European Imperialism and the colonial expansion of the 19th and 20th centuries were met with a great deal of criticism. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness offers a vivid description of the brutality and exploitation that imperialism manufactured. Through the narration Marlow’s journey up the Congo River and into the heart of Africa, Conrad reveals his central critique and his understandings of the notions of civilization, Christianity, and commerce. Similarly to Conrad, J. A. Hobson criticized imperialism for the negative impacts brought fourth. Both writers address commerce and exploitation and the negative effects of these..
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is centered around the notions and understandings of what it is to be “civilized”. The aspect of restraint is something that Marlow seems to be obsessed with. The natives show their self control while the white men who come to the Congo lack self-restraint but exhibit unrestrained greed and impulsivity. Conrad debunks the idea that the natives lack restraint and culture because their society is not as developed as those in Europe. Instead, he attributes restrain to the natives and not the Europeans, displaying his opposition to an idea that was used to justify imperialism and colonization.
The natives, some of whom are cannibals, show their perpetual self-restraint, which Marlow finds extremely surprising because of his pre-conceived notions of the savagery of Africans. The natives do not eat human meat in front of Marlow, instead they take his uneasiness with cannibalism into account and bring hippo meat. Unfortunately, their supply of Hippo meat runs out and they are forced into starvation. Marlow admires their self control and ability to avoid eating other humans in the white men’s presence, even in the midst of extreme hunger. Although they have food in front of them to eat, they know their limitations.
Conrad writes: “Don’t know you the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true. And these chaps too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint! (Conrad, p. 146)” Adversely, Conrad uses Kurtz as a prime example of self-indulgence and debauchery that existed in the white “civilized” men.
Marlow’s journey through the Congo reveals the falsity in the idea of being civilized. Instead, he finds it to be superficial and changeable depending on circumstance, When someone, from a civilized society, is submerged into a land without rules and regulations, their inner truth is revealed and the veil of sophistication is lost. Kurtz is the most prominent example of how without restraint, a civilized man can lose his ability to refrain from savage impulses. He represents what every man will become if he is left to indulge in his desires without limitation or restriction.
Kurtz’s savage behaviors increasingly dominate him until the end of his life. Marlow learns of his strange and primitive behaviors, such as of human sacrifice and shrinking the heads of natives. When Marlow encounters these shrunken heads, it is revealed there is no true value for them being there, other then a representation that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts (pg. 164)”. He is submerged into a place where he is the most superior being and there is no limitation to the resources at his disposal. He loses touch with reality and gains a sense of entitlement to everything around him.
Therefore, when Marlow calls the heart of Africa, “the heart of darkness” it is not because of the natives, but rather what the western men, like Kurtz, bring to Africa and the darkness which they unleash themselves upon this land and its people. They are the ones who lose all self control and any sense of previous restraint and civilization. The natives are the victims of the darkness which the western men bring fourth. Conrad criticizes Christian morals and beliefs by providing examples of its fallacies and hypocrisy. Many westerners used Christianity as a justification for the exploitation of other cultures.
If a place was without Christianity, it was without civilization. Therefore, it was their “right” and “duty” to spread their beliefs and covert others in order to help them develop. The hypocrisy of this is found in the basic fundamentals that Christianity is based on, all of which are neglected in the process of imperialism. The pilgrims are missionaries who represent the Conrad’s beliefs in their actions towards the natives. Their cruel treatment and lack of compassion for the natives shows the inhumanity of imperialism and the belief that missionaries were helping rather then harming.
Instead of being focused on spreading religion and helping, which is supposed to be their mission, it becomes clear that they are only concerned with their own advances and self greed for profit like everyone else.. In Marlow’s first encounter with the pilgrims, he writes: “Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.
To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe. (Conrad, pg. 133)” The pilgrims become characterized the same as many of the other white western men, greedy and only concerned with selfish advances. When Marlow is with both with the pilgrims and the cannibals, he finds greater appreciation and respect with the cannibals.
Not only is the critique of Christianity evident, but religion as a whole. He attributes the creation of religion as a hierarchical system that is associated ith selfishness. This can be seen in the creation of Kurtz as a god. Conrad uses Kurtz power and influence among the natives to show the forcing of religion and belief of Europeans to their colonized people. Because of Kurtz unlimited power among the natives and their worship of him, he is able to sway their beliefs and influence their actions in order to serve him. The relationship between Kurtz and the Africans is unequal and he is of much higher superiority and value. When losses touch with Christianity and the rest of the company, he falls deeper into his false reality.
He becomes a false god himself among the native people and creates his own cult. Conrad, on several occasions, references Jove while talking about Kurtz. Jove, according to mythology, refers to the god Jupiter, who was considered superior to the rest of the divine pantheon. The link between Kurtz and Jupiter lays within their untamed and unrestricted power. Imperialism takes root in the greediness of men who seek to exploit land and people for the benefit of their own country or self. Conrad’s novella depicts how the high value of Ivory contributed to colonization and the affects of this on both the colonizers and the colonized.
Ivory becomes a symbol of greed, exploitation, and destruction more then an actual resource in Conrad’s writing. It is the reason Kurtz has gained so much wealth and prominence. The pilgrims, mangers and agents in the Company are all obsessed with ivory. They worship it and becomes a beacon of hope to one day achieve great success and wealth like Kurtz has. However, in their search they abandon all morals and self-control in effort to acquire the resource.
“The word ivory rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it (Conrad, pg. 25)”. Imperialism was driven by the desire for resources like this to gain profit for England and other imperialist countries without care for the country which suffered at their expense. Marlow encounters many different situations of the exploitation of the native people and sees the pain and suffering. “They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.
Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on familiar food, they sickened, became inefficient and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. (Conrad, 118)”. Conrad compares their suffering and desperation to the company’s chief accountant that is dressed as a “hairdresser’s dummy” (Conrad, 119). The huge difference between the descriptions clearly shows the disconnect between those who take and those who are taken from. Kurtz provides the best example of Africans being used as mere objects rather then actual humans.
He is honest and does not deny th oppression and dehumanization that he inflicts. Conrad uses Marlow to counteract this notion and provide a western individual who sees the humanity in the natives when no one else seems to. “They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar (Conrad, 139)”. Through Marlow’s account, the exploitation of the natives is evident.
His encounters with these people and the reactions of the various white men and their disdain for them is opposed by Marlow. By doing so, Conrad not only portrays the horrors that the Africans endured, but also the impact it had on the western men. By taking advantage of these people and allowing themselves to treat them in whatever evil way they those, they lose their morals. Kurtz, for example, was at the forefront of the ivory trade, his power, greed, and arrogance developed into a false sense of reality and growing brutishness.
The sympathy of Marlow emphasizes the cruelty and harshness of the other characters. Upon Marlow’s return from Africa and Kurtz death, he visits Kurtz’s fiance to give her the letters which Kurtz left him. As he walks into the extravagant house, the piano catches his eye. The piano, with ivory keys, is a symbol of how the western world benefits. Europeans like Kurtz’s fiance do not understand or choose not to see the cost of having imports like this from Africa. However, Marlow knows the truth worth and the damage that is caused in order for Europeans to have these luxuries.
Hobson’s Imperialism, much like Conrad in the Heart of Darkness, exposes the true motivation behind imperialism. Instead of supporting the false pretense of the westerners need to educate, spread religion and assist other countries and enlighten other races, they recognize it is for mere financial purposes. “An ambitious statesman, a frontier solider, an overzealous missionary, a pushing trader, may suggest or even initiate a step of imperial expansion, may assist in educating patriotic people public opinion to the urgent need of some fresh advance, but the final determination rests with the financial power (Hobson, 16)”.
Correspondingly, some of the individuals that Hobson mentions are at the forefront of Conrad’s plotline. Conrad’s characterization of the pilgrims, Kurtz, and the agents in the Company all serve to present this notion and expose the neglect for any decent mission they have in order to serve their own monetary advancement with the ivory trade. Both writers agree on the the incentives of imperialism and the falsity behind the propaganda that promotes a noble cause. Although J. A. Hobson and Conrad are in agreement with the onset of imperialism, they focus on two different effects.
Hobson does not think all the aspects of imperialism have to be negative and realizes the profit that a nation can acquire by imperial expansion. Instead, it is because individual greed and corruption that entire nation is unable to reap the benefits: “A people limited in number and energy and in the land they occupy have the choice of improving the utmost political and economic management of their own land, confining themselves to such accessions of territory as are justified by the most economical disposition of a growing population; or they may proceed, like the slovenly farmer, to spread their power and nergy over the whole earth, tempted by the speculative value or the quick profits of some new market, or else by mere greed of territorial acquisition, and ignoring the political and economic wastes and risks involved by this imperial career (Hobson, 18)”.
He critiques the aspects of commerce within imperialism like Conrad does, but he focuses more on the negative effect economically speaking for the mother country, rather then the effect it has on each individual’s moral standing. Hobson addresses how only a small group profit rather then the vast majority.
Manufacturers and traders suffer while private investors prosper. The issue with this is the unequal holdings of wealth and the failure of distribution among the entire work force. The public interest is disregarded and the majority of people do not have access to the same market. Hobson’s critique relies on the imbalance of classes. Conrad shows how imperialism and the exploration of a foreign land without regulations cause western men to lose their ability of selfrestraint and therefore over indulge in the new-found liberation.
He finds the faults of imperialism in the impairment and destruction of restraint and the expanding of man’s underlying bestiality. Joseph Conrad’s account into the heart of Africa display the issues of what it means to be civilized, the fallacy of Christianity, and the greed of commerce. The characterization of these characters and their relationship to the natives and each other is what allows readers to understand Conrad’s critique.
Like Hobson, Conrad understands the incentive behind imperialism and the violation of noble causes in order to further financial progress. Hobson takes a more economical stance of the affects of imperialism and concentrates on the economic impacts it has on the different classes within Europe. While Conrad displays the dangers it has in the exploitation of Africans and the exploitation of western morals, Hobson provides an account of the economic havoc it reaps on the lower classes in Europe.