“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.” (Conrad, 14). Images such as these were not uncommon in the deep, dense forests of the African continent during the empirical reign of Western Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Ideologies that had very little fluctuation among these empires sought to gain territory through the forced rule of African peoples. Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, embraced the ideals behind colonial expansion in order to relay the uncovered “heart of darkness” behind the cruel and intentional battering of the “uncivilized culture” of Africa.
Throughout the entire book, Conrad increasingly seeks to provide a complete and thorough picture of the reality behind colonial imperialism, not just the reality the African people are facing, but also the reality the empirical leaders are encountering. The physical aspect of imperial rule in Africa took its toll on the working population of laborers. The physical conditions were horrendous and physically tested the strength and endurance of the population.
This reality competes with the ideas presented in Ruyard Kipling’s work, “White Man’s Burden” where in which he explains and clarifies why the colonial rule of the day was thought to be right and glorious. Justification through glorification is the approach Kipling chooses in order to explain the common and accepted view of imperialism during this era. Conrad on the other hand, chooses to use the actuality of the situation in order to reveal the truth behind colonial expansion concerning the British. Describing the atrocious environment, Conrad portrays a vivid picture of the real life situation of most of the African continent. “…they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.” (Conrad, 14).
Along with physical abuse caused by the European intruders, physiological and mental abuse was another extreme reality prevalent in this new system of rule. Ignoring this reality, Europeans disregarded this side affect of their presence in Africa. Mostly due to the extreme change in the way their society functioned in the world, Africans were mentally scarred and bruised by the superior European head. African peoples were molded into the shape the Europeans saw them as, complete savages who were considered of lower status than the western population due to its inability to industrialize and take part in the new, modern culture of the West. Conrad describes how the Europeans viewed Africans as lazy and incompetent inhabitants that could not handle the process in which to become “civilized”.
This constant ideal that ran through the words and actions of the British crushed the spirits of the Africans as part of a social and cultural breakdown of African society in order to control the territory. This ethnocentric mindset of the British became the single most important feature of the unsaid “right to rule”. The physiological impact was a small, invisible and intangible issue that the Europeans were willing to overlook
Looking at the side of the average imperial-ruled African, one cannot help but see the reality and affects of empire on the ones that consequently ruled such a kingdom. The idea of ruled vs. the ruler was an aspect that Conrad chose to include in his novel. The brutal and heartless acts of Kurtz displays the reality of how power, wealth, and prestige can affect the well being of an individual. By showing this bare boned idea of a cruel ruler, Conrad relays the message of reflective harshness based on the idea that just as colonial imperialism greatly affected the mental state of the African people, it also indirectly, but greatly affected the psychological condition of the British rulers and leaders.
By viewing other unindustrialized cultures as savage or inferior, the British Empire attempted to grant some validity and right reasoning to the expansion of colonial territory. By providing the solid example of the ideals and notions that Western Europeans endorsed, both Kipling and Conrad reveal the common stereotypes of the West. Conrad proves this commonality in the exposed reality of a superior mindset by providing a vivid backdrop of actual events that were taking place deep inside the heart of Africa and were not quickly exposed to the rest of the world.
Although these stereotypes may be proven true in some cases, one must question the historical backbone of an idea or concept painted by a novelist. Although the brutality and harshness existed in Africa due to the extreme idea of ethnocentricity produced by the British, one must view the original situation of the African community before the point of imperial rule by force. Jan Vansina, author and historian, has uncovered the original condition of the African continent prior to European imperial rule. Although Conrad paints a vivid and accurate portrait of what imperial rule did to the interior of Africa, the situation beforehand was not touched upon. Because of certain occurrences such as the slave trade and coastal trade and travel, the Africans had created an intense and extensive trade network between themselves as well as other people groups. Vansina described the situation and explained how in places such as Congo “commerce had already led to regional economic specialization…” (Vansina, 383). With this in mind, we may contrast the idea of European influence on the continent and reevaluate the situation that existed before the Europeans completely ruled Africa. Caused by the centuries of extensive trade and movement, African coastal ports had already begun their own intensive trade routes for centuries past. The European presence just amplified that aspect and used that feature as an advantage to themselves. By just extending and industrializing the trade routes, Europeans were able to ship goods and commodities out of Africa in order to gain power and economic control of the territory.
Politically, Africa became an intense situation and for the extended time it occurred, many actualities were hidden in order to protect the “right to rule” and protect their economic interests. Conrad chiefly displays the stereotypes of European rule as well as revealing the harshness and reality of new imperialism as it became known to the rest of the world during the age of the intense “Scramble for Africa”.