‘Heart of Darkness’, the Classic written by Joseph Conrad was published in 1899. Since its publication, ‘Heart of Darkness’ has stood as a mirror to imperial exploitation in Africa. The relevance and authenticity in the narrative stem from the fact that Conrad has drawn to his own experience as a sailor.
In 1890, Conrad’s wish to visit Africa materialized as his company employed him as Captain of a steamer. The position had fallen vacant as one of the captains was killed by the locals. Congo, at that time, had attracted Europeans by its prospects of ivory trading. During his stay of about six months, Conrad experienced the subjugation of locals, their troubles, sickness and death. These experiences are portrayed by Charles Marlow, the narrator of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ as he steps into the African heartland.
I took this book out of my shelf after about fifteen years. I had this book as part of my school syllabus. Beyond the literary dissection of a post-colonial book, I wanted to reread ‘Heart of Darkness’ for the sheer joy of reading.
Since this book was written a hundred and twenty years ago, it is a beautiful time-travel piece. While many academicians may differ on how skewed the picture of the local population of Congo is given, I think the book clearly follows a European’s perception of an unknown land. And, Conrad has done it in a balanced way from the imperial exploitation to the savagery of the locals and fear of the white men venturing into the unknown areas. There is never a dialogue between the two parties; it is mostly observation or one-sided incomprehensible communication. The book strictly restricted itself to sailors and locals without bringing any political discourse from either side (the political understanding of the time is solely dependent on our research of King Leopold, the Belgian monarch’s history).
‘Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘Come and find out.’
Charles Marlow, the young sailor aboard the Nellie, anchored in river Thames begins his story of a journey to the heart of a continent, Africa to the fellow sailors. He was appointed as the captain of the ship as one of the captains was killed in a fight with the natives. This captain called Fresleven had started to beat up the village chief over a row on hens that he had purchased. At first, the locals watched him but then something happened and Fresleven was dead. After the incident, in some fervent superstition, the whole village had vanished. It is indeed Conrad’s knack at writing which layers the narrative, placing Fresleven as one of the nicest and gentlest persons who had lived for a couple of years in Congo. Thus, the ruthless impulse of colonial superiority had raged inside him.
‘We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.’
Marlow recounts the travel by the steamer and the native villages on the banks of the river. Inadvertently, the natives were violent and hostile, the trace of white men and the boat evoked grief in them. The initial gloomy picture of sick and dying natives working at a railroad is juxtaposed with strongly-built natives living in the dense forests of Congo in the interiors.
Kurtz is an important character in the book, in-charge of a trading post who can supply ivory more than the total put together by all others. The build-up to this character is done so beautifully and Marlow is in awe of this man with super abilities. However, by the time Marlow can meet Kurtz, he is taken ill. Kurtz’s character is a revelation of white man’s relation with the natives, their beliefs, superstitions and legends and also, white man’s greed for amassing the valuables.
‘He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings – we approach them with the might as of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.’
This is an excerpt from the seventeen pager report entrusted to Kurtz by the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’. Thus, stating the European agenda of civilizing the native population.
With Kurtz, Conrad slightly inclines towards white man’s pain at acclimatizing in the African continent and suffering from physical and mental illnesses. Perhaps, Conrad wanted to show that mindless greed of imperialism was taking a toll on its own people that went unnoticed. And, maybe account for unreasonable atrocities on the natives by the European settlers. Kurtz is one European who has come closest to the native population and yet, he is the one who tops the list of ivory traders.
Simply put, ‘Heart of Darkness’ is Marlow’s travel piece to Congo. The book entices you with the portrayal of white prisoners taken for work in the African heartland, the native African community, some perceived cannibals and Europeans in Africa in the late twentieth century.
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