Friday, November 19, 2010

In what way is Heart of Darkness a denunciation of the white colonizers’ economic exploitation of the native population of the Congo?

White Imperialism, Only One of the Several Themes
Heart of Darkness is a short novel, and yet it has several themes. It is indeed strange that such a short book should deal with so many themes.
There is in this book the theme of self-restraint. Then there is the theme of the working of the sub-conscious mind of man. There is the theme of the exploration of a little-known continent. There is the theme of the influence of barbarism and primitivism on a civilized man when he is cut off from civilized society. And there is, of course, the obvious theme of the imperialist exploitation of a backward country. Thus Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece which, in its brief compass, deals with a number of important ideas. Conrad’s treatment of the theme of white imperialism was influenced by his own visit to the Congo and his exploration of that dark country; and his rendering of Marlow’s conscious and sub-conscious thoughts was also based upon his own reactions to what he had himself witnessed in the course of his travels through the Congo.
Marlow’s Reference to the Ancient Roman Conquest of Britain
The keynote of the theme of imperialism is struck at the very outset of Marlow’s narration. Marlow speaks at the very beginning of the ancient Roman conquest of Britain, and says that the ancient Romans were conquerors using brute force. The ancient Romans, says Marlow, grabbed what they could get. Their conquest of Britain was “robbery with violence”; and the violence in this case meant murder on a large scale. The conquest of another country, says Marlow, mostly means the taking away all things from those who have a different complexion or who have flatter noses than the conquerors have. Such a conquest is unpardonable. What can, however, excuse such a conquest is the idea at the back of it: not a sentimental pretence but an idea, and an unselfish belief in the idea. What Marlow here wishes to say is that conquest can be excused only if the conquerors perform some constructive work in the backward country which they have conquered. Marlow here does not use the phrase “the white man’s burden;” but he has evidently that concept in his mind. The white man certainly has a duty to the savages whom he dues, and whom he begins to govern. The test of the white man’s intentions lies only in his performance of this duty. If he fails in this duty, his government of the backward countries cannot be justified.
Ivory a Symbol of Imperialist Greed and Commercial Mentality
Marlow’s (or Conrad’s) experiences in the Congo clearly show that the white man there had failed to perform his functions. Instead of civilizing the savages, the white men who went there became exploiters, pure and simple. The Congo was at that time being governed by the Belgian King, Leopold II; and the Belgian trading companies were sending their agents into the Congo for trading purposes. The chief commodity which these Belgians found worth their pains was ivory. Ivory was of no use to the natives, themselves, while the white men collected ivory and sent it to Europe where it could profitably be used for the making of numerous ornamental articles. Now, as we go through this book, we find that ivory is being constantly mentioned. Ivory dominates the thoughts of the manager of the Central Station, the thoughts of the brick-maker, the thoughts of the several white agents who loiter around the Central Station and to whom Marlow gives the name of “faithless pilgrims.” Subsequently we find that ivory not only dominates the thoughts of Mr. Kurtz but has become an obsession with him. The manager of the Central Station tells Marlow that Mr. Kurtz collects more ivory than all the other agents taken together; and the Russian tells Marlow that, on one occasion, Mr. Kurtz had threatened to kill him if he did not surrender to Mr. Kurtz a small quantity of ivory which the Russian had received as a gift from a native tribal chief. Thus ivory becomes a symbol in the book. Ivory symbolizes the white man’s greed and the white man’s commercial mentality. The white man’s chief concern in the Congo is to collect ivory and send it to Europe. The greater the ivory collected by an agent, the greater is his achievement in the eyes of his employers, and the higher is the promotion which he can expect Ivory, becomes a source of revenue to the trading company which can, therefore, afford to invest a lot of money in sending its agents into the Congo. Nowhere do we find any mention of any service being rendered by these white men to the natives of the Congo.
The White Man’s Callousness Towards the Natives
The sights seen by Marlow, when he has got down from the Swedish captain’s steamer, are of a very depressing kind. These sights depict the wretchedness and the misery of the natives of the Congo, and the sheer futility of the white man’s seemingly useful work. Marlow sees a lot of black people, mostly naked, moving about like ants. Later he sees half a dozen men chained. to one another, and each wearing an iron collar on his neck. These men are criminals, who have violated the laws and are being _punished with hard labour under the orders of the white rulers of the country. Marlow feels deeply upset to see this sight. Going further, he sees black figures crouching under the trees, leaning against the trunks, and clinging to the earth. These men, says Marlow, were dying slowly. These men were not enemies; they were not criminals; they were only black figures representing disease and starvation, and lying in a state of confusion in the gloom of the trees. Here Marlow feels as if he has entered into the gloomy circle of some inferno. Now, it is made obvious to us that the white man’s indifference and his unconcern are responsible for this state of affairs. These sights have been described by Marlow in order to convey to us the callousness of the white man towards the natives.
A Waste of Time and Effort By the White Man : No Rivets
Accompanying all these sights are a few others which clearly indicate the hypocrisy of the white men who are simply wasting time and effort to show that some kind of constructive work is going on. There is a project to build a railway line in this region. But Marlow sees that a rock is being blasted with gunpowder even though this rock does not stand as an obstruction in the way of the railway line. Likewise, he sees a boiler lying unused in the grass. Then he comes upon some pieces of decaying machinery, and a large heap of rusty rails. Similarly, before landing here, Marlow had seen a warship anchored close to the land, and firing its guns into the forest aimlessly. Marlow had found a touch of madness in this firing of guns to no purpose at all. Outwardly, of course, the warship was frightening away the savages; but actually it was merely a waste of ammunition. This waste of effort and the unused machinery lying in the grass offer a sharp contrast to the starving natives. The whole effort of the white man is completely misdirected. It is a sad commentary on the efficiency of the white man that Marlow should not be able to get any rivets to repair the wrecked ship for weeks when these are needed badly.
The Meanness and Pettiness of the White Colonizers
The futility of the white man’s endeavours in the dark country called the Congo becomes even more evident when we meet certain employees of the trading Company which has sent Marlow here. The manager of the Central Station has been described by Marlow in scathing terms. Marlow makes us despise this man who could inspire neither respect nor love nor fear, and who could inspire only uneasiness. Marlow found nothing within this man. Marlow’s description of the brick-maker is equally satirical and critical. He describes the brick-maker as a “papier-mache Mephistopheles” because of this man’s cunning. The brick-maker is here, but he makes no bricks. His function is to act as a spy for the manager. The men, who are loitering around the Central Station, are idlers having no work to do but only to gossip, to speak ill of one another, and to hatch intrigues. When the manager’s uncle turns up as the leader of an exploring expedition, he turns out to be a seasoned schemer and plotter. The manager’s mind is full of fear lest he should be superseded by Mr. Kurtz. If such are the colonizers in the dark continent of Africa, what possible benefit can they confer upon the savages there? Conrad conveys his strong disapproval and disapprobation of these white, men to us most effectively, so that we begin to look upon these white men with the greatest possible contempt.
The Shabby Treatment, Meted Out to the Black Crew
It is equally disgusting for us to watch the manner in which the cannibal crew of Marlow’s steamer are being treated by the white owners of the steamer. The cannibal crew are most efficient, hard-working, and sturdy fellows who deserve every possible encouragement. But the pity of it is that they are not fed properly. It goes to the credit of the cannibal crew themselves that they are exercising self-restraint and are not attacking the white men on board the steamer in order to kill them and eat their flesh. Thus the white men, led by the manager, are absolutely unconcerned about the welfare of the very men on whose labour and toil they depend. Without this cannibal crew the steamer could not have gone ahead at all; and yet the white bosses do not bother whether or not these men are properly fed.
The Lamentable Failure of Mr. Kurtz to Uplift the Savages
Even Mr. Kurtz, who has begun to identify himself with the savages, and who had at one time held that the white man should confer huge benefits upon the backward people, has done nothing for the uplift of the natives. Instead of improving their mode of life, he has himself become a savage in their company. He has miserably failed to exercise any self-restraint, and has begun to satisfy his various lusts without any limit. Even in his prime of life, when he had supported the view about the white man’s civilizing role, he had written down the following words conveying an opposite message: “Exterminate all the brutes.” In fact, Mr. Kurtz has now become brutalized, and even dehumanized. Such is the irony of the achievement of Mr. Kurtz who had once upon a time believed that the white man could prove himself to be the Messiah of the natives.
Conrad’s Exposure of the Belgian Imperialist Rule
Heart of Darkness conveys to us in a ‘nutshell the deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-trading, and general policy of cruelty of the Belgian rule in the Congo. There is an incident of fire in the story, and there is the long trek during which the natives have to carry a heavy load on their heads in the service of their white masters. The portrayal of the Company’s chief accountant is in itself a grim commentary upon the white man who can afford to dress flawlessly when the natives around are disease-stricken and starving. (Marlow of course admires this man but to us this admiration seems to be ironical). Indeed, in this novel the brutal futility of the Belgian imperialist rule is memorably captured in image after image: a natural ravine is clogged with a wanton smash-up of imported drainage-pipes; and the grass grows through the ribs of a trader’s corpse in a village abandoned in panic upon his accidental killing, colonialist and local community destroyed equally by their encounter.
The Wider Implications of This Novel
We can go so far as to say that Conrad is here not only exposing the hollowness and the weaknesses of the Belgian imperialist rule over the Congo but also indirectly reminding us of British imperialism in various countries of the world of his time. Today the picture-of the world is widely different from what it was in Conrad’s time. Today white imperialism has crumbled; and most of the countries of Asia and Africa have become independent. But in Conrad’s time all the African countries were still a part of the dark continent, and most of the Asian Countries were being governed by their white rulers, chiefly the British. Therefore his picture of imperialist misrule and callousness in, the backward countries had in those days an undeniable relevance. Conrad’s denunciation of imperialist rule in the Congo had a valuable message for both the exploiters and the exploited. Today, of course, this message has only a historical interest. Now all the subject-countries have become independent, though independence has brought new problems for them. The evil of imperialist rule has ended, but other evils have come into existence.

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