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Colonialism Role in the “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad Essay

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Updated: Feb 23rd, 2022

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad The Norton Critical Edition, 4th Edition. Edited by Paul B. Armstrong.


Colonialism can be viewed in three ways: from the colonizers’, from the colonized, and those who could be outside of both. Colonizers during the western exploration of the lands beyond Gibraltar pointed out noble reasons such as the spread of civilization and an advance culture for their seemingly insatiable conquests. Colonizers were viewed as having benefited from systems and government forms, as well as other scientific and knowledge advancements brought forth by the civilized colonizers.

And in the view of those who remain to be outside these two platforms, lies varying degrees of objective narration and untold pain and suffering of peoples, a minority that has been “victim” of revenge of ungrateful natives, and a majority that either disappeared en masse, suffered en masse, and of ignoramuses that deserved their lessons.

Conrad used a frame narrative where one character who sailed with the lead characters followed Charlie Marlow, a wandering seaman, narrating the story of Kurtz, the captain and Director of Companies in his adventures in Congo. All in all, there seem to be three personas for the narrator, all the more adding a blur on exactly pinpointing out whom of which the heart of the story pertains to. Nevertheless, this essay shall place the role of colonialism in this novella as an intended message of exploration on the evils of humanity and his so-called spread of civilization guised in colorful, albeit elegant wardrobe.


A lot of coined description had been made out of the character of Kurtz the captain of the ship, Director of the Companies that sailed and explored a part of Africa for ivories in the 18th century. Nevertheless, one is to be noted, that of which Tzvetan Todorov (1975) aptly placing Kurtz as the center of the story that symbolizes the “act of fiction, a construct based on a hollow center”. And yet, Katkin and Katkin (2004), examined the novella as one “problem of evil in an dominated by crimes against humanity: the Congo during the reign of the Belgian King Leopold. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, is based in part on the author’s experiences aboard the steamship Roi des Belges on the Congo River in 1890. The narrative contains three representations of evil: the base, primitive, perverse allure of lust and greed in the deepest recesses of the human psyche; evil at the heart of civilization and modernity; and the banal complicity of ordinary people whose silence and denial allows evil to prosper”.

The narrative described London, either as the greatest town on earth, as “been one of the dark places of the earth,” or monstrous, amidst the bounty of nature where heaven and water meets earth and the less domesticated nature as the yawl Nellie sailed by Thames. Marlow was with four friends Kurtz, an accountant, a lawyer and other who remained un-identified but was the main narrator, men who lived on or near the sea, honorable and accomplished gentlemen of the British Empire at its Victorian zenith. As observed by Kaitkin and Kaitkin (2004), it was the narrator, and not Marlow who was obviously compelled to propagate the story beyond the intimate circle of the ship to readers who may be aroused to some new course of critical moral thinking or action.

At one point, Marlow pictured an adventurous man who, since childhood had dreams of getting to places still then unknown, thus, “…when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there”.

Exactly as what ordinary men would, Marlow was an explorer, and adventurer who would not be intimated about the unknown, mysterious lands of far, far away. In fact, the lure was in the discovery of what lays ahead, as could be said about the early navigation competition of fleets from Portugal and Spain. Or even of the earlier famed Marco Polo.

The earlier presentation of a colonizer’s finer qualities in the novella started with the story of Dane Fresleven, known to Marlow as a captain of the Company who had a quarrel that arose from misunderstanding about two black hens where Fresleven suspected to be had in a bargain. Fresleven, as Marlow recounted, went ashore and hammer the chief of the village with a stick, and at the same time describe Fresleven to be “the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs…he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause…and probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way…”

In this manner, there obviously seem to be an injustice already done on Fresleven, and all the more graven when the captain, whom Marlow had to replace, died.

In a closer look, nevertheless, the death of Fresleven had the whole village “deserted, the huts gaped black, rotting, all askew within the fallen enclosures. A calamity had come to it, sure enough…” Of which earlier it also has to be noted that “The supernatural being had not been touched after he fell,” referring to Fresleven. There is the direct connotation between the white race, or agent of the colonizer, as the supernatural, and thus, congruently, the calamity had been caused, definitely by the supernatural: the whole village burned to the ground for the death of Fresleven.

As observed by Jean-Aubrey (1927), Marlow was filled with anger and indignation, fighting with an old native over two chickens. So much like the author Conrad himself, Marlow was changed by the experience of Africa and has become cynical as he returned to Europe, somber with knowledge of the world beyond of which it has become impossible to remain comfortable in what used to be known to him.

As generally understood, the group was of accomplished British gentlemen, so that when Kurtz himself, known to be universally charismatic man about whom his Intended (the unidentified woman who remained in England betrothed to Kurtz) says with unintended irony: “Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act. His example…” encounter with the primitive, Marlow asserts that Kurtz became savage in the “region of the first ages,” which is disconnected from the restraining impulses of civilization, untrammeled, without sidewalks, policemen or the restraining voices of neighbors and public opinion, containing only solitude and silence without the “holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums” putting contrast between savagery and civilization, representing the colonizer and the colonized.

Nevertheless, Marlow recounts that Kurtz himself had presided at “midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand—to Mr. Kurtz himself” indicating the subjugation Kurtz was able to accomplish on the natives of Congo. Kaitkin and Kaitkin (2004) commented, “This is a manifestation of evil more radical than the Faustian bargain with the devil; Kurtz falls into evil as some men into love” which is a direct opinion that the people and the culture of Africa were themselves evil, and that the agent of the colonizer has been induced or seduced to some effect to turn him into a new being from he was before.

It has to be noted, though, that Conrad’s Congo diaries indicate that he met brutal men such as Edmund Barttelot who bit, whipped, and murdered people, and Arthur Hodister who was famed for his harem of African women (Najder, 1978), Leon Rom described in the 17 December 1898 issue of The Saturday Review, as having had a collection of African heads on display “as a decoration round a flower-bed in front of his house!” (Hochschild, 1998, p 145).

Kaitkin and Kaitkin (2004), suggested that “The eccentricities and extreme behavior of these agents of European imperialism may well have left a powerful impression on Conrad’s memory and imagination. Furthermore, the trope, with its trip up the Congo to rescue Kurtz, arouses expectations of hidden horrors in the jungle darkness,” (p 590). This further suggests a separation of the former Kurtz from the new Kurtz, which, could be far from truth. While the environment generally affects an individual, a strong character remains as is, in the context of this novella, which Marlow failed to present.

It was further suggested that association of Kurtz’s radical evil with primitive subconscious elements of the psyche and exposure to the primitive conditions of Africa made it possible for Marlow (representing Conrad), to suggest that the greatest evil is not the cutting off of heads or hands or collecting these heads and hands as the European authorities did these systematically and on a grand scale (Hochschild, 1998) but on doing it in uncivilized rituals of lust and self-aggrandizement.

Kaitkin and Kaitkin (2004) rationalized that “the beginning of the twenty-first century, moral distinctions between the atrocities of savages and the atrocities of civilizations are impossible to justify. Heart of Darkness was written before the First World War, at a time when science, technology, and social institutions led not only to the ascendancy of the West, but also to belief in millennial progress. Only a few years later it became apparent that the blessings of the Enlightenment could be turned to aerial, mechanical, and chemical warfare. Before the twentieth century ended, modernity produced Auschwitz, atomic and hydrogen bombs, napalm, ethnic cleansing, and ecological disasters. We need not accept Marlow’s geography of hell that places Kurtz alone at the epicenter. For Adam Hochschild (1998) writing a century after Conrad, the central villain in the story of the Congo is the Belgian King Leopold—distant, patient, Christian, manipulating, technologically sophisticated—a thoroughly civilized and modern architect of power and wealth. Without impugning the quality of Heart of Darkness as it is, we may nevertheless observe that had Conrad fought the line of least resistance, the indictment of crimes against humanity committed in the name of the high civilization of Europe might have stood out in sharper relief to readers of his own and subsequent generations”.


Conrad presented the two faces of colonialism in the heart of darkness in the most objective way he could muster. In consideration of his being at that time, the presentation had been fair and innocent: agents of colonizers were human, that although previously been cultured in an advanced society, was still capable of change and influence of another. On the other hand, in the presumptive point of view as being the “superior” being or nature (due to knowledge advancements), the colonizer agents failed to consider the equality between human beings irrespective of race, color and culture.

Achebe (1994) neutralized Conrad’s one-sided innocence, but nevertheless, suggested another European generalization that Western culture and practice is way above “others” which is Africa in this context.

Colonialism seems to root from the very nature of man to conquer and subjugate. And from this emerges rationale that could be thwarted by the need to fulfill these manly desires spelled succinctly as “p-o-w-e-r” to this day. Colonialism, in Conrad’s novella is just one of the few threads that are interloped and remained un-raveled in the effort to define man and his desires. Although it remains as the most evil in all of the threads of the novella, Conrad seem to have failed to emphasize it.


  1. Achebe, Chinua (1994). Things Fall Apart. Anchor Hochschild, Adam (1998). KING LEOPOLD’S GHOST. The Saturday Review.
  2. Jean-Aubrey, G. (1927). JOSEPH CONRAD, LIFE AND LETTERS 141-43.
  3. Maier-Katkin, Birgit, Maier-Katkin, Daniel (2004). “At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes Against Humanity and the Banality of Evil”. Human Rights Quarterly – Volume 26, Number 3, pp. 584-604
  5. Okafor Clement Abiazem (1988). “Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe: Two Antipodal Portraits of Africa.” Journal of Black Studies 19 (1) 17-28.
  6. Todorov, Tzvetan. (1975) “Knowledge in the Void” (trans. By Putnam, Walter III.) Conradiana 21 (1989).
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