Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Conrad’s Imperialism in Heart of Darkness" by Dylan S. (Spring 2014)

"Conrad’s Imperialism in Heart of Darkness" by Dylan S. (Spring 2014)

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, has been lauded for its aggressive stance towards imperialism and the Scramble for Africa, but most of the attention regarding Conrad’s text is directed at his portrayal of women and Africans, which has led many to label the text, and Conrad himself, as sexist and racist. Some point to the lack of female characters in the novel as evidence of Conrad’s misogyny, as well as the caricatured nature of the females. Marlow (the storyteller)’s aunt, for example, appears idealistic and naïve for believing that the Europeans’ purpose in colonizing Africa is a noble mission to bring the so called “Dark Continent” into the light, and refuses to believe that the expedition has anything to do with wealth. The foremost critique of the latter is from Chinua Achebe, whose speech “An Image of Africa” went so far as to call Conrad a “bloody racist,” citing instances in which Conrad allows the Africans in his story to only communicate in a series of grunts, occasionally blessing them with broken English when it serves his point. While these arguments bring up valid points,they overlook one detail of fundamental importance: Conrad’s actual intent in telling this story. Conrad’s background reveals a passionate dislike of European imperialism, and reading into this background indicates that he likely wrote his novella to reveal the dangers of imperialism.

Conrad’s history shows that he, like his narrator Marlow, went on a steamboat deep into the heart of The Congo, and anti-imperialism was a cause very near and dear to his heart. Hunt Hawkins, who worked extensively with Heart of Darkness, wrote in the Indiana University Press about Conrad’s relationship with Roger Casement, a friend he met while in the Congo, who tirelessly fought imperialism and tried to bring its injustices to public attention. This friendship, along with cruelties he witnessed firsthand, led Conrad to oppose imperialism and helped start his fight against it. Also of importance is an understanding of the way imperialism was “sold” to citizens of the imperial countries. One source demonstrating this is George Washington Williams’ 1890 letter to King Leopold, in which he detailed his disillusionment with the ideals of imperialism. Matthew Stanard’s Selling The Congo further details the propaganda used to garner support for Leopold’s actions in Africa. Understanding this propaganda and Conrad’s friendship with Casement helps clarify why Conrad reacted as he did to imperialism, and shows that Conrad wrote this novel not to demean women, nor to dehumanize Africans, but to show the world the consequences of imperialism.

Hawkins’ essay “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement” describes Conrad and Casement’s relationship, detailing how they met and including several letters written between the two of them, while also helping bring light to parts of Heart of Darkness, all by showing Conrad’s true character and motivations. They met in the Congo in 1890 while Conrad was assisting on the steamboat Roi des Belges, and Casement was investigating activity in the Congo to report back to England. He completed his report, but it was not published initially when Parliament held it up. (Hawkins, 67) He contacted Conrad to help raise awareness for the issue and push his report through Parliament, although Conrad declined to instead work on his writing. Conrad’s friendship with one of the most outspoken opponents of imperialism explains his motivation to work against empire. Hawkins also details that Conrad would not join the cause later due to philosophical differences with the major organizations working against Leopold’s actions. However, Conrad did use his own influence as a writer, chiefly through Heart of Darkness, to fight the king’s exploits in Africa.

The work of Hawkins is also of use for bringing clarity to the novella’s conclusion and refuting the claims of Conrad’s racism and sexism. While the narrator, Marlow, states “You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie,” (27) he concludes his tale by telling Kurtz’s Intended that his final words were not “The horror, the horror!” (69) but instead her name (77). Several critics point to this seeming contradiction as evidence that Conrad looks down on women, thinking Kurtz’s Intended is not strong enough to cope with the truths Marlow discovered out on the river and going so far as to violate his own principles to protect her from the truth. However, among Conrad’s letters included in Hawkins’ work is one in which Conrad thanks Casement for a pamphlet about the work of Morel, who pointed out several inconsistencies in Leopold’s policies regarding the Congo. Conrad writes “This is a most brazen breach of faith as to Europe. It is in every aspect an enormous and atrocious lie in action.” (69) If one assumes that Marlow is speaking for Conrad (which seems to be the basis of the sexism arguments), the lies which Marlow claims to detest may in fact not be the kind he told to Kurtz’s Intended. Conrad’s letter indicates that the lies which he so loathes may be the type intended to deceive a nation, to invoke complacency regarding the curtailing of fundamental human rights. This idea is valuable in two ways: first, it clarifies Marlow’s apparent contradiction, and second, it gives more insight into Conrad himself. In another letter, Conrad laments that a continent that had supposedly surpassed the slave trade treats people below animals. (70) In fact, to introduce Belgium to the natives of the country they were exploiting, “Europeans were putting Africans on tour, displaying them at expositions universelles, and placing them into what were essentially human zoos.” (Selling the Congo, Stanard, 36) His letter shows that Conrad was in fact not racist, and was actually very far ahead of his time in thinking that Africans should be treated as human beings. Observing Conrad’s personal correspondences with others shows who he truly was, what he believed in, and ultimately indicates that he was neither racist nor sexist and was dedicated to reducing the atrocities taking place in Africa.

Also critical to understanding Conrad’s works is knowledge of how imperialism was portrayed to Europeans. Pro-imperial propaganda was designed to emphasize the responsibility of “civilized” nations to aid the “savages” in Africa, to convince citizens that imperial involvement was morally justified, and that the processes involved were humane, truthful, and practical. Understanding this propaganda shows what Conrad was fighting and clarifies why he combated it in the way he did. In his edition of Heart of Darkness, Paul B. Armstrong cites a letter written by George Washington Williams, an African American Civil War veteran working in the Congo, to Leopold concerning what he witnessed in the Congo. Williams was told that European involvement was designed “for the general defense and public welfare,” that “never was there a more honest and practical effort made to increase their knowledge,” and that the program would lead to “fostering care and benevolent enterprise” (122-123) and arrived to find that none of these were the case. He was disillusioned to find the exploitation, the mutilation, the cruelty and the deceit at work by Leopold’s officers. Needless to say, these are all results that are terribly unjust to the local population, but they were also difficult to expose to the general population of Europe. Casement’s report as well as several other accounts detailed what was happening in the Congo, so Conrad made a different argument through Heart of Darkness. He showed what imperialism can cause to humanity. Kurtz was, by all accounts, a morally perfect officer when he was sent out into the river. He returned a sick, corrupt slave trader and murderer, but also the most successful officer ever to trade ivory in the region. Conrad shows us what can happen to the best of humanity, and warns that the results would be far worse if the rush for African empires were to continue. He also shows the price humanity pays for success and wealth. Seeing the propaganda Leopold used to sell the idea of an empire to his people shows why Conrad had to expose what was happening in the Congo, but also why he had to expose it in a unique way.

With a more complete understanding of Conrad himself, it is clear why Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. It was not to say that women lack the strength of character to comprehend the world’s most difficult truths. It was not to claim that lying is wrong except when it isn’t. It was not to say that Africans are not fully human and should be treated as such. It was to show in a way only he could and in the only way he could what was wrong with the direction Europe had taken. It was to help the cause he and a friend shared a passion for serving. It was to show citizens the truth of what their government was telling them. Conrad had no reason to oppose women’s or minority rights. He had every reason to oppose imperialist policies. The novella is designed to make a statement about imperialism, and it does so. While some may not like his choice of characters, his audience has no reason not to respect Conrad’s motives or the tale he tells to achieve them.


Annotated Bibliography

Conrad, Joseph, Robert Kimbrough, and Paul B. Armstrong. "Imperialism and the Congo." Heart of Darkness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 99-193. Print.

This is a large section of the book which gives a substantial amount of background information on the Congo, including an Encyclopedia Brittanica excerpt and several articles and letters written during the same time period regarding Congo and its colonization. Due to the wide variety of sources contained within this section, it is actually useful as several types of sources, primarily Background for most, and some of the Encyclopedia entries I plan on actually using as a supplementary Argument source. 

Hawkins, Hunt. "Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement." JSTOR. Indiana University Press, 1981. Web. 22 Feb. 2014.

This source discusses Conrad’s relationship with the Congo and how he became interested in it. It can function as a background source to learn about Conrad himself, and depending on its contents, it may also contain information relating to how Conrad depicts imperialism which could be used in my argument.

Stanard, Matthew G. Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2012. Print.

This novel discusses pro-imperialist propaganda and the support of European empires. I think this is an interesting Argument source, as well as possible Background source material.