Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "19th Century Science and its Effects on Racism" by Mahmoud H. (Fall 2013)

"19th Century Science and its Effects on Racism" by Mahmoud H. (Fall 2013)

19th century scientific theories had a tremendous influence on works of literature written in that period due to their effect on social ideologies of the time; Heart of Darkness is no exception. Although harsh racism was already a present reality, Darwinian science (i.e. The theory of the origin of species) as well as the social aspect of these scientific theories presented themselves as biological reasoning for cultural intolerance. Scientifically based racism, in turn, was applied to mold imperialism into an obligation on Europeans to help those who were considered further down the evolutionary scale; in reality, however, it was an excuse to colonize Africa and other parts of the globe. In response to a growing trend of European colonization, works of literature and poetry, even art, were created both in support and against this movement.

In his book Victorian Anthropology, University of Chicago professor George Stocking documents a history of racial bias and scientific racism in 19th century Europe. Along with the increasing popularity of the origin of species theory an idea of evolutionary ranking known as recapitulation, which Stocking addresses, came into play. According to Stocking, it emerged as a “crucial concept in Europe” and “[Held] that in its individual maturation, each organism proceeds through stages that are equivalent to adult forms of organisms that have preceded it in evolutionary development”. For example, arbitrary evolutionary ranking placed white men at the height of advancement while white children and white women followed; the bottom composed of African males and females who were considered to be at an evolutionary stage of infancy. On the contrary, white children, although they are in fact adolescents, were considered at a more adult stage intellectually. The theory of recapitulation fell in line with the dichotomy of superiority and inferiority of particular races and reinforced the mind set that there was scientific evidence to prove the dominance of the Europeans. This superiority complex, seen throughout Heart of Darkness, parallels a social and scientific interest in the different stages of development in humans, which spurred experimental and medical practices driven by recapitulation. These included the study of human brains and the differences in physiological characteristics between races in order to make conclusions about their psychology and stages of mental progression. In Conrad’s novella, Marlow must go through certain protocol before embarking on his journey to the Congo. He visits a doctor who, after standard examination, asks something out of the ordinary:

“With a certain eagerness [the doctor] asked me whether I would let him measure my head… he got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully… ‘I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there’ he said… ‘It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals on the spot’ (11-12).

Here, based on understanding scientific theory, the doctor believes that the mental states between races are at polar ends of an intellectual scale. He insinuates that Marlow’s trip will change him psychologically, that being surrounded by the “darkness” of Africa and its far less advanced inhabitants will have an impact on his psyche. Referring back to this theory of recapitulation, the journey will supposedly revert Marlow’s advanced mind to its savage, evolutionarily childlike stages and drive him crazy as it eventually does to the infamous Kurtz. As this scene, filled with scientifically based racism, comes to an end the doctor pettily warns, ‘Du calme, du calme’.

The source, it appears, of this attitude seen in Heart of Darkness had always been present but its scientific background comes froma man whose contributions changed the world of biology, Charles Darwin. In his essay, “On the Races of Man”, he discusses the theory of evolution and analyzes the different habits, physical characteristics and environments of populations to form a conclusion of their origin. His essay provides insight into the influence his theories had on Joseph Conrad whose protagonist, Marlow, experiences several parallels to the points made by Charles Darwin. In his essay, Darwin writes,

“Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in color, hair, shape of skull, etc., if their whole structure be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely…Nevertheless, at [an] early period, the intellectual and social faculties of man could hardly have been inferior to those possessed at present by the lowest savages” (213-215, On the Races of Man).

The point that Darwin is making here is that we (man) are all descended of the same species but the different races of man, however, are at distinct stages of evolution. He makes a blatantly racist remark, claiming that although white and black men are similar in some aspects the modern Africans of his time were no more advanced than the most ancient cavemen. This racism, based on scientific theory, can be seen in Heart of Darkness in several of Marlow’s descriptions of the Congo natives. While on the steamboat heading toward Kurtz, Marlow and his men are attacked by a frenzy of arrows and his helmsman, a trained native, is shot dead. Marlow then describes his reaction:

“We two whites stood over him and his lustrous and inquiring glance enveloped us both. I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some question in an understandable language, but he died without uttering a sound… He frowned heavily, and that frown gave of his black death-mask an inconceivably somber, brooding, and menacing expression” (46).

In this prime example of the European attitude toward Africans, Marlow simply dehumanizes the helmsman, portraying him as an animal on the verge of speaking in some “understandable language”. This idea of scientific racism, largely based on Darwinism, was embedded in the European way of thought. Although Conrad may not have been intentionally racist in writing the novella, it was the cultural dynamic of the time that influenced how he conveys his perception of the Africans. Ultimately, it seems clear that conclusions derived from the major scientific movement of the 19th century, many of which are introduced in Darwin’s essay, created the allusion that there was reasoning behind racism. This reality could be used to understand the attitude of the colonists toward the Congo natives in Heart of Darkness, and when taken one step further,Marlow’s outlook on colonialism.

For years it was argued that because those of the African race were farther down the evolutionary scale it justified the European presence in Africa. This ideology took the impact of scientific racism to entirely new heights. In his book, Stocking writes, “Although the methods of science were considered to be outside the political and economic realm, in fact, these anatomical investigations… were driven by racial ideologies already firmly in place” (Victorian Anthropology). Heart of Darkness was written as a response to this increase in the presence of Europeans in Africa along with works such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden”, published in 1898. In it he mocks this excuse for imperialism, saying, “Take up the White Man’s burden/ Send forth the best ye breed-/ Go bind your sons to exile-/ To serve your captive’s need;” (1-4). Addressing European imperialism as well as colonization in general (Kipling was also addressing the U.S. take over of the Phillipines) Kipling satirizes the notion that those being colonized in Africa, the “captives”, had the desire to be civilized by Europeans. However, the actions committed by “the best [England] breed”, in fact proved that Europe was on the side of brutality. Mutilation, death, torture (the list could go on) resulted from this methodology that Africans needed the assistance of the more advanced and civilized.

Clearly “The White Man’s Burden” proves that there was resistance to Europe’s imperialistic movement. Darwin’s essay and Stocking’s book can be used collectively to understand the notions that Kipling satirizes to ultimately understand Joseph Conrad’s novella as a critique of imperialism. Recapitulation strengthened the conception that whites were the dominant race intellectually and although racism was already wide spread, Darwinian science provided reasoning for that prejudice. The “captives need” that Kipling mentions, an idea derived from Darwinism, was simply an excuse to deconstruct and rebuild a more “civilized” Africa. Marlow’s journey to the Congo transforms his perception of the truth of the harshness and pointless aim of the Europeans as seen in his description of imperialism as a “nightmare” and an invasion of land by “mean and greedy phantoms” (67).

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. NY,NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man: On the Races of Man. University of Adelaide Library, 1871.

Kipling, Rudyard. The White Man’s Burden: An Anthology of British Poetry of Empire. Ed. By Chris Brooks and Peter Faulkner. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1996, Print.

Stocking, George. Victorian Anthropology. New York: The Free Press, 1987.

"The White Man’s Burden." Cartoon. Detroit Journal. ND 1899. Web October 6 2013.