7 Jan 2023


The Evil of Imperialism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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The Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad that was first published in 1902 although he had completed writing it by 1899. This literature work sprang during the times o imperialism ideology. The work is about visits to Africa and the establishment of European activities in the ‘dark continent' as it had been named due to the fact that very little was known about it at the time. The story is narrated by Charles Marlow who tells his fellow sailors about his appointment as a captain of a boat involved in the Ivory Trade Company and his experience in Africa, particularly Congo Free State. The book was written during the time when Europeans were establishing colonies in Africa. Marlow narrates a story about a voyage up River Congo that he took after his aunt found him a job in the Ivory Trade Company while he was still a young man. His is filled with pride implying that the voyages were one of the most important for the European Empires considering that they brought glory and lots of wealth to Europe. The narrator also implies that the travels led to the spread of civilization and expanded knowledge about many parts of the world especially Africa which had barely been explored before. 

Marlow portrays imperialism as a glorious and high worth experience. However, there is a lot of evil written in between the lines of Conrad's work. A lot of inhumane practices, racism, and degradation of human life, especially for the African people, characterized imperialism. The Europeans took this time to enrich themselves from the newly discovered lands that were endowed with so many natural resources at the expense of the native people. The European Empires enriched themselves through the exploitation of the African resources including the people's labor that was either forced or paid for very cheaply. They expanded their territories so much that they became the most powerful in the world. 

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The Europeans supported imperialism despite its evils. This is because it brought the countries so much wealth that the people overlooked the suffering the period was imposing on the colonized people. During an annual dinner for the debriefing of the colonial ideology in 1897, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, justified the brutality of the ideology claiming that it was an act of redemption for the Africans from barbarism and superstition and promoting civilization 1 . The Europeans referred colonization as a necessary evil claiming that the barbarism and superstitions desolating the people in Africa could not be destroyed in any other way other than the use of force. Similarly, the narrator in Conrad's book asserts that the imperialists also argued that colonization was giving the subjects a gain of humanity by imposing a westernized way of life on them. They despised the ways and traditions of Africans, viewed their religion as evil and their economic, social and political structures as weak and uncivilized. However, their justifications of the evil acts were all cover up explanations for the Europeans to exploit Africans and enrich themselves. 

Heart of Darkness is in support of imperialism although sometimes it mentions that it was not a good thing 2 . The way the narrator expresses himself even about events involving murdering of innocent people shows no feelings of hate or criticism towards such actions. The way Conrad presents the Africans in his novel shows an aspect of racism. He likens the people to animals and as being inhumane and primitive. He never describes the Africans individually but instead by generalization; the same way one would describe any other species of animals. In one instance, he writes ‘they had faces like grotesque masks' and in another “black rags were wound round their loins and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails 3 .” Conrad description for Africans is nowhere near that of a normal human being. His tone is full of disgust implying how much he despised or even hated the Congolese the narrator came across during his travels. “All their meager breasts panted together…they passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of happy savages,” reads another of his work's sentences 4 . He describes Africa as a ‘prehistoric earth' and says that the people still lived like the beginning of times. His descriptions for the African people throughout his work are dismissive and arrogant. The author has no much difference with Joseph Chamberlain who encouraged brutality against the African people claiming that he was helping them get off their barbarism. 

The Europeans considered their race to be superior to that of any other human beings. They considered their physical appearance more good looking compared to that of Africans. Marlow refers to the Congolese as people with a flat nose and a dark complexion 5 . He also mentioned that the language of the Congolese natives was nothing close to that of human beings 6 The Europeans claimed that they were doing a favor by colonizing the people to civilize them, an implication that they viewed the African way of life as an outdated one. The story also insinuates that the native people had no right to what their land was endowed with. The Ivory Trade, as the name suggests, entailed killing of elephants in Africa and taking their tusks for trade in Europe. The Europeans even forced the people to fetch the tusks for them. 

Marlow described the horrible conditions under which the Europeans made the Africans work in. He says that no one cared about his or her health. They worked to death. “They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing now…nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation,” he says 7 . Despite the elephants from which tusks were being taken from being their heritage as well as the people offering their labor in fetching the tusks, the Congolese benefitted in no way. The Europeans kept all the profit for themselves. ‘Brought from all the recesses of the coast in the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest,' continues Marlow in his description of the miseries of the Africans under slavery and forced labor 8 . The Europeans overworked the Africans until their last bit of energy before letting them crawl away to die. After giving their all to them, the African man no longer mattered to the European after his energy was no more. 

Just as the title of the book suggests, Conrad refers to a dark and primitive land 9 . Throughout his work, he uses the theme of darkness to describe Africa and everything in it. The narrator uses this theme to tell his story and says that he felt that Africa was not the not the black space of delightful mystery he had taken it to be before he traveled there. He says the place turned out dark for him. By darkness, Conrad implies that Africa was full of wickedness, iniquity, and obscurity as darkness is a word used as an adjective for something evil, cruel and enigmatic. The attitude of his work is therefore racially intolerant and ethically ignorant. The narrator also implies that Kurtz is more important than anyone else in the African land when he referred him to as the ‘light' in the African region where he operated from 10 . He describes his as “the pulsating stream of light…from the heart of impenetrable darkness.” Conrad used the theme of light and darkness to express how much he thinks the black and white people are different. Light is the complete opposite of darkness, and he compares the white and black people to light and darkness respectively. Describing him as the ‘light,' Marlow implied that Kurtz was the only moral, civilized, and honorable man while the rest, Africans, were the exact opposite. There is no reason that can justify these claims. After all, Kurtz actions in the African region say otherwise about him. His activities were dehumanizing and he was racist himself. He was exploiting and did so many bad things to them just to enrich himself, as he once had mentioned to Marlow. 

Chinua Achebe describes Conrad as a racist and his work as a celebration of the dehumanization and depersonalization of a certain group of the human race 11 . Achebe argues that Conrad portrays the African people as inhumane, primitive and animalistic. There is no point in his work that he points out that the Africans were people just like the Europeans and the only difference was their skin color, their language, and their culture. The Europeans were strange to the Africans just in the same way that the Africans were strange to them. It was extremely evil for them to invade their lands and treat them worse than beasts. Parts of Conrad's story tells that they knew what they were doing was wrong. They somehow knew that the Africans were human beings just like them and could feel the physical and emotional pain that they were subjecting them to. 

The Europeans were trying to act supernaturally. Marlow describes how Kurtz told him that they were supposed to appear supernatural to the people. He took advantage of the vulnerabilities of the natives. It is true that most of the western technology had never been seen in Africa. Kurtz took advantage of this and could scare away the Africans with the sound of the steamboat whenever they tried to resist his activities in their land. During this era, the Africans were driven into believing that the Europeans were superior to them. The fact that they scared Africans made them to hesitate fighting against the white people and therefore the whites continued to oppress and enslave Africans. The Europeans also took advantage of the fact that they had superior weapons than the Africans. The Africans were only armed with thin arrows made from wood and stones. This was incomparable to the guns that the Europeans possessed. The Europeans, therefore, used this advantage to victimize the people in their own land. 

While other people view Conrad's novella as racist and a celebration of the imperialist era, others take it as an ironic literature work. Some people have analyzed the work as a criticism to the era of imperialism. Conrad mentions the activities of Kurtz as being evil in several instances. In page three of The Heart of Darkness, he says that the conquest of the earth from ‘the people with different colored or flatter nose' was not a pretty thing. Again, he justifies this right in his next sentence when he says that it could only take unselfish people to do that. By this, he implies colonization was an unselfish act. He says that the likes of Kurtz had sacrificed to come to Africa despite it being the ‘heart of darkness.' He even claims that men like Kurtz should be worshiped for the sacrifice of putting themselves in danger and exploring the “land of darkness” 12 . Analyzing this deeply, one can understand that Conrad was indeed supporting colonialism. The unselfish sacrifice he was talking about is that of coming to fetch wealth for the Europeans and spreading western civilization that the white people thought was the best way of life. 

Whether he was in support of or against colonialism, it is no brainer that Conrad's work helped expose the real situation in the regions under colonization. He talked about the mistreatment the Africans were going through under the Europeans colonial masters. He described deeply the physical and emotional torture of the people. He creates a picture in the mind of his audience by writing about the chained, starved, sickly Africans being forced to undertake heavy duties like carrying earth balanced on their head. He says that their ribs were all out and they panted heavily as they worked under harsh weather conditions and yet no one bothered to provide them with clothes. He exposed all the evil activities. His work therefore must have stirred some empathy in humanitarians and philanthropists. The world eventually agreed on the fact that colonialism was evil and fought against it. 


Conrad, Joseph. The Heart of Darkness . London: Blackwood's Magazine, 1899. 

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" M assachusetts Review, vol. 57 (1) 2016: 14-27 

David Nicholls, Peter Marsh. Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics . Social History , volume 20(2) p.257-260. 

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