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Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ is more than the story of one man’s descent into madness. It is also a searing portrait of a brutal moment in world history – a memento of greed, exploitation, and cruelty on a global scale.

Heart of Darkness and Imperialism

What if, when you went to work, the sounds that greeted you were not the clicking of computer keys, the chimes of cash registers, or the pounding of hammers, but the groans of the sick and the dying – all this paired with the sight of rows of emaciated bodies, bodies chained or tied together? Now imagine drawing a paycheck off those sights and sounds.It is no wonder that Marlow, one of the narrators of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, is haunted. It’s also no wonder that one of the novella’s final lines is among the most famous in English literature. As Kurtz, the novella’s mysterious character, dies, he pronounces one final condemnation on the whole appalling enterprise, repeating over and over again, ‘The horror;the horror;’ So what is the source of all this suffering? What is the horror that haunts the remains of Marlow’s life and pollutes Kurtz’s final moments?It is nothing less than modern European imperialism, a period of colonial conquest that reached its height in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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This was the period in which the European powers, led most notably by Britain, France, and Belgium, laid seize to the far-flung corners of the globe, from Africa to Asia and Australia, raping the lands and the peoples of their culture and wealth, and in the process, creating the global inequalities that afflict our world to this day.

Joseph Conrad
Conrad

Background to African Imperialism

Conrad’s story takes place primarily on the African continent, as Marlow and his crew lead a team of sailors up the Congo River in search of the rogue station master, Kurtz. Kurtz is a man who has become part god and part dictator among the indigenous peoples, while Marlow and Kurtz’s employer, ‘the Company’, turns a blind eye.What the ivory trading company does care about is that Kurtz seems to be skimming their profits.

For an imperial trading company at the height of modern imperial’s power, that simply cannot stand.Modern European imperialism was all about making money. Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous Scramble for Africa, which saw a massive explosion in European efforts to divide, conquer, and exploit African territories between 1881 and 1914.

The horrors that Marlow witnesses as he travels up the Congo river, from one imperial outpost to the next, were in fact just another average day. Exploited for their knowledge of the land and its resources and driven mercilessly for their physical labor, native peoples were the human instruments used to satisfy imperial greed, expendable tools to be discarded and easily replaced when mind, spirit, and body inevitably broke down.

Historical Context for the Novel

Sometimes, when humans do something very wrong, they have two options: stop what they’re doing and try to make amends or keep doing it and rationalize the behavior. The imperial powers chose door number two. After all, there were, literally, billions of dollars at stake – not to mention the military and political benefit that strategic expansion across the globe could offer. And it’s not as though the gains of imperialism were all bad; this money helped a lot of people.

It put people to work. It reduced the populations of the homeless, sick, and unemployed in Europe’s rapidly growing cities. But it was mostly the Europeans who benefited.

The natives – not so much.So the theory of the civilizing mission was born. This model held that the European powers were bringing light into the so-called ‘dark’ corners of the globe (hence Conrad’s title, Heart of Darkness). This light, of course, was the light of religion, spread by the Christian missionaries who were often the first Europeans to settle in the territories, before even political and business enterprises sprung up there.

Then, comes the ‘light’ of European civilization in a broader sense: its educational, political, and social systems and its medical and scientific knowledge.

Kurtz as Exemplar for Imperialism

Kurtz exemplifies this idea of conquest through conversion, the effort to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous peoples. He becomes a sort of cult figure for the Congolese people inhabiting the dense jungles that surround Kurtz’s remote outpost. The rationalization, of course, is that the natives are far better off being guided – and shaped by brutal force – by the hands of European civilization. The justifications offered by the civilizing mission model are that the light of European progress is far superior to the darkness of ‘primitive barbarity’ in which the colonized people have groped since the beginning of time.And the wealth the Europeans gleaned in the process? Well, that was only a just reward for supposedly saving the natives from themselves.

Needless to say, the natives didn’t need saving and suffered unimaginably during these times.

Lesson Summary

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 work, Heart of Darkness, depicts a brutal moment in world history. Set during the height of the modern European imperial movement, which was a period of colonial conquest that reached its height in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The novella is the story of two men, Marlow and Kurtz, and their experiences in the remote colonial outposts of Belgian Congo.The foundations of the story lie in the infamous Scramble for Africa, the period between 1881 and 1914 in which the major European powers seized, divided, and brutally exploited the lands and peoples of the African continent.

This brutality haunts Marlow and pollutes Kurtz. In Kurtz’s last moments, his dying words are ‘the horror…the horror…’ The novella’s scenes of emaciated, sick, dying, and dead Africans are horrible indeed. Nevertheless, the colonizing forces justify their oppression through the model of the civilizing mission, the idea that European civilization brings ‘light’ (religion) into the ‘dark ‘corners of the globe and rescues native peoples from their ‘primitive barbarity.’

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