Heart of Darkness: History notes


Stanley: prior explorer of the Congo; agent for the King.

In midst of scramble for colonies: Portugese, British, Dutch, French -- now Belgian:

1876 Leopold II, conference in Brussels: led to International African Association, then of the Congo -- more or less the personal fief of the king, retained until 1908 when he died. The King employed Stanley as his agent in the Congo, where he made treaties with over 400 native chiefs over surrendering their land (many later disputed this).

Exploitation of Congo through "tax" system: empowered chiefs to collect taxes by requiring work of individuals for minimum pay; from 1890 first hear of "concessions" -- companies set up to exploit the country (cf. Eldorado expedition, 2350)

Eyewitnesses (extracts from Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness, 3rd ed.)

George Washington Williams, Report (October 1890)

In addition to these military districts there are more than fifty (50) posts of from two to ten black soldiers in the Upper-Congo. They have no white commissioned officer, and act to suit their own fancy. They receive no supplies from the State, and are expected to levy tribute upon the natives. They seize fish, goats, fowls, eggs, vegetables &c. for their nourishment; and when the natives demur or refuse to be "spoiled," these black pirates burn their villages and confiscate their property. I have been an unwilling and mournfull witness to these atrocities. It is almost impossible for a traveller to buy food, [on] account [of] the ravages committed by these buccaneers of the State of Congo, who are guilty of murder, arson and robbery. Often the natives move their towns miles away rather than submit to the indignities inflicted by an unfeeling mercenary soldiery. (90)

From the mouth of the Loumami-River to Stanley-Falls there are thirteen armed Arab camps; and in them I have seen many skulls of murdered slaves pendant from poles and over these camps floating their blood-red flag. I saw nowhere the Congo-State flag, and I know that it would be torn down if it were displayed among these ivory and slave raiders. Here the State has no authority, can redress no wrong, protect no life or property. (91)

Conrad, at Stanley Falls (Inner Station), letter, September 1890:

. . . a solitary little light glimmered feebly, and I said to myself with awe, "This is the very spot of my boyish boast."

A great melancholy descended on me. Yes, this was the very spot. But there was no shadowy friend to stand by my side in the night of the enormous wilderness, no great haunting memory, but only the unholy recollection of a prosaic newspaper "stunt"' and the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration. What an end to the idealized realities of a boy's daydreams! I wondered what I was doing there, for indeed it was only an unforeseen episode, hard to believe in now, in my seaman's life. Still, the fact remains that I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the African continent, and felt very lonely there. (187)


Achebe, "An Image of Africa" (1977):

A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.

Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. (257)

C. P. Sarvan, "Racism and The Heart of Darkness" (1980):

Conrad suggests that Europe's claim to be civilized and therefore superior, needs earnest reexamination. The reference in Heart of Darkness is not to a place (Africa), but to the condition of European man; not to a black people, but to colonialism. The crucial question is whether European "barbarism" is merely a thing of the historical past. Surely the contrast between savage African and "civilized" European, in the light of that greedy and inhuman colonialism, is shown to be "appearance" rather than reality. The emphasis, the present writer would suggest, is on continuity, on persistence through time and peoples, and therefore on the fundamental oneness of man and his nature. If a judgment has to be made, then uncomplicated "savagery" is better than the "subtle horrors" manifested by almost all the Europeans Marlow met on that ironic voyage of discovery. When Marlow speaks of the African in European service as one of the "reclaimed," it is grim irony for he has been reclaimed to a worse state of barbarism. Left to itself, Africa has a "greatness" that went "home to one's very heart." (283)

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Document prepared September 30th 2006