Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Conrad’s Maps and the Scramble for Africa: The Heart of Darkness" by John G. (Spring 2014)

"Conrad’s Maps and the Scramble for Africa: The Heart of Darkness" by John G. (Spring 2014)

       Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been studied by students for decades. Many of Conrad’s themes about imperialism and his symbolism are derived from its setting, the Belgian Congo. Few students fully understand this backdrop and the allusions Conrad makes towards symbols of European power and involvement through imagery such as maps. To fully grasp Conrad’s work one must understand the mythology behind the Berlin Act, as well as the bill’s aftermath. The Scramble for Africa was a brutal process, and the accompanying Berlin Act will continue to be questioned in its realistic implementation, its moral standing, as well as the intentions of the act's proprietors. The act was an exemplary imperialist move by Europeans, and actions like these provide Conrad with constant ammunition to discuss the treatment of the natives as well as the nature of European involvement in Africa. Being such a high profile and politically motivated act many writers, historians, and political activists have responded to the Berlin Act legitimizing it, criticizing it, and everything in-between.

       European involvement in Africa and the Berlin Act had a huge opposition for its mistreatment of the naitves. The primier mythology of the Berlin Act was that it was in the ebst interest of the natives. The members of the conference had other plans. The Berlin Act would never have been possible if it were not for the International African Association and King Leopold; Sir Arthur Doyle, a Scottish doctor and Berlin Act contemporary, wrote that the association was dominated by the Belgians, “with the Belgian King as President” in his book The Crime of the Congo (Doyle 89). Part of the controversy of the Berlin Act and its conference was that it was almost entirely masterminded by the Belgians. The Berlin Act was originally intended to preserve free commerce in the Congo, Doyle writes, yet it was mutated into a darker function. There were many conditions in the act, but the one Doyle found most important was Article VI, which stated that all the powers involved in the Congo “pledge themselves to watch over the preservation of the native populations” (95). He found this to be a “disgrace to each of them” and that the Europeans “debauched, degraded, mutilated, tortured, murdered all on such a scale” as never seen before of the African people (95). Doyle, being a supporter of social justice, argues that the European involvement was cruel and unfair to the natives. Although painted in a poor light by many, some contemporaries have some sympathy for King Leopold, the main supporter of European involvement in Africa. For example, Doyle writes,” King Leopold was not conscious of hypocrisy…his intentions were vaguely philanthropic” and while this is certainly not a praise, many Europeans did not place all the blame on King Leopold (97-98). Eventually, however, King Leopold essentially forced slavery onto the Africans however, and the natives suffered terribly.

       Europeans used many reasons to justify their actions in the Congo, and the Berlin Act was a political move based on these mythologies. Patrick Bratlinger in his essay on Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent lists many of the European mentalities towards Africa from the view of Victorian England. Bratlinger argues that about English views on power was part of their cultural and political background as “Victorians, dominant over a vast working-class majority at home and over increasing millions of "uncivilized" peoples of "inferior" races abroad, power was self-validating” (44). As Conrad was a European, and having lived in England, many critics have seen prejudices in his work pertaining to myths about Africa and the Africans. While the ideology of civilized persons civilizing the barbarians was a core part their society, the English also tried to use science to explain their cause. Bratlinger explains how many Europeans believed in evolutionary anthropology, a faulty science Europeans claimed justified their rule. Justifying this science, Bratlinger quotes Benjamin Kidd who wrote in his book that the more highly evolved English would eventually have to “kill off” “weaker races in the struggle for existence” his thoughts being a perverted allusion to Darwinian evolution (66). This feeling that Africa was less advanced and primeval is echoed in the Heart of the Darkness in a passage where Marlow takes the steamer through the river into the jungle. Marlow describes it as the “earth was unearthly” and how “the prehistoric man” inhabited the land (Conrad 51). In contrast to Doyle, Bratlinger argues that many Europeans viewed Africa as being a prehistoric land filled with prehistoric people who had to be civilized. With this sort of ideology about the “Dark Continent” it is of little surprise that Europeans decided how Africa was to be ruled through the Berlin Act, rather than Africans themselves deciding their fate.

       An artist’s rendering of The Berlin Conference made for a newspaper depicts a group of men at a table discussing how best to deal with the African continent with a massive African map in the background. The picture sets up a stark dichotomy of civilized Europeans deciding how best to rule the primitive African continent, and In relation to Conrad, the picture contains a room filled with starch collars, which can be likened to the first man of the company Marlow meets when he reaches Africa. There are no African Americans present as far as one can tell, yet the map of Africa in the background suggests the men’s intentions, that being to control all the land. Each man encapsulates the stereotypical imperialist leader and their involvement in the “Scramble for Africa”, whether in their military uniforms, strong gestures, or by their overall dignified and grave manner at the table. The men look courtly and are hard at work. Their Stately and important manner reveals part of the European mindset that these politicians knew what was best for Africa, solely by being European. The attendees exude power and importance and highlights Bratlinger’s concept that the more advanced nations should culture the less evolved races. The picture also contains men of all European nationalities showing the act to be a multinational effort, yet many critics blame King Leopold for the African travesty.

       King Leopold was essential in the implementation of the Berlin Act and controversies abound as to his intentions. While earlier Doyle did not feel complete animosity for Leopold, 1800's contemporary critic Arthur Keith replies that he is much more devious. He declares that “All the actions of the King can be explained without difficulty or improbability on the theory of personal ambition” (32). However, whereas Doyle stated that the government was only bad for the Africans, Keith felt that the State, in many ways, benefitted them. Keith remarks on how even though slavery was replaced, it was still outlawed on principle. In a similar vein, he praises the missionary work done by all the Christians in the Congo who had easier access because of the Berlin Act. He says that the paganism in the Congo is “unprogressive” and “bears only the remotest likeness to the higher religious faiths of the world” (224). Here again is seen the feeling of having to educate the natives. Being a contemporary of the Berlin Act, Keith may only be a product of the times, but his insight gives valuable arguments about the economic and stability the Europeans brought to Africa.

        The Berlin Act had caused civil direst in both the motherland and its “colony” the Congo, which was one the colonies eventually legitimized by the Berlin Act. Well it may be easy to think of the Belgians being extremely excited to rule the Congo, this was not entirely so. Matthew Standard in Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism paints the Belgians as unwilling and pessimistic about African involvement. Standard himself writes of Leopold scathingly as his policy in Africa being “extraction of maximum amounts of raw materials at the lowest possible cost, leading to savage exploitation” (30). Reports on these exploitations caused uproar in Europe and within Belgium as well. Leopold’s regime created propaganda and released it in papers as well as in pamphlets to refute accusations from anti-imperialist parties, yet Standard argues that these were of little use against the Belgian conscience. While politically the Belgians ruled the Congo, the people did not as strongly feel their involvement was in their best interests. 

        Conrad's work invariably has a great depth of controversy within it, which reflects the controversies of the time. The Berlin Act was a poltical move based on mythology, that many critics argue caused a great deal of suffering in Africa. While politically many Europeans felt the need to control Africa, morally many writers and contemporaries did not believe it to be justifiable. Some argued the Berlin Act’s implementation to be cruel, others a necessary evil. Europeans who were either brainwashed or chose to believe themselves to be of a higher calling than Africans, were not all pleased with the results of their actions. Even those who agreed with the act philosophically did not at all agree with the act’s realistic approaches such as slavery. Today, people continue to debate the costs and benefits of this pivotal act, and controversal policies like the Berlin Act continue to be implented around the world.


Works Cited

Horchschild, Adam. "Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa." Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 to Divide Africa. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014.

This is an artist’s rendering of the Berlin Conference, which divvied up Africa to the Europeans. The picture itself has a map in the background, as well as a depiction of all the attendees. Each man encapsulates the stereotypical imperialist leader and their involvement in the “Scramble for Africa”, whether in their military uniforms, gestures, or by the overall manner at the table. Background source

Brantlinger, Patrick. "Victorians and Africans the Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent." Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. N. pag. Print.

This article details the mythology behind the Dark Continent and English imperialism in Africa. This source contains much of the reasoning and thinking of the European involvement in Africa. It discusses the various arguments for Europe’s foray into Africa from evolutionary anthropology to matters such as slavery. Exhibit source

Keith, Arthur Berriedale. The Belgian Congo and the Berlin Act. New York: Negro Universities, 1970. Print.

This book is a criticism of the Berlin act and all the laws concerning its making and establishment. This source provides tons of information on the Berlin Act and was published in 1919. It contains critiques of many of the major European powers and a negative view of the Berlin Act as well as Belgium and Germany in particular. An argument source against the Berlin Act, or a background source on its effects.

Doyle, Aruthur. "From The Crime of the Congo." Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. N. pag. Print.

This article details both the Berlin Conference and all the European nations, and the USA’s, involvement in the deal of the Congo as well as its aftermath. Provides condensed information on the Congo as well as a very broad scale of knowledge about all the powers involved in the Act. This would be useful as an exhibit source.

Stanard, Matthew G. Selling the Congo: A History of European Pro-empire Propaganda and the Making of Belgian Imperialism. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska, 2011. Print.

This book goes through the propaganda the Belgians used about imperialism and Belgian involvement in the Congo. It’s useful in that it gives less of a straight historical stance, but more into the ideology and national feeling toward imperialism. It can be used as an exhibit source of the mentality at the time or as an argument for colonialism.