An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Captain Marlow, Chinua Achebe, Congo River, Heart of Darkness, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Joseph Conrad, Kurtz, Roi des Belges steamboat
Though only about 110 pages long, this novella published in 1902 takes time to digest. When I put it down a few hours ago, my first feeling of “was that it?” really bugged me. But the more I think about it, the more I read about the text and its context, a feeling that I have just finished an incredibly important work of literature is growing on me.
Joseph Conrad’s own 1889-1890 experiences along the Congo River was probably not as taxing as the ones described in his book, though his time serving as captain on the steamboat “Roi des Belges” along the river is said to have been an eye-opening experience regarding the human nature and what it can be capable of. The sheer cruelty of some of the ivory hunters, the menacing and direct brutality depicted in the book is unsettling. About the fact that the colonial powers were ruthless, at times more or less so, there has never been any doubt, but that some of the human beings in their service were capable of cold-blooded hate and viciousness against natives has always been a questionable conclusion. How could that happen? What drove some colonists to their actions? Conrad has no answer to that, but he illustrate the situation perfectly. At times it is almost overly direct.
The story in Heart of Darkness sets off at the Thames estuary, Gravesend, just outside London. Waiting for the tide to turn, the narrator tells the story of a fellow passenger, Charlie Marlow, and his adventurous travels along the Congo River. After having compared the sensation the Romans must have had when they conquered Britain to the colonial powers conquering Africa, we’re transported to the Dark Continent, the Victorians popular and many-faceted name for Africa.
When Marlow arrives at the Central Station to pick up his vessel, he learnes that it has suffered damage (it has sunk due to bad handling by the previous captain, a reckless Swede. Whom else?) and needs to be repaired. The wait, three months, is spent doing not much at all and he is trying to get to know the new environment he finds himself in. This is also where he hears a lot about the mysterious Kurtz, an almost mythical creature one would suspect by the way he is talked about. Finally off on his journey Marlow encounters troubles along the way. Howling savages (yes, these are the bits that have earned the book its infamous racist reputation) chucking spears at him and his crew of pilgrims and cannibals. His fellow shipmate is killed by a spear in his side. When the body is dumped over board by Marlow both the pilgrims and cannibals onboard get upset, but for different reasons entirely. The cannibals have run out of their rotting hippo meat, so they’re starving and finds the action a waste. The pilgrims want there to be a Christian burial. To both groups needs, captain Marlow is heedless.
In the end they get to Kurtz, by now an ailing man once grandiose, now frail and thin. Marlow learns that Kurtz has treated the natives appallingly during his time in the wilderness, having had them crawling on all four up to his hut, treating him like the deity he thinks he is. He has led brutal raids on nearby communities in search for the precious ivory. Outside his hut there are natives heads on poles, showing his contempt for humanity and his claim to power. Still, on the way back to Central Station Marlow gets to know Kurtz quite well, having him rest in his pilothouse, and fathom that regardless of his actions Kurtz was once a great man. Now though, he is just a shadow of his former self. A shadow of the man who went out to the Heart of the Darkness, and got lost on the way.
Before Kurtz dies he hands over some papers and a photograph to Marlow. The photograph is of Kurtz fiancée, or like Marlow calls her, “his Intended”. A year after Kurtz death Marlow meets up with the now widow, who’s still in mourning, and hands over the photograph. He can not bare to tell her the truth of Kurtz having called out “the horror! the horror!” as his last words, but instead assures her that her name was the last to pass the dying mans lips. He doesn’t want to be the kind of Caucasian savage as the ones he met in the wilderness along the Congo River.
The book certainly is full of contradictions and differing ways of interpreting the place and the role of the natives. In 1975, the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe held the lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness at University of Massachusetts which kicked off the real dialogue of different readings of Conrad’s book. He got people both with him and against him. In particular lecturers and professors who’d spent their entire lives teaching in a certain way about the book felt they were tread upon, since now there was a new way of looking at its content. Achebe’s main argument was never to say that the books was not good, but that we needed to look at it not just in the context of high colonialism, discarding a sensitive subject matter by saying things like “well, you know, that’s how they looked at it then”, but also what the content does to readers of today and how it possibly still portrays the African community as underlings to their European brothers. Achebe said:
I never said at any point that you should stop attaching artistic merit to Heart of Darkness, if you want to you can. There are all kinds of sophisticated readings of Heart of Darkness, and there are some people who will not be persuaded there is anything wrong with it. But all that I’m really demanding, I’m not simply putting it, I’m demanding that my reading stand beside these other readings… Although he’s writing good sentences, he’s also writing about a people, and their life. And he says about these people that they are rudimentary souls… The Africans are the rudimentaries, and then on top are the good whites. Now I don’t accept that, as a basis for… As a basis for anything
I would say that Achebe achieved more than he was expecting. Today it is virtually impossible to read Heart of Darkness without having the possible racist undertones making themselves constant in the readers mind. However, I think it is important to also read it as it might have been intended by Conrad; as a journey through the human hearts capability of evil if not guarded upon carefully. The Evil, in Conrad’s book represented by the Darkness, and all it’s different layers is what he wants us to watch out for and beware. Anyone could turn out like Kurtz. We’re all full of darkness, and when we let it reign and play tricks with us, that’s when the real danger begin.
If you haven’t grown tired of all this reasoning above, go and read Heart of Darkness now.