Horror of Imperialism

Horror of Imperialism


World literature never fails to fascinate the readers with the acuteness of its reaction to the contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Similarly, the assertiveness of colonial policies became the leitmotif of numerous works at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thus, artistic figures played a significant role in raising the huge wave of criticism against European colonization. They highlighted, explained, and exemplified the magnitude of brutality and amorality, frequently exhibited by colonizers. Published in 1902, Heart of Darkness contains the harsh criticism against the colonial expansion. In his novella, Joseph Conrad vividly depicted the horror of European imperialism that had a devastating effect on the local population and colonizers. 

Outer Features of Colonization

Joseph Conrad gravely condemns the outer manifestations of imperialism that include wastefulness, oppressiveness, and dehumanization. Historically, the Belgium colony of Congo had several distinguishing features due to inefficient management. The lack of resources forced King Leopold II of Belgium to impose labor tax and concession companies in order to establish strict control over the export of ivory, copal, and white rubber, while turning the colony into a slave plantation (Hawkins 290). The same reason explains the underdeveloped infrastructure and currency system as well as the numerous casualties among the native population. For example, upon his arrival to Congo, the novella’s main character, Marlow, found a series of abandoned items, including “a boiler wallowing in the grass,” a broken railway-truck and “a stack of rusty rails” (Conrad 22). Moreover, the colonizers overly neglected the implementation of currency. Thus, Europeans and the local population used pieces of brass wire to “buy their provisions… in riverside villages” (Conrad 67). The absence of the standard monetary and transport system were the illustration for the inefficiency of Belgium’s imperial policy, whereas the exploitation of the enslaved laborers in the production of Congo’s natural resources was the primary goal of the European invaders. In fact, the brutality of slaveholders reached the highest level of absurdity. The truthfulness of the assertion is evident from the vivid pictures of the wasteful deaths among the African slaves in Congo. According to Marlow, the everyday casualties were almost a normal occurrence and a sign of “a permanent improvement” (Conrad 30). It was another example of the deep indifference of European settlers toward the fate of the subdued population. Evidently, the invaders had little interest in upholding the self-sufficiency of their colony.

Meanwhile, a weak administrative policy was accompanied with the implementation of oppressive methods and a gradual dehumanization of newcomers. The story exemplifies the adverse effects of colonization on the native culture. It accurately highlights the inconsistencies between the proclaimed intentions to present the indigenous population with the benefits of civilization and the reality of imperialism. In Hawkins’ words, the proclaimed agenda essentially prompts cruel exploitation instead of cultivating well-educated individuals (295). The assertions suggest the staggering ignorance of European colonizers, manifested in their incapability to admit the uniqueness of African culture. Moreover, the process of cultural elimination occurred in two ways. One of them was skill-oriented education. Thus, colonizers methodically removed black workers from the tribal surroundings only to provide the slaves with the basic instructions, aimed at turning them into the useful tools of hard labor (Conrad 60). In the extreme cases, ruthless oppression resembled the forced captivity. Thus, in a highly detailed manner, the novella illustrated the pack of six black men, each of whom “had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain” (Conrad 23). Both examples strongly highlight the deep discrepancy between the idea of cultural advancement and the sorrowful reality of enslavement.

At the same time, the direct involvement in the process of colonization rendered European colonists equally damaged. As the narration unfolds, the readers meet the chief accountant of the Company, whose neat appearance has a striking contrast to the grave picture of deadly ill Africans (Conrad 27). His neglectful complaints about the distracting groans of diseased persons are equally disturbing (Conrad 28). The character seems to embody the total lack of humility regarding the sufferings of enslaved population. Similarly, this exclamation deprives the African population of the status of human being and reduces their value to the corrupted product. Their identities appear lost in the chaotic commotion that consists of a “dusty niggers with splay feet” and “heads, things, buildings” (Conrad 27). The evidence suggests that imperialism has a destructive effect on each participant of the process – the colonizers and slaves.

Central Traits of Imperialism

Historically, brutality, heartlessness, and corruption were central features of European colonization. On numerous occasions, Conrad expresses hostile criticism against the imperialistic ambitions of white invaders. The author justly compared Belgian expansionists with Roman conquerors who “were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze,” while their strength arose “from the weakness of others” (Conrad 8). Therefore, the entire campaign was “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale” (Conrad 8). The unflattering comparison strikes with the staggering resemblance to Congolese history. Apart from enslavement, the invasion brought significant devastation to the country and massive extermination of the native population. Upon his arrival, Marlow dutifully recounts his first impression about the crowds of dying black slaves (Conrad 25). The unfamiliar food, starvation, and diseases rendered dozens of forced workers useless who had been abandoned to wait for their death in the dark holes and beneath the trees (Conrad 25).

 Later on, the author uncovers the true nature of imperialism, manifested in the merciless violence against savage population. Conrad makes the audience sympathize with the unjustly abused Africans by admitting the absence of any legal and moral grounds for this abuse. The author acknowledges the overall absurdity and arrogance of European invaders by calling their tendency to ignore “this suspicion of their not being inhuman” (Conrad 58) the gravest mistake of the white conquerors. The assertion had a tremendous effect on the literary critiques. Thus, Raskin justly calls the suggestion revolutionary since it translates the Belgian imperialism into the heartless violence against man instead of the inferior subclass of human beings (121). While the post-colonial rhetoric is not new for the modern readers, it could have been a novelty for  society at the beginning of the 20th century. The author promotes the new understanding of imperialism as the pitiless extermination of a weaker nation.

The brutal strength and amorality eventually led to the corruption of colonial administration despite the seemingly noble intentions. It is evident from the ongoing competition within the trading company. Marlow became the involuntary witness of a confidential conversation, as two relatives essentially conspired to remove the mysterious Mr. Kurtz from his notable position (Conrad 52). According to the uncle’s admission, “anything can be done in this country” (Conrad 52). This assertion seems to refer to the overall remoteness of the colony from civilization as well as the absence of any moral boundaries, making it the environment appealing for the cultivation of greed and selfishness. Meanwhile, Mr. Kurtz exhibits similar corruptive inclinations. As the narration unfolds, the readers witness the gradual moral degradation of the protagonist. From an exemplary trading agent at the beginning of the story, he turns into a truly despotic colonial official. The desire to maintain his power makes him ruthless toward anyone standing between him and making profit from the export of ivory (Conrad 94). Kurtz even resorts to attacking the steamer and Marlow’s crew during their voyage in order to prevent his removal from the profitable and powerful position as the chief of inner station (Conrad 105). In her article, Ishrat Jahan Prioti accurately points out that “lust of power can lead a man to insanity.” Therefore, the novella exemplifies the depth of corruption the individual may develop in the extremely violent conditions in the African jungles.

Meanwhile, the main characters of the novella face numerous inner conflicts. One of them is the deceitful nature of imperialism. Namely, the life story of Kurtz shows the great power of self-deception. The story suggested that he came to Congo with the certain mission in mind only to change his course of life dramatically. It appeared that Kurtz could not stand the temptation of joining the savage population while assuming the role of their leader. He effectively used the support of the adoring tribe for robbery and personal enrichment (Conrad 93). Evidently, the protagonist unconsciously diverted from a stereotypical image of colonizer and eventually became “one of the keenest participants in the Black’s savagery” (Prioti). His deviation certainly contradicts the primary goal of colonization that does not envisage the development of strong connections with indigenous population. These relations had the similarly deceiving effect on the African tribe. In the words of the Russian fellow, Kurtz “came to them with thunder and lightning” (Conrad 93). Hawkins explains that the protagonist appeared to them as the emissary of progress and stirred their belief in supernatural forces (295). The Black population was captivated by the foreignness of newcomer and, subsequently, it became his tool of enrichment. Once more, the author illustrates the traitorous nature of European imperialism.

At the same time, the story depicts the human cost of imperialistic ambitions while the conquest of the darkest place on the planet proves to be deadly for both parties. On numerous occasions, Marlow admitted the evident dangers of subduing the savage nation. For example, the life away from civilization made Kurtz embrace the murderous inclinations of the locals. The intensity of his lust for power forced him to display the heads of the alleged rebels on the stakes near the house (Conrad 96-97). The symbolic meaning of the ritual may be attributed to the old methods of intimidation. This is another example of the environmental influence and desire for power. In fact, death seems to lose its conventional meaning since it does not evoke the customary sense of respect for the deceased. One of the illustrations for this assertion is the practice of cannibalism. The protagonist of Heart of Darkness seems to be hardly swayed by the suggestion of eating corpses (Conrad 64). Conrad deliberately emphasizes the primitive nature of the native population and juxtaposes it to the seemingly civilized appearance of Marlow’s crew. The description functions as a reminder of the murderous environment in the dark jungles of Africa.

Defective Nature of Imperialism

The huge bulk of evidence reveals numerous defects of European imperialism. The language of the story indicates the domination of arrogance and racist views on the African population. For instance, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs tasked Kurtz to write a report about the inferior position of the dark-skinned people that clearly stated that the Europeans “must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings” (Conrad 82). In other words, Kurtz arrogantly suggests that the African population is in desperate need for guidance, or the establishment of “a power for good practically unbounded” (Conrad 82). Meanwhile, the exploitation appears to be the common manifestation of unlimited power. According to Guven, Kurtz is a symbol of the colonial order, the empowered official with the driven desire for profit (84). Therefore, his methods are extremely brutal and racist. Conrad addresses the issue of racism at the beginning of the novel by stating that the slaves are “nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation” (25). The description seems to reveal the magnitude of systematic oppression, imposed by European imperialists.

However, the story conveys the overall futility of colonial policy as well as the humorous absurdity of its finale. Apart from their destructive impact, the white invaders overly failed to disseminate the principles of civilized society in Africa. In that view, the extreme brutality and confession of Kurtz prove this assertion. The protagonist called for the total extermination of “all the brutes” (Conrad 83) in his report on the treatment of African savages at the beginning of his journey. However, the paramount change occurs as the narration unfolds. By the end of the story, the prominent agent came to realize the futility of his actions and the destructive consequences of his lust for profit and power. Before his death, Kurtz exclaimed, “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad 116). According to Guwen, the phrase signifies the deep sense of regret for the committed crimes against the African population (84). The author successfully conveys the irony of the situation, whereas the talented man essentially forgot about his initial goal and transformed into a savage. However, his misguided actions seem destined to remain secret at home. Marlow refused to uncover the true character of Kurtz to his beloved woman; therefore, the Europeans remained unaware of his crimes (Conrad 128). By concealing this fact, the author highlights the humor of the situation, whereas the audience notices the discrepancy between the real identity of Kurtz and his reputation at home and the overall ignorance of Kurtz’s compatriots.      


The novella is laced with contempt toward the Western expansion. The illustration of the barbarous colonization attracts the audience with the gravity of its brutality, the inflicted cultural damage, and accompanying moral degradation. The native population suffered from systematic extermination and deceiving illusion regarding the newcomers. At the same time, the colonizers seem to have developed a profound indifference toward the inhuman abuse and lust for power. Overall, the historical truthfulness, complex characters, and sophisticated description of African culture largely contribute to the novella’s literary value.

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