Unraveling the “Heart of Darkness”: The Racism Fueling European Colonialism
Marlow’s Glimpse: Brutality in the Congo
In Heart of Darkness, author Joseph Conrad portrays the systematic racism that drove European Colonialism of Africa, as any individual sympathizing with African humanity is discarded by the colonizers. Marlow, a retired colonizer, recounts his experience in the Belgian Congo while in the employ of the Company, a European trade group. Marlow relays the cruelty he witnessed Europeans commit as they plundered the continent, using weapons of war indiscriminately and leaving exploited African workers for dead.
During his travels, Marlow meets the General Manager of the Company, who notes that an independent trader in the area is competing with the Company and hurting profits. The General Manager elects to hang the trader should they meet. Later, Marlow meets a young Russian deserter who previously served several European colonies but had spent the last two years traveling the Congo alone.
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The Russian: Empathy Amid Colonial Ambitions
During the Russian’s travels, he had developed a familiarity with the continent and a respect for the natives rare to Europeans. Unlike the other Europeans in Africa for colonialization, he was not motivated by greed or desire for conquest. The Russians continued to trade in Africa, but they refrained from abusing the natives. Marlow realizes the Russian is an independent trader.
The General Manager marked for execution. The Russian is eventually driven away by the Company as they attempt to execute him. The Russian marks a departure from the racism that characterizes the European settlers, and the Company will not allow another party to detract from its goal of maximum profit at any cost. Because the Russian does not share the Company’s racist desire to exploit Africa, he is expelled from the area at threat of death. As the Company trekked the Congo, plundering resources and abusing natives, the systematic racism of European Colonialism was signaled when the tolerant Russian was driven away for obstructing the domination of Africa.
Chief Accountant: Cold Racism Exposed
As the Chief Accountant described his hatred of Africans, the racist attitude driving Colonialism is revealed at the top levels of the Company. “When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages hate them to the death.” Here, the Chief Accountant, an individual in a leadership role at the Company, unveils his naked hatred of Africans. He pairs “correct entries” with “hate.” In his mind, hating Africans is as justified as entering correct numbers into an accounting ledger. And this same attitude of cold, certain racism empowers the Europeans to commit horrors against the native population. At one point, Marlow witnesses a French warship leashing cannon fire onto the African coast. Shocked, Marlow asked what the purpose of such an attack was.
Warships & Abandoned Camps: Exploitation’s Trace
Immediately, a Company reassured him that there was a camp of Africans hidden in the foliage of the coast. The racist Company perceived no issue with the loss of African life associated with such a bombardment, but a potential tragedy could occur if the munitions and cannonballs were wasted. Here, the Company is valuing physical objects at a much higher worth than human life. The same attitude of indifference to human life is witnessed by Marlow again when he encounters an abandoned camp of African workers in an area depleted of resources.
The colonial group had compelled the natives to harvest all the valuables from their own land to be collected for European benefit, and then once the land could be no more stripped, they left the abused Africans to die. Both events substantiated the attitude of racism that fueled the terrible injustices inflicted by colonizers and created, for Marlow, a standard model of European greed and abuse.
Russian’s Ideals Clash with Company’s Greed
The Russian’s uncorrupted spirit of adventure and empathy for the African natives made him an anomaly among Europeans in Africa. “He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame.” (Chapter 2) Marlow here describes the Russian’s pure soul and honest desire for adventure, not motivated by greed or personal gain. Marlow says the Russians wanted nothing from Africa but to exist in it, a complete reversal of European colonizers’ desire for the wealth associated with dominating Africa.
Indeed, while the Company sought to rip as many resources as they could from African land, the Russian was ideologically isolated by his desire to just exist and experience Africa. While the Russians did trade in Africa, his appreciation for the continent and spiritual purity prevented him from abusing or exploiting the Africans or their land. Consequently, he was at odds with the Company, which did not tolerate any competition in their goal of maximum profit. After all, there is no need to exchange value with the natives when you can just compel their labor with force. The disruption caused by the Russian’s fair dealings with Africans angered the Company and led them to seek his execution.
The Russian’s empathy and fair dealings with Africans obstructed the Company’s domination of the Congo, and the Company’s impulse to extinguish tolerance displays the racism of European Colonialism.
“‘He suspected there was an active ill-will towards him on the part of these white men. ’
‘You are right, the manager thinks you ought to be hanged…’
‘I had better get out of the way quietly,’ he said earnestly…’
‘Well, upon my word,’ said I, ‘perhaps you had better go if you have any friends amongst the savages nearby.’
‘Plenty,’ he said. ‘They are simple people, and I want nothing, you know.’”
In Marlow’s final conversation with the Russian, the Russian declared himself a friend of the Africans and reiterated his complete lack of greed or malice. The Russians acknowledged African humanity and offered a rudimentary conception of equality. These beliefs put him in direct contest with the Company’s — and, by extension, European Colonialism’s ultimate view of black inequality that justified their abuse of Africans and plundering of the continent. The Russian’s expulsion by the Company due to his knowledge of African humanity confirms that the racist conception of black inhumanity fueled European Colonialism.
- Conrad, J. (1902). Heart of Darkness. Blackwood’s Magazine.