Indigenous peoples of Africa die every day because of war, famine, and disease largely due to the legacy of European imperialism. Joseph Conrad, who saw firsthand “the horror” (Conrad 154) of imperialism as a ship captain, sought to change public opinion and call attention to the atrocities committed. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad articulates his negative view of imperialism as oppressive and hypocritical through contrasts and parallels of Africa and Europe
Conrad’s sympathetic portrayal of natives and demonizing portrayal of the Europeans makes the reader actively despise the institution of imperialism by forcing them to condemn the actions of Europeans in every circumstance presented. In his journey to the inner station, Marlow captains a ship that is crewed by cannibals and carries Pilgrims. Conrad sets up a decisive contrast as Marlow observes with puzzlement that the cannibals act restrained, even though the Pilgrims throw out their food. Marlow, acting as the European perspective “saw that something restraining, one of those human secret that baffle probability, had come into play here,” (Conrad 116). While this situation of native cannibals versus European pilgrims illustrates a distinct difference in behavior, other incidents stand out as well; most of Marlow’s encounters portray the natives not as villains, but as victims.
At the central station he watches as a black man is beaten by whites for “[they] said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly,” (Conrad 92). Here, Marlow characteristically infused doubt as to the man’s guilt, through the “be that as it may” clause, that further shows victimization. But how much of this behavior is fiction? Avrom Fleishman writes that in his other works, Conrad consistently demonstrates how Europeans in their contact with natives show an emergence of “submerged barbarism” and that “whites become more savage than the savages,” (Fleishman 157). This pattern of role reversal allows Conrad to easily defame imperialists through their beastly and “Savage” actions.
If Africa houses and nurtures evil, Conrad attempts to parallel it in Europe. Before Marlow begins to tell his story the narrator remarks on his surroundings, frequently interlacing descriptions of settings with foreshadows of doom, making London and the Thames part of the world Marlow is about to take the boatmen into. The sun is described as being “stricken to death,” (Conrad 67) implying that evil lurks not just in and amongst the denizens of Africa, but here in Europe too in the relative safety of the Thames. Chinua Achebe in his indictment of Conrad as a racist admits a parallel between the Congo River and the Thames, stating “the Thames, too, ‘has been one of the darkest places on earth,'” (Achebe 1).
The evil in Europe then must spread to its people. Kurtz, who embodies evil through his godlike control or hollowness, is both the most evil European and the most productive. Kurtz links ruthlessness to productivity and while his actions may only flourish in Africa, he still gathers ivory for Europe. By paralleling and linking the evil in Africa to Europe, Conrad poignantly shows the hypocrisy of the white view of black natives as savage. How can they be savage if the most evil person Africa is white?
The hypocrisy of the imperialists extends beyond their perception of the natives; it surrounds all of their actions. In his essay of Conrad’s views of imperialism Cedric Watts describes the circumstances of Marlow’s visit to the central Station.
On one side we see instances of the inefficiency, wastefulness and futility of the imperialists’ endeavours–objectless blasting, upturned trucks; and on the other side we see the price in human terms of these activities: the emaciated blacks of the chain-gang, starved slave labourers. The juxtaposition makes a telling indictment of the folly, hypocrisy and callousness of the so-called emissaries of progress, ‘pilgrims’ who, nominally Christians, are idolaters before ivory. (Watts 181)
Watts’ charge illustrates view that all Europeans are alien to the region and do not belong. By making them seem useless and more as a burden, Conrad makes the reader feel that the Europeans should leave Africa; and convincing them in the context of Heart of Darkness will eventually help Conrad spread his anti-imperialist message.
Throughout Heart of Darkness Conrad reinforces the Europeans as being outsiders, intruders, and the prime evildoers in the novel. He articulates his negative view of imperialism through contrasts and parallels of Africa and Europe: through his contrast of the cannibals and pilgrims, the role of Kurtz, and his portrayal of the imperialists. Conrad observed the horror of Imperialism and set out to fight it being sewing seeds of discontent in his readers’ feelings about the issue cementing Heart of Darkness as a prime example of an anti-imperialist text.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa” The Massachusetts Review Vol. XVIII No. 4 Winter 1977: 782-94. Exploring Novels. Student Resource Center, Detroit. 29 Nov. 2003 .
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Signet Classic, 1950.
Fleishman, Avrom. “The Politics of Imperialism.” Conrad’s Politics:Community and Anarchy in the fiction of Joseph Conrad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, (1967): 89-96. Rpt. in Readings on Heart of Darkness. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. 156-161.
Watts, Cedric. “Indirect Methods Convey Conrad’s View’s of Imperialism.” A Preface to Conrad. London: Longman Group UK Ltd., (1993). Rpt. in Readings on Heart of Darkness. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. 177-183.