The Acts of Imperialism and Racism in “The Heart of Darkness”

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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In the novel The Heart of Darkness, the reader is introduced to the acts of imperialism and racism. The story tells of Europeans who have established a colony in Africa that is being used for trade purposes. However, the background of the story is that the Europeans are trying to colonize the Africans and introduce them to the European way of living. The white traders are not only trying to change the Africans way of life, the whites also view themselves as superior to the Africans leading to a lot of cruelty and unfair treatment at the Inner station.

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Throughout the story, the reader will learn of the two main characters, Marlow and Kurtz. Marlow is the more positive out of the two and brings good intentions to the trade station. On the other hand we have Kurtz, who has realized the type of authority he can have over the Congolese and uses that power to his advantage. The novel shows how something that is meant to be a positive influence and mission can be turned into harsh and cruel based upon the power of a certain race.

In the beginning of the novel the reader is introduced to the narrator of the story, Charles Marlow. Marlow and his companion Mr. Kurtz have been afforded the opportunity to travel to the Belgian Congo and manage the trade of African Ivory. Marlow is our character who sheds a light of positivity on the civilizations of the Congolese. During his time at the station he realizes how cruel and unjust things have been for the Congolese and he tells them “I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 9). This is to express his intent to not only help the Congolese but also to advance them in ways there are not familiar with. He tries to introduce the good intentions that he has with the hopes that the Congolese will have faith in him and follow his lead. Although Marlow has good intentions for the civilization of the Congolese, his fellow men have not and as arrives in Africa he soon discovers what has been happening under the leadership of Mr. Kurtz. At this point Marlow realizes that despite the success he would like to achieve in this mission he is merely an invader along with his fellow men and is disturbing the life of the Congolese so the reaction the Congolese have of not taking into the Europeans is well understood. As his boat journey comes to an end, Marlow hears of conversations discussing how the Europeans are being cruel and not acting with the morals they had upon arrival. Marlow hears phrases such as “The utter savagery, has closed around him” (Conrad 7). This is used to describe the type of environment Marlow is entering as the Congolese are referred to as savages or being barbaric. During a passing between Marlow and some of the Congolese Marlow states, “They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages” (Conrad 23). In this statement we read that even Marlow, the man with positive intentions for the Congolese also still passes judgment because of the lifestyle the Congolese live. It is not all about the light he wants to shine on their situation but also how he feels about them.

Therefore if he feels this way about the Congolese, it is evident that his fellow men feel this way plus even worse. Inside of the Inner Station the Congolese are treated as slaves by the white traders and this is not something that Marlow favors. The white traders feel the Congolese are beneath them so they treat them with cruelty and racism. In the article written by Chinua Achebe he speaks of how the Europeans did not like that the Congolese communicated in their native language of short grunts versus talking in English as they wanted (Achebe 1). More than anything the Congolese are dehumanized and treated as animals. They mean more to the Europeans than slaves to collect the ivory and make sure the Inner Station functions properly. On multiple occasions Marlow experiences the abuse of the Congolese for things they did wrong yet he does not stop step in and do anything to stop the abuse. Who is he to side against the men of his own race? Marlow also notices that Mr. Kurtz loss of morals and values are tied more to his new found love for wealth. He is greedy for the ivory and even threatens the life of a Russian man if he would not give over his supply of ivory (Rashi, Panday 1). Mr. Kurtz has used the mission of civilization as a manipulation tactic to gain more wealth and power. Due to the treatment the Congolese have received from the Europeans they are not happy to work with them and even seek pleasure in the Europeans trials and tribulations. Towards the end of the novel Kurtz is on his death bed and the Congolese rush to his hut to confirm his death. A young boy tells the natives “Mistah Kurtz-he dead.” and all the pilgrims rushed to confirm this information (Conrad 117). One of the men that had treated them so cruel had now received his karma. 

There were many consequences that the Congolese faced due to racism during what the Europeans considered to the colonization of these savages. As if the racism in Africa towards the Congolese wasn’t enough, there were also outsiders who displayed racism as well. During a conversation with his aunt before he left, Marlow told her of the mission to civilize the Africans. In response to this information, “She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable” (Conrad 17). That statement alone shows that despite the morals the Europeans are expected to have, that can disappear quite fast. In Africa the Congolese are over worked and under cared for. In one instance Marlow is traveling and states the following, “Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink” (Conrad 26).

In those few sentences symbolism comes into play. Marlow sees two overworked members of the Congolese exhausted to the point that they can barely move. One of them has to crawl on his knees just to make it to the river and drink water. They were obviously famished but where this ties into racism is the verbiage Marlow used to describes the two people. Versus calling them people or men, he dehumanizes them and refers to them as two bundles. Again we have the opportunity to see that despite his goals of helping the Congolese he still views them as less than him or not a full human being like himself. A question that may be asked is why did the Europeans treat the Congolese in such an ill manner? It all ties back to the original reason the Europeans came to Africa. The goal was to set up a trading post and they needed workers. By keep the Congolese people fed and hydrated just enough to do the job, they were weakened and despite the savages that they were labeled, they did not have the strength to overcome well fed and healthy men. Support of this theory can be confirmed with the statement “They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now— nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation” (Conrad 25). It is impossible to overpower someone when you are barely living.

Not only were the Congolese starving and unhealthy, they were also beaten. Sometimes it was just because and sometimes it would be if things were done that were not supposed to be. One day a young boy caught a shed on fire and was faced with the consequences of his carelessness. The following statement describes what Marlow witness as he walked upon the incident, “The shed was already a heap of embers glowing fiercely. A nigger was being beaten nearby. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly” (Conrad 36). Despite the horrid screams from the young boy, Marlow did not step in and stop the abuse, he merely ignored it. These were some of the commons things that the Congolese encountered because of racism but eventually they would find a way to fight back.

As Mr. Kurtz falls ill, Marlow establishes a crew and begins a journey in hopes of finding him. It is during this journey that Marlow really learns about the type of person Mr. Kurtz had been. To the Congolese he portrayed himself as God-like and a tyrant, going as far as to have severed heads outside of the hut he lived in (Cregan-Reid 1). The Congolese that Marlow brings along for the journey are reluctant to assist because they do not favor Mr. Kurtz or how he has treated them during his time in Africa. Marlow is faced with adversity when things take a turn for the worse. Marlow and his crew come upon a thick fog and are worried that they will be attacked. Well this thought turns into reality when Marlow and his crew are attacked by African natives resulting in some of crew being killed. This was the natives taking their well-deserved revenge. They had been treated horribly for so long that they wanted to make a message and make sure the message was loud and clear. This was devastating to Marlow and he even questioned what had made the natives attack him and his crew but to the natives there were only treating the Europeans as they had been treated for so long.

In the novel The Heart of Darkness, the protagonist in the story, Marlow comes from Europe with a positive outlook on imperialism and plans of advancement. On the other hand we have Mr. Kurtz, another protagonist in the novel, who has taken a positive act and turned it into something negative which ultimately led to racism and a hate from the Congolese towards the Europeans. In turn the reader can visualize the suffering and pain that the Congolese endured and how they were considered nothing more than barbaric beings. The reader witnesses both the act of civilizing the Congolese as well as the way the Congolese are judged and treated based off the way they lived, the language they speak and the way they act. Although this is not the way of living in today’s time, the verbiage and sequence of events allows one to visualize how things functioned during the era that this novel was written about.

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The Acts of Imperialism and Racism in "The Heart of Darkness". (2021, May 14). Retrieved from