Heart of Darkness - Reform Piece or Racist Trash?
In 1890, Joseph Conrad spent four months as a steamship captain in the Congo. Like his character Marlow, Conrad became both physically ill and greatly disturbed as a result of his experiences. The Congo haunted Conrad, and despite the fact that he spent relatively little of his time there, he felt compelled to write about his experiences years later.1
Indeed, the Congo had a profound influence on Conrad. While there he met Roger Casement who was to become a life long friend and ally in the campaign against Leopold II. Conrad's experience was much like Marlow's. As a young man, Conrad would look at maps and desired to journey to the as yet unexplored Congo, much the same way Marlow did. He was the captain of a steamboat that traveled between Stanley Falls and Leopoldville. Like Marlow, he also became very ill as a result of his travels. While in the region he kept a daily diary that would aid him in future work. Conrad originally wrote a short story about his experiences in the Congo, but later decided that a slightly longer work would be necessary to deal with the topic.2 Out of this profound influence came a profound novella, Heart of Darkness, which was published in 1902 at the height of the Congo controversy.
Heart of Darkness painted a very dark picture of the Congo. It is no surprise that there is so much dark imagery in Heart of Darkness, Conrad adequately described the tone of the Congo. Kurtz can be seen as a white man who set out for the Congo, like so many others, in an effort to "civilize" the inhabitants of the region. In the end though, it's Kurtz who is the most savage. Kurtz could be a representative of any of the members of the Force Publique. Members of the Force came to the Congo to "civilize" the native inhabitants, but their methods became increasingly barbaric. Like Kurtz, they employed natives to carry out heinous raids on villages, Kurtz for ivory, the Force Publique for rubber.
Heart of Darkness is a direct assault on imperialism and the ideology that legitimized it. Conrad expresses his view on colonialism through Marlow, "...colonialism is mostly 'robbery with violence' of those 'who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses.'"3 Literary critic, Cedric Watts, makes an interesting argument that Conrad uses Darwinism to combat the social Darwinism that was so popular in his day. Social Darwinism was used by imperialists as their justification for colonizing Africa. These people believed that the white European race was superior and therefore most fit to rule African nations. Watts points out that Darwin never applied his theory to relations between nations:
If a goal of the evolutionary processes is an equilibrium between the creature and its environment, that goal has in Africa been reached by the natives whom Marlow observes on the coast, who "wanted no excuse for being there" and who blend with their setting,...