CONRADS IMPERIALISM

 

 

 

Conrad's,Heart of Darkness, begins with a view of the Thames of London through the eyes of its narrator, Marlowe:

 

"The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway...What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!...The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empire...(p. 490,492, The Portable Conrad)"

 

Next, Marlowe imagines what it might have been like for a Roman commander, nineteen hundred years earlier, to have come to these same shores to conquer the Gauls, its savage inhabitants. The roles of imperial conqueror and barbarian have been reversed. Then, the world's greatest empire had had its capital on the Tiber of Rome; now, it stood on the banks of the Thames in London. Marlowe contrasts the two empires to the detriment of Rome:

 

"They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force...lt was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale...The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much...(p. 495)''

 

Within this framework- that of the narrator's telling a story to fellow seamen while viewing the Thames

-we are introduced to yet another empire, that  of King Leopold on the Belgian Congo. Marlowe says of his tale that it was "...the culminating point of my experience.(p. 496)" Let us follow Marlowe's narrative:

 

"Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps...But there was one yet      the biggest, the most blank, so to speak- that I had a hankering after...there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird...Then I remembered there was a big concern, a company for trade on that river...I thought to myself, they can't trade without using some kind of craft on that lot of fresh water- steamboats! Why shouldn't I try to get charge of one?...The snake had charmed me...(p. 497, 498)"

 

Having gotten his post as steamboat captain through the influence of his aunt, he pays her a farewell visit. Like many of her class, she had been swept up by talk of the "white man's burden" propagated in the daily newspapers:

 

"There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about 'weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,' till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the company was run for profit...(p. 504)"

 

Leaving on a French steamer, they stop at a series of settlements, each with its colonial flag flying overhead. At each of these trading places they leave behind soldiers and custom-house officers. Along the way they come upon a French man-of-war shelling the bush. Its six-inch guns pour fiery projectiles into the jungle without any visible effect. They are told native "enemies" reside in the interior. Finally they reach the company station, where Marlowe, leaving the steamer, realizes, from the wreckage and noise and the smoke of explosives, that they are building a railway. Then the sound of a chain gang suddenly arrests him:

 

"A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope, each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whos bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking...(p. 509)"

 

From there he descends the hill into a narrow ravine, where he encounters the mournful stillness of

"the grove of death":

 

"Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair...this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die...nothing but shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom...(p. 510, 511)"

 

From this hellish vision he proceeds to one of the station's buildings, where he meets the chief accountant, who summarizes the company's business:

 

"...Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy  cottons, beads, and brass wire sent into the depths of darkness, and  in return came a precious trickle of ivory...(p. 513)"

 

It is from the company clerk that he first learns about Kurtz: "...a first-class agent...a very remarkable person...(p. 513)" From the station he leaves with a caravan. Along the way he sees villages abandoned, to escape from enslavement by the colonial invaders; and learns that his steamer has been sunk at the bottom of the river. It will take months for him to repair it and resume his voyage to Kurtz's station. And there are rumors that Kurtz is ill. Another of the station’s agents shows him a painting of Kurtz's, remarking:

 

"He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress...We want...for the guidance of the cause entrusted to us by Europe, so to speak higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose...(p. 523)"

 

Having repaired the steamboat, Marlowe finally sets out on his voyage to Kurtz's station:

 

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest...(p. 536)...Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico...(p. 538)"

 

On their journey up the river they are attacked, and Marlowe's African helmsman is killed. That Marlowe did not share the racism of the company he worked for is evident from his remarks:

 

"...I am not prepared to affirm the fellow (Kurtz) was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully...he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back- a help- an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me -I had to look after

him...a subtle bond had been created...(p. 562,563)"

 

Finally Marlowe spies Kurtz's station through his binoculars. The remains of a fence ornamented with what appears to be carved balls surrounds it. A young Russian dressed in a jester's motley welcomes them from the shore. He is devoted to Kurtz; has nursed him through illness. Then he comes on board and speaks to Marlowe about him:

 

"...Kurtz wandered alone, far in the depths of the forest...his expeditions had been for ivory...'To speak plainly, he raided the country/ I said. He nodded. 'Not alone, surely!'...'Kurtz got the tribe to

follow him, did he?' I suggested. He fidgeted a little. 'They adored him/  he said...'he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know- and they had never seen anything like it- and very terrible. He could be terrible...there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased... (p. 572)"

 

Lately Kurtz had become very ill, the young Russian tells him; so he had returned once more to nurse him. Once again, Marlowe directs his binoculars toward Kurtz's house on shore; but this time he focuses on one of the fence posts to his horror:

 

"...1 had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen -and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids, a head that seemed to sleep at the top of the pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber...there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him- some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found in his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can't say. I think knowledge came to him at last- only at the very last...(p.153)"

 

Marlowe has already witnessed the horrors that Belgian colonialism had inflicted on native Africans, but now he encounters a psychopathological dimension in the troubling figure of Kurtz. Earlier he had spoken of this to his fellow seaman as they sat overlooking the Thames:

 

"...how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages of a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by way of solitude- utter solitude without a policeman- by the way of silence- utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion? These

tittle things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength...Mind, I am not trying to excuse or even explain...Mr. Kurtz...{p. 5GO)"

 

Yet Marlowe, throughout his tale, is struggling mightily to explain Kurtz. He has no illusions whatsoever about the murderous profit motive lying behind Belgian colonialism and its ideology of the "white man's burden". It is the mystery of this singularly gifted human being-- Kurtz's descent into utter depravity-­ that bewilders him from beginning to end. And without the psychological knowledge of Kurtz's

childhood neither Marlowe nor we will ever be able to figure him out. That dimension is closed to us in

Heart of Darkness {unlike, Lord  Jim, for instance, which does provide the background information and fantasies of the protagonist sufficient for a psychological reading.) But let us return to Marlowe's narrative.

 

The young Russian tells him of Kurtz's unlimited power over the native chiefs and their peoples. They would crawl to him in their ceremonies; and, after all, these heads were those of "rebels". But Marlowe is repulsed by this young disciple's idolatry of Kurtz and his barbarous reign. Suddenly, a group of Africans- with bows and arrows, shields and spears-- appear bearing Kurtl on a stretcher:

 

"...I saw the man on the stretcher sit up, lank and with an uplifted arm, above the shoulders of the bearers...I saw the thin arm extended commandingly, the lower jaw moving, the eyes of that apparition shining darkly far in its bony head that nodded with grotesque jerks...His covering had fallen off, and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving.It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze...A deep voice reached me faintly...A voice! a voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating...(p. 575,

576,577)"

 

They lay Kurtz down on a bed in a little cabin. Then the manager who had accompanied  Marlowe on his journey to Kurtz's station takes him by the arm and leads him out of the cabin. He explains to Marlowe:

 

"...'We have done all we could for him- haven't we? But there is no disguising the fact, Mr. Kurtz has done more harm than good to the Company...Upon the whole, the trade will suffer. I don't deny there is a remarkable quantity of ivory- mostly fossil. We must save it, at all events- but look how precarious the position is-- and why? Because the method is unsound...'No method at all,' I murmured...(p. 579)"

 

The young Russian begs Marlowe, as a brother seaman, to safeguard Kurtz's reputation; and Marlowe feels a strange obligation to agree. Then, in his colorful attire-- with cartridges, tobacco and a pair of shoes beneath his arm --the young Russian slips off into the night. When Marlowe awakens shortly after midnight, he hears the sounds of a tribal ceremonial deep in the forest:

 

"...One of the agents with a picket and a few of our blacks, armed for the purpose, was keeping guard over the ivory; but  deep within the forest, red gleams that wavered, that seemed to sink and rise from the ground amongst confused columnar shapes of intense blackness, showed the exact position of the camp where Mr. Kurtz's adorers were keeping their uneasy vigil. The monotonous beating of a big drum filled the air with muffled shocks and a lingering vibration. A steady droning sound of many men

chanting each to himself some weird incantation came out from the black, flat wall of the woods as the humming of bees come out of a hive, and had a strange narcotic effect  upon my half-awake senses...(p. 582)"

 

Then he suddenly finds that Kurtz has left the bed in his cabin, and proceeded  to crawl toward the rhythmic sounds in the jungle. Marlowe immediately takes off after him:    •

 

"...1 came upon him...He rose, unsteady, long, pale, indistinct, like a vapor exhaled by the earth, and swayed slightly, misty and silent before me...(p. 584)"

 

They engage in a passionate dialogue accompanied by the beating of the drums in the night:

 

' 1 had immense plans...l was on the threshold of great things/ he pleaded...! tried to break the spell­ the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness- that seemed to draw him to its piiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest...this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations...his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad: I had -- for my sins, I suppose- to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself...(p. 585,586)"

 

 

The next day the steamer leaves with Kurtz lying on a couch in the pilot  house. As they meander  down the river through the endless jungle, Kurtz attempts to explain himself  and his ambitious designs to Marlowe. One day he entrusts  Marlowe with a packet of papers and a photograph of his intended bride. Meanwhile, Marlowe is engaged in the exhausting task of keeping the steamer afloat:

 

"...lived in an infernal mess of rust, filings, nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers, ratchet  drills- things I abominate, because I don't get on with them. I tended the little forge we fortunately had aboard; I toiled wearily in a wretched scrapheap- unless I had the shakes too bad to stand...(p. 590)...0ne evening coming in with a candle I was startled  to hear him say...'l am lying here in the dark waiting for death.'...l saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride,of ruthless power, of craven terror- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?  He cried in a whisper...'The  horror! The horror!'...(p. 591)"

 

Kurtz dies and is buried. Marlowe returns  from the Belgian Congo, with its "Scramble for Africa" and its precious ivory, to the Thames of London and the commonplace exploitation of British capitalism:

 

"...1 found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other...They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew...(p. 593, 594)"

 

Marlowe receives visits from a representative of the company, who wishes to recover Kurtz's papers, a cousin of Kurtz, who informs  him that Kurtz was a great musician, and from a journalist colleague of Kurtz's, who claims Kurtz could well have become a great politician. Finally, he visits Kurtz's intended bride with the packet of letters and her photograph.

"...She came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards  me in the dusk...For her he had died only yesterday...We  sat down. I laid the packet gently on the little table, and she put her hand over it...'You knew him well,' she murmured...(p. 508,509)"

 

As they converse in the darkening drawing room, Marlowe is careful to conceal behind platitudes all the terrible knowledge he has of her intended. Finally, she pleads with him to repeat Kurtz's final words. Taken aback, he substitutes her own name for Kurtz's words: "The horror! The horror!"

 

Thus ends Marlowe's tale to his fellow  seamen as they gaze upon the Thames of London, "the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth...(p. 603)"

 

Adam Hochschild's, King Leopold's Ghost, provides valuable historical background to our story. The Congo Free State (1890-1910)  was a huge territory in Central Africa that during Conrad's visit employed the forced labor of Africans to rob them of their own country's ivory.  Three to five million Africans perished  during King Leopold's reign of terror. The Belgian authorities employed the kidnapping of women and children, physical torture, maiming and the merciless whipping of its laborers with the chicotte (a whip of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged corkscrew strip). When Africans attempted to defend themselves, they were massacred and their villages burned to the ground. Conrad later said of the Belgian Congo that it was "...the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience." But just as contemporary Imperialism evokes the economics of "nee-liberalism" to justify robbing poor countries  of raw materials and exploitation of their labor, and the politics of "humanitarian intervention" and the "War on Terror'' to justify its invasions, occupations and wars, so nineteenth-century Imperialism had its own ideological masks.

 

There were the economic benefits of "free trade"-- that somehow  accumulated only in the hands of the great European corporations, their owners and investors. Their version of "humanitarian intervention" was the "white man's burden". The colonial powers of Europe had come to "Christianize the heathen", "civilize the savage races", and to bring their religious and cultural treasures to the poor, benighted Africans. A nineteenth-century form of "lslamophobia" was the Europeans crusade to "smash the Arab slave trade". These former European slave traders were suddenly concerned about the enslavement of their African brothers and sisters. Finally, like the early settlers of the Americas and Palestine, nineteenth-century Europeans claimed Africa was a continent empty of inhabitants, eager for Europeans to colonize (yet another "land without people for a people without a land"). But how did a few thousand rule a continent of twenty million? like  Imperialists today, they employed the strategy of "divide  and rule"  and advanced Western technology.

 

The peoples of the Congo were divided into hundreds  of ethnic groups speaking numerous languages and dialects. Their bows and arrows and muskets could hardly compete with the European's breech­ loading rifles and machine guns. Medical science saved the Europeans, unlike the Africans, from malaria, hematuria and yellow fever. One of its earliest explorers, Henry Morton Stanley, prophesied that navigation of the Congo by steamboat  "will be the grand highway of commerce  to West Central Africa.(p. 55, King Leopold's Ghost)" Here was a thousand-mile transportation grid comprised of a navigable river with its chain of trading stations, each a combination of military base and collecting point for ivory.

 

But our primary concern in this essay is with Marlowe, not Kurtz. It is his view of the Imperialist system, not the psychopathology of an individual which is basic. 111Monsters exist," wrote Primo levi of his experience at Auschwitz. "But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More  dangerous are...the  functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions. (p. 121,King Leopold's Ghost)'" But who were the agents of Belgian colonialism and what enabled them to participate in this infernal system?      "

 

First, there was racism. Then, it was a different-colored skin and the belief that Africans were lazy brutes (today, substitute lslamophobia and immigrant bashing). They were mostly young single men out to "get rich quick", soldiers on leave from the Belgian or other European armies, or mercenaries. Many were from the lower classes, and their positions in Africa represented upward mobility and wealth. For some of these "soldiers of fortune" there was the opportunity to exercise power, amass ivory and possess their own African harem. In the interior of Africa there was no policeman looking over their shoulders: they could leave their moral scruples behind.

 

Conrad was a great artist, not a political thinker. There was no doubt inconsistency in his condemnation of Belgian colonialism, on the one hand, and  blind support for the British variety, on the other. But it is his work, Heart of Darkness, not the political limits of the man of which I write. By describing what he saw, he gave us one of literature's greatest indictments of Imperialism, an unflinching look at the horrors of the Belgian holocaust. For this we should be grateful, for, in his own words:

 

"My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel- it is, before all, to make you see. That- and no more, and it is everything...(p. 708,Preface to The Nigger of the "Narcissus")"

© 2015 By Mark Dickman