Imperialism in the Heart of Darkness

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Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness is a tale of imperialism and its debilitating effect on the world told from a narrower perspective of the Congo Free State. Charles Marlow, the captain of a river steamboat, shows how colonization had adversely affected the natives, despite its claims of inculcating the aspects of civilization into the “uncultured” tribespeople of Africa. John A. Hobson defines imperialism as “the endeavour of the great controllers of industry to broaden the channel for the flow of their surplus wealth by seeking foreign markets and foreign investments to take off the goods and capital they cannot sell or use at home” (Kruger 253). Though Conrad does not explicitly denounce imperialism his character, Marlow does shift from an avid supporter to a condemner of its negative influence. Unlike any novelists of his time, Conrad did not center his work of fiction in the thriving and industrial environs of London but takes his reader through the dark and mysterious jungles of Africa.

Marlow was initially excited by the offer set before him. He undertakes the vocation as the captain of a steamboat with an adventurous spirit. He had placed high esteem and faith on the positive effects of colonialization. In the novella, the company who recruits Marlow assumes the face of imperialism. However, during his journey, he only perceives a world wrought by neglect, oppression, and cruelty that soon the illusion he had maintained bursts into a thousand pieces. Conrad provides vivid descriptions of the pathetic situation that further emphasizes the futility of civilization in the wilderness (Alamrani). At one time, Marlow relates the incident of an explosion. He writes, “They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on” (Conrad 2). The term “objectless blasting” seemed to resonate a sense of ineffectiveness and pointed towards the bigger picture of imperialism than the particular railway construction.

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The policy of colonialism is founded on the fundamentals of saving the African “savages” from their darkness (Ali 12). Using the façade of the ivory trade, the company exploits the rich land resources and the tribespeople under the guise of saving them from the clutches of darkness. However, the company themselves seems the embodiment of darkness. Marlow compares the exploitation of the Africans to the past instance where the Romans exploited England. The excitement that once immersed him dissipates when he reaches Congo and bears witness to the reality there.

Marlow got the job with the help of his influential aunt. He was touted to bring the light to the Dark Continent, which had been thought to be filled with uncivilized, barbaric and ignorant savages. Sold to the civilized masses as a humanitarian deed of educating the savages and rescuing them from their own ignorance, Marlow, on the contrary, did not see the imperialism as promoted. However, all he encounters there was the utter devastation of culture and sanity where morality degraded itself to its lowest extremes.

Marlow’s description of the Black men reads, They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, and they were nothing earthly now— nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. (Conrad 25)

The Africans had assumed a sort of otherness, which did not arise from their uncultured nature or ignorance; it was rather a result of imperialism’s oppression and anarchy. Marlow comes across a vast expanse of futility in Congo; unused railway truck, discarded heaps of drainage pipes and the brick-maker who had been sitting idle for a very long time.

Kurtz, similar to Marlow, had embarked on this mission with the aim to educate the savages and save them from their uncultured ways of life. Soon enough, he becomes one of the European exploiters, as made obvious in his report to the International Society for Suppression of Savage Customs, which reads, “Exterminate all the brutes” (Conrad 83). Kurtz assumes the characteristics of a brutal dictator as people are sacrificed to sustain his health. The tribespeople impaled the heads of the sacrificed lots on poles. The act surpasses any of those arising from ignorance or savagery. He had become worse than the savages going to insane extremes to cement his influence. Kurtz, the representative of the company, symbolizes imperialism and epitomizes the selfishness and anarchy it exacts on the underdogs. The novella provides a brief description of Kurtz where Marlow states, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (Conrad 81). This implies that it was not just an individual’s fault but a collective one to be exact, pointing towards Europe and its so-called hypocrisy of imperialism. Thus, Congo Free State represents the whole of Africa, crushed under the imperialist hands. The darkness in the title, “The Heart of Darkness,” seems not to represent the dark jungles of Congo but the savage and vile hearts of the imperialists. Such a tale of mindless exploitation is still relevant as these vile aspects of capitalism do have their clutches set on the environment for their selfish benefits.

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Imperialism in the Heart of Darkness. (2021, Apr 20). Retrieved from