’s documented account in order to assess the development of Conrad’s viewpoint, and to what extent it is dictated by old stereotypes or warped by the narrative and stylistic ambitions of its author.

Heart of Darkness details the mission of narrator Marlow to track down Captain Kurtz, leader of a colonial ivory processing station, who has disappeared in the Congo. Through his journey toward the centre of the jungle, Marlow begins to lose his already-tenuous faith in the system of colonial expansion as he is exposed to its most brutal atrocities caused by the events of the time: The 1884-1885 Berlin Conference ratified the agreements between European nations on how to subdivide conquered territories in Africa. Both Casement and Conrad spent significant time in these African regions in the 1880s and 1890s, meeting in person on several occasions. The Berlin Conference was a significant step in exploiting the continent’s resources for commercial gain, and over one hundred and fifty years later continues to have severe effects on many African countries today (Meredith, 2013). Whilst almost all major European powers took part in the division of land, in the Congo Free State, Belgian trading companies operated a system of utmost cruelty and brutality that distinguished themselves even in the extreme exploitation and loss of life (Pakenham, 1991).

Map of colonial Africa, 1914
Figure 1: The Division of Africa between European Powers (Hemispheric Institute, n.d.).

It is clear from the novella that Conrad is aware of the contradictions inherent in colonial exploitation. The development of his opinions and their presentation in the book seem very much in line with Casement’s more objective appraisal of events on the ground. In Conrad’s contemporary Britain, attitudes persisted even into the first years of the 20th century – prior to Casement’s report – that the European presence in Africa was of great benefit to the enslaved natives:

“It is a question of (native labour) which has engaged my most careful attention in regard to the colonies. I think it is a good thing for him (the native African) to be industrious; and by every means in our power we must teach him to work […]. No people have ever lived in the world’s history who would not work. In the interest of the natives all over Africa, we must teach them how to work” – M.P. Neville Chamberlain, 6th August 1901 (Casement, 1904, p.22).

Such is the exact type of sentiment to which Marlow is quick to correct even before his departure for Africa:

“There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit” (Conrad, p. 16).

Edward Said argues that Conrad is adept at understanding the machinations of the imperialist system because at his core he is an instrument of the system himself. While Conrad can see the faults of the system, he cannot see past the system itself. According to Said (1993), “Conrad cannot give a full view of what is outside this world-view” because he is of the inherent – even unconscious – belief that imperialism is an ”inevitable” part of the world (p. 24). Conrad was himself a Polish expatriate raised in Britain, a fact which Said claims differentiates him from his contemporaries in that he is so painfully ”self-aware” of what his work does (p. 23). Conrad is not necessarily a racist in his belief, but he is so washed in the ideological framework of his time that he is incapable of offering solutions to the problems he can readily identify.

Polish-British author Joseph Conrad
Figure 2: Joseph Conrad (New York Public Library, 1916).

Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Conrad focuses less on this materialist reading but more on the writer’s conception of Africa as an almost mythical abstraction. Throughout the novella, Conrad refers to the surroundings in terms such as ”prehistoric earth” and the ”night of [the] first ages” (1977, p. 47). It is a place and a people with whom Marlow and his fellow Europeans share a distressing ancestry, an archetypal and subliminal understanding. It is not the inhumanity of the black locals that haunts Marlow – it is “the suspicion of their being inhuman” (Conrad, 1902, p. 47). The people and the place combine to embody a subconscious animality supposedly left behind in aeons past, which follows the civilised Europeans like a shadow. It is an ambiguous sentiment presented by Conrad, but one which leaves him open to the attack presented by Achebe, that the reduction of the millions of African natives and the continent itself into the theatrical accompaniments to European self-actualisation:

“A Conrad student told me in Scotland last year that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Of course, there is a preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind” (Achebe, 1977, p. 9).

It is also in this poetic descriptive capacity which Conrad opens his remit beyond that of Casement. Where the diplomat is journalistic in his documentation of rumoured and witnessed cruelties, the novelist is free to work within the realm of images and metaphor.

“I visited two large villages, wherein I found that fully half of the population belonged to L* tribe […]. These people consisted of old and young men, women and children. They had fled from their country and sought refuge with their friends of the K* tribe during the last 4 years. They went on to declare, when asked why they had fled, that they had endured such ill-treatment at the hands of the (Belgian) Government officials and Government soldiers in their own country that life had become intolerable, that nothing remained for them at home but to be killed for failure to bring in a certain amount of rubber or to die from starvation or exposure in an attempt to meet the demands made of them” (Casement, 1904, p. 52).

A statue of the disgraced King Leopold II is graffitied
Figure 3: A desecrated commemoration of King Leopold II in Antwerp, Belgium (Guillaume, 2020).

In contrast, Conrad (1902) reduces his black characters – such as they are, they never speak any legible dialogue – to phantoms depicted in nightmarish imagery. They become ”black shapes [...] clinging to the earth, half effaced in dim light, in all attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair” (p. 22). Conrad uses a dreamlike flow of words and imagery to capture his impressions – the book is often cited as an early example of techniques that would come to define later Modernist poets and writers – but the result is often the relegation of Africa and its inhabitants into a hellish, depersonalised landscape of the soul. While the formal differences between the texts must be acknowledged, even in his use of metaphor the Africans of Conrad’s tale are reduced and distanced, at times quite literally dehumanised in an effort to exaggerate the psychic despair their behaviour inspires in Kurtz and Marlow. It is true that in these moments Conrad displays a conception of Africa that propagates many of the same ideas that justified colonial domination in the first place: namely that Africans represented a form of prelapsarian savagery and innocence that reduced them in intellectual and moral standing to European invaders.

Irish diploma, activist and writer Roger Casement
Figure 4: Roger Casement (Anti-Slavery International, 1913).

After completing similar humanitarian missions in South America, Roger Casement retired to his native Ireland in 1913 and converted firmly to the anti-imperialist cause. On 3rd August 1916, he was executed for his part in a failed Irish rebellion for independence by the same British government for whom he was knighted for documenting abuses in colonial lands. Joseph Conrad died in 1924 to little fanfare, but over a century later his work remains both highly praised and criticised in literary criticism. His intriguing relation to colonialism ensures that he continues to offer immense value to modern discussions of race and representation.

Bibliographical References

Achebe, C. (1977). An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Massachusetts Review, University of Amherst.

Casement, R. (1904). The Casement Report. Harrison & Sons.

Collits, T. (2006). Postcolonial Conrad: Paradoxes of Empire. Routledge.

Conrad, J. (1902). Heart of Darkness. Blackwood.

Francis, A. (2014). ’Postcolonial Conrad’ in The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad ed. Stape, J. H. Cambridge University Press, pp.147-159.

Meredith, M. (2013). The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence. Simon & Schuster.

Mitchell, A. (2014). Roger Casement: 16 Lives. The O’Brien Press.

Pakenham, T. (1991). The Scramble for Africa. Abacus.

Said, E. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. Knopf.

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Seán Downey

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