English Literature » Notes » Colonialism in “Heart of Darkness”

Colonialism in “Heart of Darkness”

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow learns firsthand the consequences, cruelty, commerce, and corruption of color consciousness in European colonialism. The mercantilism and capitalism which were gaining currency in Europe officially spread throughout the world by the colonialism. This focus on wealth acquisition drives the Europeans to loot African territories of the precious ivory, ignites the vicious cycle of violence and cruelty, dehumanizes the Natives of Africa, and takes modern racism to a whole new level under the pretext of civilizing and pacifying the African peoples.

Marlow, who is the protagonist in this book along with Kurtz, bears testimony of his voyage to Africa that: “I have seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire” (Conrad 34). These explanation sums up what Marlow encounters in Africa and gives a hint as to crimes of colonialism which existed in the name of trade and conquest.

The Heart of Darkness explores the darkest motivations of colonialism and highlights its pillaging agenda by commercialization of a culture, the denuding and exploitation of great wealth. In the Scramble for Africa, European countries unanimously agreed on sacking and claiming portions of it.

The agreement legitimized the groups of pirates posed as traders to exchange with and enslave the native peoples in a second round of Neo-Slavery. The significance of the title, Heart of Darkness, flows in tandem with the love of money which is the root of all evil. This imperialist greed is what exposes “the criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work of Africa” (Hawkins 286). The heart is wholly given over to the selfish pursuit of wealth and encumbers the masses by enslavement and deception.

Kurtz is the embodiment of European colonialism “for mostly his expeditions had been for ivory” (Conrad 92). The price of ivory is invaluable. As testament to the presence of the extraction of Ivory in colonial times, we have the Ivory Coast. The natives would hunt the elephant for the ivory and then would trade it for shells, strings, rum etc with the European ‘explorers.’ Just as Kurtz’ life revolves around the hunt and gain for ivory (wealth), the central purpose of the Scramble for Africa which instigated the European colonialism is commerce, which was only exploitation of an ignorant people.

Kurtz is introduced to Marlow as a man “grubbing for ivory” (Conrad 72). Marlow/Conrad uses a skilful literary technique in dehumanizing the Europeans for only animals grub for food. Ivory becomes not only the food which feeds their insatiable desires for self-aggrandizement, but also holds an enshrined position as a god, to whom their veneration ascends.

As a newcomer on the expedition, Marlow heard “the word ivory rang in the air, was whispered and sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all” (Conrad 44). These men sell their souls for a natural resource in the name of commercialization and prosperity.

Under the aegis of a company, plans were made to undermine the rights of the people and to acquire more territory. Marlow frequently alludes to “the Company” for whom he works. It is the East Indian Company which established trading posts and for whom Marlow, Kurtz, and several other British men render service.

Conrad states that “the Company had the right to every bit of information about its territories” (Conrad175). Here is a bold statement which demonstrates the company authorizing decrees, setting up surveillance, annexing territory, and claiming rights to ownership and governance. The embryonic signs are already being made manifest that Neo-colonialism is going to rear its head to prominence.

As if to emphasize the financial nature of their purpose and intercourse with the people, Conrad underlines that the team of the Company were like those of El Dorado, “hunters for gold or pursuers of fame” (Conrad 17). Conrad makes a pertinent connection with the conquistadores and Spanish explorers of the ‘New World’ who searched and hunted for gold due to the mythological tale of hidden treasures in the jungles. The motives and the techniques have not changed.

The goal of the men to Africa is specifically to conduct trade although there is full-blown cartography going on along the book similar to the early Spanish explorers. Describing the manager of one of the Company’s stations, Marlow describes him as one whose “eyes glittered like mica discs” (Conrad 45). This comparison of his eyes to mica tells of his mercenary vision and objective. Mica is a silvery precious stone which gleams like diamond-like crystals which a hexagonal shape. It was considered a jewel since it was rarefied in Europe thus highly costly.

The cruelty of European colonialism is plain to the sight in Heart of Darkness, and is a by-product of a darkened heart. The presence of rifles, guns, and bayonets of the Europeans versus the spears, bows, arrows, and clubs of the Native makes this novel very bloody, dehumanizing, violent, and brutal. The paragon of cruelty is of course, Kurtz who embodies the Machiavellian ethic of colonizers who do whatever is necessary to achieve their own ends.

As Marlow enters Kurtz’ dwelling, Marlow is greeted by the heads which stand on stakes and adorn his home like medals (Conrad 94). What barbarous man would have dead cadavers of beheaded victims constantly surrounding him! The reeking of death in Heart of Darkness is “the scent of the lies’ taint as it emanates from the symbolic corpses and metaphoric decay that litters the course of the story” (Steward 319).

Moral decay and decadence are what corrupts Kurtz and which becomes materialized in the cadavers around which he surrounds himself. Whatever the colonizers could not obtain by deception, they take by force. Cruelty comes naturally to Kurtz to the point that it overtakes him. Even Kurtz threatens to kill Marlow on one occasion in demand for some of the latter’s ivory.

Often intertribal war would erupt because of hunting conflict and robberies-it was a bloody, cruel affair. Marlow depicts the hunting as “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale” (Conrad 69). In one instance Marlow witness to the merciless beating of an African by one of the European traders as punishment (Conrad 23).

Cruelty is a tactic employed to subject and to intimidate people. A startling case of this is the beating of the African which Marlow records earlier in the book. The castigation occurs in front of several of his own people who stand around doing nothing to help the beaten victim. Marlow sees the strong Africans around him and knows that they can overpower the white men, however, the mind is already enslaved and terrorized therefore the Europeans have free rein over Africa.

Whipping is a punitive method which recalls the times of slavery where slaves had to be lashed as incentive to toil harder or as an example of warning to others. Sometimes cruelty is the means and sometimes it is the end. Violence breeds violence. As the Europeans continue to assume rights and invade territory, the people of Africa rise up in rebellion. A few men of their team are killed by the African artillery. Marlow attests to the ammunition where he observes “a heavy rifle, and a light revolver carbine – the thunderbolts of that pitiable Jupiter” (Conrad 98).

Moreover, Africans negotiated the ivory trade provided that they could acquire the high caliber weapons of the Europeans so that in their local wars, they could have a greater advantage. The proliferation of arms serves the Europeans’ purpose to divide and rule so that cruelty against the Africans advances the ruin of the Africans when they kill one another.

The consequences of colonialism are too many to be enumerated; however the primary ones are dehumanization, exploitation, poverty, and the death of a culture. The European colonizers place a negative construction on Africans which Marlow himself has done. Although he only narrates the story based on his Eurocentric perspective, it is still colored with bias, prejudice, dehumanization, and condescension toward the Africans.

Viewing a people as inferior justifies their slaughtering and the plundering of their goods. Marlow says that he sees “twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing” (Conrad 61) in a river. This epithet ‘cannibal’ represents the less than flattering aspect of the African upon which the European fixates thus debasing them and their culture as subhuman.

Cannibalism existed in some areas of Africa; however, for all the time that Marlow remains in Africa he is not eaten. Calling Africans cannibals was a normal act however which was in vogue among the Europeans. The Africans are never considered human in the novel. They are named “black figures” (Conrad 48), “savages” (Conrad 98), barbarian “naked human beings” (Conrad 97), “nigger” (Conrad 23), “shadows” (Conrad 100).

Matched up against animals, Marlow compares their sounds to “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” (Conrad 38). No African speaks intelligibly in the novel seeing that their foreign tongue has a cacophonous, guttural, and animalistic note. As a result the power of discourse solely belongs the white man. “Edward Said suggests that colonial power and discourse is possessed entirely by the colonizer” (JanMohamed 59).

The dehumanization of the African serves to yoke them with The White Man’s Burden masterfully expounded by Rudyard Kipling. “Marlow feels that colonialism can be redeemed by embracing an idea unselfishly. That idea can be compared to Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden” (Farn 16). Broaching more in depth the theme of European colonialism, Marlow comments that “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz…the International Society for the Suppression of the Savage” (Conrad 83).

Here he admits Kurtz’ collusion with Britain and other members of Europe in oppressing African peoples. The beating of the Africans like little children or animals also contributes to the debasement of this people from whose lands they were benefitting. A savage is semi-human if he is at all, and since to the colonizers he has nothing to say, nor are they interested in deciphering his tongue, they take greater liberty at enchaining him in a web of incomprehensible deceit.

Dehumanization is crucial in the process of colonialism for enslavement of the mind comes first and then the enslavement of the body and person. The colonized individual’s will must be broken, set at nought value and then the colonial is at liberty to dominate, exploit and commodify the human being. “The colonial legacy in Africanist ethnography can never be negated, but must be acknowledged under the sign of its erasure” (Apter 577).

Commodification converts the ‘sacred into the profane’ (Marx 1848). The English explorers were the colonists of their day and once they constructed the Africans as inferior, or below their culture, dehumanization becomes easy and an almost natural step. The bitterest servitude was imposed and cruel aggressions executed and perpetrated against the Africans.

Brutality, demonization and savagery are justified for the indigenous peoples are not fully human; consequently the Indians are wholly in their power through gratuitous cruelty and carnage. European colonizers profited from servility and subjugation. Through force, coercion and duress the European colonizers manipulate for ivory or exact ivory, while treating the natives like excrement.

The role of color in European colonialism is easy to fathom in The Heart of Darkness. The depth of the color of darkness has several connotations which Marlow picks up along the way. First of all, the association of black has both positive and negative meanings. Blackness exemplifies richness, depth, and unity; on the other hand, black also is equated with evil, corruption, colonialism, and the devil. By the book’s name, one can see that there is a colored system which Marlow has to see for himself to believe.

Views about the human nature and the human heart are also studied as one sees its enormous capacity to perform beastly, monstrous acts and these are the traits which color and taint his heart. Heart of Darkness conveys the “timeless myth about the exploration of the human soul and the metaphysical power of evil” (Raskin 113).

Colonialism is all about color and thrives on, the color line, the division of the races. The European whites are distinguished about the African blacks; the color on the maps is a legendary key indicating the colonized areas of Africa. Marlow realizes that Kurtz’ heart is black as hell toward the end of the novel.

The ignorance and primitiveness of the Africans are contrasted with men who lived in the light of civilization. Hence, the reader gains a broad and deep insight in understanding the color codes as Marlow himself comes to grasp, as he represents the vicarious witness through whose eyes, the reader observes the process of colonization in Africa.

In sum, Conrad effectively critiques colonialism and places before the reader the darkened heart: the commerce, cruelty, corruption, and color consciousness in European colonialism in Heart of Darkness. These elements plunge both the colonist and the colonizer in an abyss of ruin where both become dehumanized, financially or morally bankrupt, and violent. The period of Neo-colonialism in Africa accomplishes great havoc in the name of progress, commercialization, and prosperity.

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