Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is not a piece I would typically read or pick out on my own, but after reading I feel it is one everyone should be required to read. To be brutally honest, mainly with myself, I was complacent to the as Kurtz said ‘the horrors’ happening down in the Congo in the late 1890’s early 1900’s. The thought that so many times through my school years we would hear about ‘racism’ and the Holocaust, but not British Imperialism in the Congo is disheartening. After watching a short clip of a BBC documentary (see below to watch) of the treatment of the African natives during the times of British Imperialism I can’t help but to ask myself who’s really the savage, and who’s civilized.
In the beginning of the quest Marlow is on a strict business venture to travel to see the world and had no desire to embark on the mission to ‘civilize’ the Congo, or become part of King Leopold II’s Company. Only to turn a blind eye from what he witnessed as the vessel sailed further into the Congo was easier said than done for Marlow. At the Company’s outer station Marlow sees six black men yoked together and knows they ‘could not be called enemies, nor were they criminals”. (Greenblatt) Is starving, beating, and creating a forced human labor force out of really helping them to become civilized??? Even Marlow thought ““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.” (Greenblatt) To think that because someone looks or lives differently than we’re accustomed to is no grounds for the treatment these humans received. The sad part is while the term ‘racism’ was not coined until WWII, the Holocaust, nor the Congo in the early 1900’s were the first to face this ‘civilization’. Look at the founding of America. The English came over to this land to start a new colony, and benefit from the riches the land may possess only they came to find Native Americans already here. While the civilization was from what is in history books not as brutal as cutting hands off in the Congo I think just the name Trail of Tears tells the tale of how the natives were treated. Or even go back to Egyptian times when the Israelites were slaves. Over and over again we as humans seem to think that we need to ‘better’ and ‘civilize’ other cultures that are not like us.
Back many moons ago, I took a class on western religions and spiritualities, and we were offered some extra credit for attending an Indian gathering in Lima, OH, so of course I went. I am in no way embarrassed to say I was uncomfortable and didn’t understand the dances, howling, and culture much like the African natives Marlow saw, but I never once looked at any Indian there and in my heart said ‘savage’.
Really the fact that the Europeans serving in the Company felt the need to chain, and brutalize the natives makes us the savages. A couple weeks back I wrote a blog on “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and many of the principles discussed then apply now. The Europeans, and Belgiums under King Leopold II, were Dr. Jekyll letting Mr. Hyde hide its wicked ways in the Congo. For years the horrors in the Congo were unknown to society in England. There were no moral Dr. Jekyll checking on Mr. Hyde’s whereabouts and desires. The id’s or the darkness of the hearts was coming to surface where no one could see, it or the other’s around had the same darkness.
To be civilized to me while technically is to have high levels of culture and development, the natives were plenty civilized. They had their tribes where they had systems of hunting, trading, and providing. There was no savagery about the communities until outsiders decided they ultimately needed a way for the selfish Hyde’s inside to make right the wrong they were committing. Cedric Watts, Research Professor of English Literature at the University of Sussex, claims in his analysis of “Heart of Darkness” “Society saves us from corruption but is also corrupt”. While we need society to survive, it can also lead to the desire to feel the other’s are less than ourselves and that we can exploit or harm them to get our selfish wants and desires. Question is are we as humans learning from our mistakes?
Watts, Cedric. "Heart of darkness." Bloom’s modern critical interpretations: Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness (2008): 19-35.
Greenblatt, S. and Robson, C. (n.d.). The Norton anthology of English literature