Home > Heart of Darkness: A Research Guide > "Exploring Anti-imperialist and Racist Qualities in Heart of Darkness" by Bryant Y. (Spring 2014)

"Exploring Anti-imperialist and Racist Qualities in Heart of Darkness" by Bryant Y. (Spring 2014)

          Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, illustrates the state of the Congo under King Leopold’s barbaric rule and has been at the heart of controversy for decades. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sufficiently summarizes the conditions in the Congo at this time in his pamphlet, “The Crime of the Congo”. On one hand of the controversy, Chinua Achebe describes Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” in a famous lecture given at the University of Massachusetts (Achebe 7). On the other hand, Cedric Watts and many other professors support Conrad’s novel and believe that it still holds a place in university curriculums. In fact, Conrad’s supporters call him a, “genius that could be contained neither by linguistic barriers nor by national boundaries” (Murfin 3). Patrick Brantlinger, a literature professor at Indiana University, considers both perspectives in his article and concludes, “As social criticism, its [Heart of Darkness] anti-imperialist message is undercut both by its racism and by its impressionism” (Brantlinger 383). Even though Conrad takes an anti-imperialist standpoint and attempts to abhor the evils of European imperialism, many other novels demonstrate anti-imperialism without the cost of racism.

          In order to fully comprehend the background in Conrad’s novel, it becomes necessary to explore the history behind King Leopold, the Belgian government and the Congo Free State. Doyle offers a comprehensive review of the conditions in the Congo during King Leopold’s supervision through his pamphlet, “The Crime of the Congo”. Published in 1909, this pamphlet details the development of the Congo and offers a large amount of evidence exhibiting King Leopold’s brutal treatment of the Congo’s natives. For example, this pamphlet contains numerous interviews from officials stationed at the Congo under King Leopold’s orders and numerous photographs of the mutilated bodies of the natives. In a personal interview with Doyle, Mr. Scrivener, one of the officials stationed in the Congo, stated that, “‘Everything was on a military basis, but, so far as I could see, the one and only reason for it all was rubber. It was the theme of every conversation, and it was evident that the only way to please one's superiors was to increase the output somehow’” (Doyle 37). Officials gave the Congo natives requirements for how much rubber to bring in periodically. If natives failed to meet the quota, the officials often killed them on the spot or chopped off their hands to prove their death. In fact, a photograph in the pamphlet exhibits several natives who had their hands removed. Additionally, the political cartoon “In the Rubber Coils” published in Punch magazine in 1906 further illustrates King Leopold’s abuse of the Congo. Brantlinger notes that, “much of the ‘horror’ either depicted or suggested in Heart of Darkness … exposed Leopold's bloody system between the time of his return to England and the composition of the novella in 1898-99” (Brantlinger 367). Conrad attempts to depict these horrors of European imperialism through many scenes in Heart of Darkness; such as, the treatment of the natives on the steamboat, and the decapitated heads of the natives at the inner station. However, Conrad’s depiction of European imperialism results in unintended consequences.

          While condemning European imperialism, Conrad comes across as a blatant racist. Achebe exposes Conrad as a racist by noting that, “Certainly he had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of the word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts” (Achebe 8). Achebe claims that Conrad depicts the Congo natives as rudimentary souls. He then provides evidence to support his claims by citing specific passages in Heart of Darkness which portrays lack of language from the natives and descriptions of Africa as the antithesis of Europe. Additionally, Achebe even goes as far as investigating Conrad’s personal life to demonstrate his racism. Providing a wealth of evidence, Achebe makes a highly persuasive claim that Conrad and his work is racist.

          Brantlinger investigates Heart of Darkness by taking into account Achebe’s claims about Conrad and considering Watts’ counterpoints for Achebe’s claims. According to Watts, Conrad’s novel “transcends” racism because it illustrates the horrors of European imperialism at a time in which racism was a social norm. Ultimately, Brantlinger agrees more with Achebe’s claims than Watts’ counterpoints, “Achebe is therefore right to call Conrad's portrayal of Africa and Africans ‘racist’” (Brantlinger 371). Brantlinger also analyzes impressionism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He describes Conrad’s ambiguous literary style of using indescribable adjectives as impressionism which prevents readers from labeling Conrad’s work as anti-imperialist or racist. In fact, Brantlinger states, “Conrad knew that his story was ambiguous: he stresses that ambiguity at every opportunity, so that labeling it "anti-imperialist" is as unsatisfactory as condemning it for being ‘racist’” (Brantlinger 372). Although Conrad’s literary style makes it rather hard to decipher the true meaning behind his novel, unmistakable evidence in Heart of Darkness still points to its racist qualities, and Brantlinger agrees with this viewpoint. Conrad’s novel could be easily replaced in current curriculum by other more racially sensitive novels that still portray the same anti-imperialist message perpetrated by Conrad.

          Brantlinger notes, “The fact that there are almost no other works of British fiction written before World War I which are critical of imperialism, and hundreds of imperialist ones which are racist through and through, is a measure of Conrad's achievement” (Brantlinger 382-383). Certainly, Heart of Darkness had redeeming qualities compared to novels before World War I. However, there seems to be no reason to offend one’s humanity just for the sake of exploring an anti-imperialist novel written before World War I. Many novels written after World War I have condemned European imperialism without appearing racist. Unlike Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, these novels do not portray the natives as having rudimentary souls, and they don’t question the existence of their humanity. For example, Cry, the Beloved Country illustrates the deplorable effects of European imperialism later on in history through injustices in South Africa without appearing racist. Cry, the Beloved Country gloriously depicts its African characters and their complexity as human beings. It leaves no doubt to the essence of their humanity. Ultimately, Heart of Darkness does succeed in coming across as anti-imperialist, but it fails by appearing as racist.  Many current university curriculums could benefit by working with anti-imperialist and racially sensitive novels rather than the racism contained in Heart of Darkness.

Annotated Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Massachusetts, Amherst. 17 Feb. 2014. Lecture. The famous lecture given by Chinau Achebe at the University of Massachusetts in which he calls Conrad a "thoroughgoing racist". He supports this statement by exhibiting evidence of how Conrad refused Africans in his novel to express any human emotions. Achebe strongly believes that Conrad depicts Africa as “the other world, the antithesis of Europe, and therefore of civilization”. Additionally Achebe even provides evidence from Conrad’s personal life to support his claims. This will serve as my main argument source.

Brantlinger, Patrick. ""Heart of Darkness": "Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism?"" Cirticism 27.4 (1985): 363-85. JSTOR. Web. 17 Feb. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23110450>. This source offers more viewpoints and theories on Conrad's novel, and responds to some of Achebe's claims. Specifically, it exhibits Watts’ counters to Achebe’s claims. Watts believes that Conrad’s racial stereotypes was just a product of his generation and shouldn’t be held against his work which transcends prejudice, because it denounces imperialism. Brantlinger introduces the term of impressionism and its place in Conrad’s novel. This will be useful as an argument source in my essay.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Crime of the Congo. London: Hutchinson &, 1909. Print. This pamphlet by Arthur Conan Doyle explores the history behind the Congo Free State and how King Leopold abused its civilians. More specifically, it also includes quotes from actual officials stationed in the Congo at the time and pictures of the mutilated bodies of the natives. It will be useful to use in my essay as a Background source.

Phillips, Caryl. Philosophia Africana 10.1 (2007): 59-66. Print. This interview with Achebe decades after his lecture at the University of Massachusetts offers a deeper insight into his opinions on Conrad’s novel. More specifically, Achebe explains how Conrad portrays Africans as having rudimentary souls. Phillips also begins to explore if exposing European imperialism should come at the cost of racism. This will be useful as a theory source in my essay and will also be my starting off point.

Sambourne, Linley. "In the Rubber Coils." Cartoon. Punch Magazine 28 Nov. 1906: n. pag. Print. This cartoon depicts how rubber plantations constructed under King Leopold's orders affected the natives of the Congo Free State. More specifically, it depicts King Leopold as a rubber snake suffocating and constricting an African man. This will be useful as a Background source on European imperialism.