Conrad the Bloody Racist: A cultural criticism of Heart of Darkness


A Postcolonial Critical History of Heart of Darkness

Reasons for Disagreements

My Contribution

A Note on Conrad’s Personal History

A Note on Style and Imagery




A Postcolonial Critical History of HD

Due to the controversy generated by postcolonial discourse, and the resultant wealth of material on Heart of Darkness it is necessary to narrow down the topic as much as possible, nevertheless that same controversy demands an overview in other to represent the plurality of critical voices, within which mould I shall situate my point and finally examine the question of the author’s racism or lack of it.

The critical postcolonial approach to Heart of Darkness as a racist text was first pointed out by the Nigerian Writer, Chinua Achebe in a lecture at the university of Massachusetts in 1975. According to Achebe, “…Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation ” (2). He began with a passing comment on the average westerner’s stereotyping of African culture and the informed ignorance of the supposedly enlightened, making an example of the British professor of History, Hugh Trevor-roper, who insisted that Africa had no history and took a swipe at the careful binary pairings in Heart of Darkness. The setting of the primordial Congo basin against a tranquil Thames river – the former supposedly bad and the latter good, the evoked African atmosphere of myth and mystery – and thus of the ritualistic and evil, against an enlightened Christian Europe, the ‘antithetical’ choice of diction and sentences, […] “steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic […], one about silence and the other about frenzy […] ” (3); he quoted from pages 103 and 105 of the American Library edition of Heart of Darkness to prove his point thus: “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” [and] “The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy”

Achebe maintained that the “most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are about people” (3), that is, about characterisation. Although the passage he quoted about Marlow’s account of the journey down the Congo river is not explicit on characterisation – which is exactly the point!, I would like to reproduce it in full to examine his implications:

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of the black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were – No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what trilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend (52).

It is easy to see characterisation in none characterisation in this passage; that is the implicit nature of the kind of characterisation that is carried out here. The African characters are present as a kind of absence. They do not think, speak, do not behave like normal human beings but nevertheless have the physical features of the species – and that is “the fascination it (Heart of Darkness) holds over the European mind” (4) that is what troubles Conrad according to Achebe, that is the thrill – this ‘ugly’ kinship to the human being (there are also passages where Conrad compares them to apes – a popular past-time of imperial Victorian Europe), which is the “horror, the horror” for his early European readers, for whom he confirmed and consolidated the wildest fantasies and myths about Africans. He could be certain of non-contradiction therefore from those readers. And this was why, according to Achebe, the racist nature of the novel was never questioned until he drew attention to it. Further more, if the above passage were to be deconstructed, if we were to ‘wayward’ the text, it breaks down into subtle binary oppositions and could read something like this: ‘we were [modern] wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet [as opposed to our civilised world] […] As we round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs [as opposed to our sophisticated Victorian architecture]’ et cetera (52). There are also those echoes of meaning which negates the humanity of the Africans in the passage. The Africans were the ‘first men’ – something baser than human, primordial; a sort of extinct human dinosaur, without a cultural space of their own, re-discovered, categorised and put in their place for their own good; a gelatinous mass of monstrous and senseless limbs, contorted bodies and rolling eyes living partly on trees ( in the foliage) and partly in crude lean-tos, which it was fair game to take port-shots at by the colonising imperial power in order to instil a random discipline of hot lead when necessary.

And dragging out the intestines of an earlier stylistic critic of Heart of Darkness by F. R. Leavis to the effect that Conrad was woolly and depended on an “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery” (3), he declared : “When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery, much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity” (3). According to him this deliberate stylistic obfuscation merely aided to satisfy the racial sentiments of the day, and Conrad was only acting as the “purveyor of comforting myths” (3). And in pursuing this myths, the African became faceless, insignificant. Whenever they were given any kind of presence it was only as foils for another European character; i.e. the African woman, who was the savage, inarticulate Other for the Intended. Or if for example they were allowed speech at all it was “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” (6). Conrad could have achieved more verisimilitude for example if he admitted an existence of a form of indigenous linguistic competence among the Africans. Among themselves they also had no means of communication outside of crude grunts. On the matter of speech it is significant that a smattering of English syllables were put into the mouths of one or two savage Congolese. It is in conforming to the hegemonic attitude of the coloniser that he replaced indigenous culture with his own, which he deemed superior. And it is this assumption of a superior humanity which made Achebe finally deem Conrad “a thorough-going racist” (8).

There are those arguments which considers that Conrad is merely ridiculing the ‘civilising’ mission in Africa, and was concerned with the deterioration of European values in contact with that continent, which is merely a setting for his story, that he is far more less charitable to his European characters (like Kurtz) than to the Africans, towards whom he was sympathetic or that Marlow’s opinion, as a fictional character, should not be confused with Conrad’s, who was anti-imperialist. Nevertheless it is note-worthy that he took great pains to distance himself from and “set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story” [through the framework] of a “narrator behind the narrator” (7). If Africa is merely a setting then Conrad neutralises Africa as a cultural human factor. That continent becomes a “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity” (8). For Achebe “the real question is the dehumanisation of Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world” (8). The apparent sympathy in the following passage simply represents that ‘bleeding-heart sentiment’ reminiscent of “the kind of liberalism espoused by [the] Marlow/Conrad [masquerade] [and which] touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America” (7).

They were all dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of diseases and starvation, lying confusedly in greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings fed on unfamiliar food they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest (7).

In his critic of Heart of Darkness Patrick Brantlinger compares Achebe’s views with those of several critics, who did not agree that Conrad was racist because he was critical of imperialism. An example was Cedric Watts, who insisted that Conrad instead of being a purveyor of racial myths rather “most deliberately and incisively debunks such myths ” (277). Brantlinger then went on to quote from Watts:

Achebe notes with indignation that Conrad (in the “Author’s note to Victory ) speaks of an encounter with a “buck nigger” in Haiti which gave him the impression of mindless violence. Achebe might as well have noted the reference in The Nigger of the “Narcissus” … to a tormented and flattened face – a face pathetic and brutal : the tragic, the mysterious the repulsive mask of a nigger’s soul. ( 278).

The image of the black man drawn here, especially if it refers to personal comments from Conrad is suggestive enough of his racist bias, whether it was conscious or not is another matter. Juxtaposed against Conrad’s words in Personal Records, describing his first encounter with an English man at the age of sixteen his personal psychology in such matters is made very clear :

His calves exposed to the public gaze…dazzled the beholder by the splendour of their marble-like condition and their rich tone of young ivory… The light of a headlong, exalted satisfaction with the world of men …illumined his face…and triumphant eyes. In passing he cast a glance of kindly curiosity and a friendly gleam of big, sound, shiny teeth …His white calves twinkled sturdily (9).

Should it then be surprising that in all his novels dealing with black people he never had any redeeming word for these characters. It is instructive that Conrad’s letters also carry casual anti-Semitic tones. Perhaps a short biography of Conrad himself might be necessary here but we shall come to that soon enough. According to Bratlinger Conrad was not so much against imperialism out of any sheer moral convictions against it as out of a quarrel with the “lying propaganda used to cover its bloody tracks” (281). Conrad was more against the high-handed Belgian form of colonialism as practised by King Leopold and Heart of Darkness is a about what he saw in Leopold’s Congo of 1890, not a general outcry against imperialism in other parts of the World. It is noteworthy that Marlow approves of British imperialism while condemning that variation practised by Belgium and other European conquerors. According to Bratlinger after such a critical passage as “The conquest of the earth [….] the taking of it away from those […] with slightly flatter noses than ourselves is not a pretty thing.” Marlow retirates ” one knows that some real work is done in there” i.e. in the British colonies (278). Or referring also to the differences in British ‘efficiency’ and Belgian ‘sloppiness’ Marlow declares : “They were conquerors, and for that what you want is only brute force- nothing to boast of […] They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got […] Just robbery with violence, aggravated murder […], and men going at it blind ” (10 ).

As for what Conrad saw during his short six months in Congo, it was so little that he had to depend on the “revelations of atrocities that began to appear in the British press as early as 1888″ (279 ). Thus his lurid painting of cannibalism in the Heart of Darkness drew heavily on reports of the war between Arab slave traders and Belgians for the control of the Congo, where both sides played on Muslim superstitious fear (of their Congolese troupes) of not attaining paradise if they died mutilated. Thus cannibalism, or the chopping off hands became on both sides a weapon to extract co-operation from them. The characters of Kurtz and Marlow were based on several accounts of men who reported what they went through or from newspaper clippings. For example Bratlinger ,quoting Ian Watt , remarked that The Times reported of a certain Hodister and his companions that “their heads were stuck on poles and their bodies eaten” (282 ). Thus Conrad never personally encountered cannibalism. He was merely playing up to a gallery of pre-conceived ideas about Africans. And although he does show up Kurtz as being evil, it is an evil that was contacted because kurtz “went native” which, for Bratlinger, is as much as saying that “evil is African in Conrad’s story”(285 ). Finally he affirms:

Conrad’s stress on cannibalism, his identification of African customs with violence, lust, and madness, his metaphors of bestiality death, and darkness, his suggestion that travelling in Africa is like travelling backward in time to primeval, infantile but also hellish stages of existence – these features of the story are drawn from the repertoire of Victorian imperialism and racism that painted an entire continent dark.(285)

He finally agreed with Achebe that Conrad was a racist.

Hunt Hawkins in The issue of Racism in Heart of Darkness refers to the Indian critic Frances B. Singh, who maintained that the story “carries suggestions that the evil which the title refers to is to be associated with Africans, their customs, and their rites [and] “as long as he associates the life of depravity with the life of blacks then he can hardly be called anti-colonial .” (163). Hawkins defends Conrad even while admitting that the accusation of racism should not be dismissed out of hand. He agreed that the limitations of Heart of Darkness as a picture of African colonisation can be readily measured against Achebe’s Things fall Apart, which is about the British take-over of an Ibo village at the end of the 19th century. Naturally, in that African novel one would expect a much more balanced character development. We should note that Hawkins agreed Conrad had very little experience of Africa as a continent. He spent less than six months in the Congo acco rding to Hawkins and only in the company of white men. If Conrad had such little contact to Africa, where did he get the wealth of information on the practices, habits and behaviour of Africans, which forms the setting of the story? Definitely from the hegemonic myths used by Empire to legitimise its political ideology of subjugation and rule. This worked itself out lexically in the text as a binary pairing and in the reducing of other cultures to myths and anthropology. Although, he maintained , Conrad’s attitude was complex it was nevertheless critical of racism and sympathetic to non-European peoples. The word sympathetic itself is condescending. There is the insinuation that ‘non-European peoples’ should be grateful that they were allowed to breath at all. His arguments is that Heart of Darkness makes negative statements about Africans; for example he refers to them as “niggers”, “savages” “pre-historic man”, “rudimentary souls” but also “praises” them for their “energy, vitality, natural dignity” (163). But in what context? They are praised for their energy, vitality and natural dignity when they appear as a tool towards Malow’s ends in, for example, steering the steamboat or defending it against attack. And the only African (a woman) who is a little “visible” is only the noble savage – an inferior Other for the civilised Intended.

In his objective article Robert Burden gives a detailed reception history of Heart of Darkness. The novella is supposed to have derived from the Author’s personal experiences in the Congo, particularly as a witness of Belgian brutality there. As we have seen before Conrad’s stay in Africa was rather too brief for him to form any meaningful character judgement of the African. This is why he had to depend on myth and prejudiced opinion in his characterisation in the fear of losing verisimilitude, which he nevertheless does not achieve. The auto-biographical dimension of Heart of Darkness has not been seriously discussed, while its parodying of the European ‘scramble for Africa’ and its recourse to anthropology in such terms as ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ has necessitated a reading against a transparent historical background, which reading would likely lead to the problematic of imperialism in the early part of the novel and then to the psychological twist in the later sections where power abuse is directly linked to the collapse of civilised values symbolised in the discovery of Kurtz. Burden also argues – quoting several other sources – that the novel should not be seen as necessarily transparent to its historical background but that it should be a many-layered metaphorical continuum. But considering the monumental historical phenomenon of the nineteenth century and since a culture can be readily mapped in its informing historical processes there is no other way of looking at this particular text except against the culture in which it unfolded. A book is ultimately a cultural product.

The proposition that Heart of Darkness is not necessarily racist since Joseph Conrad – through the character of Marlow – is more ironic and criticises imperialism is what R.G Hampson in Conrad and the Idea of Empire, quoting Joyce critics, described as a “reader trap” (9). At the beginning of his ‘yarn’ Marlow declares – I would like to reproduce it in full for purposes of analysis although it has been hinted at before:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to (9).

Hampson suggested that the first impression is that Marlow condemned imperialism, that the redeeming idea (of civilising the natives) is going to be elaborated upon. However his desire to assert the redeeming idea forces him (or Conrad) to switch into a figurative language which subverts the idea he is trying to assert. One can imagine that it must have been a difficult task for Conrad to write about a part of the world he knew little or nothing about or a story which was already in the popular imagination unexpressed. What resulted was a fore-grounding of the idea i.e. “something you can set up, and bow down before and offer a sacrifice to” [becomes] someone who set themselves up as something for others to bow down before and offer a sacrifice to” (10). This exposed the literalness of a language that is supposed to be figurative. That is, the figurative moves into the background and the literal comes to the foreground. The story concerns not the redeeming idea behind imperialism but a people who set themselves up as a god for others to bow down before. To prove Conrad’s duplicity Hampson made the point that the former had a particular audience in view and was writing to meet their Victorian tastes:

Since he was writing Heart of Darkness for Blackwood Magazine, Conrad had a fairly good idea of the nature of his immediate readership: conservatives and imperialists in politics, and predominantly male. He wrote his agent J.B. Pinker : There isn’t a single club and mess-room and man-of-war in the British Isles and Dominions which hasn’t a copy of Maga […] The title I am thinking of is “The heart of Darkness” – but the narrative is not gloomy. The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilising work in Africa is a justifiable idea.(10)

This echoes Marlow’s opening speech above and confirms Conrad’s endorsement of imperialism in the suggestiveness that Conrad saw ‘the civilising work in Africa a justifiable idea’.

Reasons for Disagreements

The reason for so much controversy on the subject of Conrad’s racism is, as most of those critics referred to above have agreed with Achebe, that Victorian liberal politics “required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities”, which liberalism “took many forms in the minds of different people but always managed to side-step the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people” (7). Achebe quotes Albert Schweitzer, who gave up his successful life as a musicologists and Theologian for missionary work in Africa : “The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother” (7). He added that the reason Conrad’s racism “is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against the African is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked” (8). Added to this is, of course, the embarrassment of the moral burden of History, which the literary establishment might want to avoid.

My contribution

Post-colonial criticism recognises the text as “a vehicle of imperial authority “(10). Heart of Darkness would therefore be seen as one of the many texts, relying on ‘myth and metaphor’, which unwittingly supports the suppression of any one people on the coloniser’s presumption that these people were inferior. The myths in the case of Heart of Darkness is the popular Victorian one that Africans are savage, uncivilised barbarians. Note the comparison of Africans to Apes : “Six black men advanced in a file… Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails.” (22). This can be traced back to the influences of Charles Darwin’s thesis of human evolution, which has no incontrovertible proof up to now. In other to justify imperialism it was necessary to create an inferior or the colonial Other. Thus the Africans became for Marlow an Other, whose Otherness was nevertheless defined by him. For example those natives who worked with him became “black fellows” not the negation suggested by the word ‘nigger’, ‘pre-historic’ man or ‘savage’. He regrets the death of his black helmsman only because “he [the helmsman] had steered: “for months I had him at my back – a help – an instrument” (73). It was a master-slave relationship. Missing his helmsman was not more than regretting the loss of a useful tool. Besides in other for him to be subject there had to be an object for whom he is subject. Thus the death was nauseating for him because for once he experienced his consciousness as a negation i.e. when for one fleeting moment the helmsman negates this subject-object relationship by dying on him. And since to be conscious is to be conscious of somebody, and since the dead body embarrassed the pro(ject) of himself into the world as a Transcendence, to save himself from this feeling of nausea he promptly throws the body overboard to the fishes.

In his pro(jects) of himself as a Transcendence Marlow uses the instrument of words. This explains his volubility, his word-drunkenness, his highly figurative and ambiguous language. Words after all were harmless and would not kill or destroy like Kurtz’s degenerate violence and raids into the interior of the land in search of ivory, or the abuse and murder of Africans that he witnessed on his way into the interior. Nevertheless the binary pairing of such words as African/European, primitive/civilised, Black/ white prehistoric/modern Savage/civilised , with their European pre-coding suggests a consciousness which is self-aware and also Other-aware, and which in his Other-awareness insisted on necessarily being the foundation of the Other’s Otherness. Further “Consciousness of an object is the consciousness of being conscious of an Object. Therefore all consciousness is self-consciousness ” (x). When Marlow was conscious of the Africans (say the helmsman before he died) it was a “non-reflective consciousness” (x). They were simply there. But when he met Kurtz he was forced to posit himself as an ‘object of reflection’. For once the image of the harmless magnanimous narrator slips. He despised and loved kurtz as the same time. He despised Kurtz because at the meeting of this alter-ego, this image of wild degenerate and savage Europe, performing satanic rites with the natives, he experienced Kurtz’s consciousness and his own consciousness together in a feeling of unease or of shame. His mask slips. He saw himself for what he really was not but was in danger of becoming. A savage. For it took savagery for Kurtz, who was his alter-ego, to achieve the amount of notoriety, which commands respect from the wild untamed Africans, who equated him to a god. He admired Kurtz because this was the man he would really have liked to be (of course that was only implied) but did not have the courage or the savagery to be; in short he was jealous! He almost killed kurtz at a point; his genteel civilised superior Victorian prudishness hampered him. Besides for a moment in the narrative the Subject-Object relationship, which he had to the Africans was suddenly reversed. He was objectified in the transcendence of a look i.e. of Kutz’s look. And it made him feel uncomfortable – another reason why he could have killed Kurtz. But Killing Kurtz would be to kill a future pro(ject) of himself (in Kurtz), which was anyhow doomed to failure if he was to retain his Subjectness in relation to the African Other, who he perpetually objectified. It would have finally made the African who had enough restraint not to eat him and the other white men in the steam-boat more noble. The fact of the possibility of a common humanity was disturbing for Mallow. If meaning is defined by linguistic codes which are generally agreed upon then the animal imagery which mallow reverts to have a certain association of meaning in his mind, and for this meaning to have any validity then he must have experienced or be aware of something in his consciousness equivalent to the images conjured up by such words or imagery, which was concretised in the extra-textual world. Put differently these images may simply be a catalogue of his Possibles since as an Existent he was always in a continuous process of becoming. He realised that he could be a kurtz if he wanted to be but this would have jeopardised his position as pure Transcendence for the already stereotyped African Other or even for Kurtz, who had ‘gone native’. But he was guilty of Bad Faith because in refusing to accept the humanity of the Africans he negated himself; he could not be the foundation of his own being. He did reluctantly admit “if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise”(52) .Thus he makes a compromise, noted the “remote kinship” and later on hurriedly ‘escapes’ f ro m the vicinity in the steam-boat, guns primed to shoot if the ‘natives’ dared come near but, conveniently, never really having a need to do so. It would equate him with Kurtz and jeopardise his Transcendence. “But what thrilled you was the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough;”[…] The African’s humanity was ‘ugly’. Apart from words, the liberal Victorian political and racist ideology of the day also became tools in his pro(ject) of his future self, the logic of which ideologies insisted that a human being had white skin: a black man did not have a white skin; therefore a black man was not human – in so far as ‘human’ was to be understood as related to a certain predefined series of qualities (i.e. intelligence, beauty, productivity, whiteness et cetera ) which defined the human given as an ontological phenomenon. It is self-evident that Conrad was racist.

A Note on Conrad’s Personal History

It is important to note that Conrad was himself a colonised consciousness. Josef Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski to give him his original name was polish by birth. But it was a Poland which in 1857 ( the year of his birth) was under Russian colonisation. Poland was at that point in time shared out amongst Russia, Austria and Prussia. Due to the vicissitudes of dwindled family fortune and the death of parents after his father was exiled by Russian authorities for his part in the independence bids of Poland, he grew up with an uncle, who put him in school in Krakow and later sent him to a private tutor in Geneva. But he was not much interested in schooling and persuaded his uncle to let him join the French merchant marine. After some time he ended up on British ships and became a British subject.

It is understandable then that he presumably had to warm his way as a writer into the hearts of his adopted countrymen. He must have lapped up the politics and ideology of his day to that end. Thus the racial condescension of Heart of Darkness could be seen as the price he had to pay for his valued citizenship, the genteel snobbery from someone who himself was once heavily snobbed and by sheer good fortune found himself among those chosen by divine fiat to rule the world. As for his flowery language, this could be put down to an effort to out-Herod Herod, to prove his mettle with the language since polish and then French were the languages he spoke first.

By the standards of the day he was not an affluent man and as a writer he probably had to rush out pot-boilers at some points to shore up his income from a sailors wage or lack of it when grounded. We do know that at some point he made efforts to get employment on a trading vessel for the Congo – just like Mallow. Like Mallow he also had an aunt, who was a kind of benefactor and mother-surrogate for him. Clearly he was a conformist and dipped richly into his own immediate personal environment without contradicting too much of it for his story’s plot. And if racism was part of his environment then all for the better. On the whole it could be said that Conrad had reasons to defer to his fortunes to be an ‘establishment man’ unlike some of his literary contemporaries. And for a man who had been at sea the lure of sheer adventure gave in to the assumed notion of the writer as a conscience of his society. True he paid his dues. He condemned imperialism, but we know what tongue-in-cheek manner that assumed.

A note on the style and Imagery

Critics have equally praised and condemned Conrad’s multi-layered prose. It gives rise to the problem of a clear authorial point of view. According to Burden:

The first readers, and many since, persistently complain however about the lack of a clarity and the daunting abstract quality of the book. Their response is partly preconditioned by the expectations of the political controversy that is topical at the time of its writing and also an integral part of the book’s meaning. The perceived ambiguities work against a single meaning being the only meaning, and also provide unsurmountable problems for those wishing to derive a clear authorial intention from the work (70).

Naturally this kind of ambiguity serves the author very well in hood-winking the general reader and at the same time satisfying the conservative politics of his time. The recurrent images of darkness and light has the biblical validity of missionary Europe: “for ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the lord : walk as children of light ” (Ephesians 5: 8). This was an ingenious way for Conrad to achieve his best seller and at the same time keep his reader guessing. Heart of Darkness is an Apocalypse – a highly figurative literature (which might make it self-contradictory i.e. the idea of darkness in Heart of Darkness is explained only by its absence) or text of a ‘prophetic’ or ‘revelatory’ nature. It is then fitting that it should borrow the moral high tone and religious, mystical images reminiscent of the Bible. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, ‘the devil cites scripture to his own purpose’. An the purpose in this case is to condemn imperialism and at the same time prop up the sentiments and prejudices upon which it “sharpened its iron tooth ” (13). Colonialist literature – according to Elleke Boehmer, is literature primarily concerned with colonial expansion. “It was literature written by the coloniser and for colonising Europeans about non-European lands dominated by them” (3). It represented the coloniser’s point of view. In other words it was part of the support structure or ideology making the colonising work honourable and just. Thus Conrad helped unwittingly build Empire.


From the fore-going the question of whether Conrad was a racist or not should be deducible. He wrote anti-semitic sentiments in his private letters, he was a gun-runner for the Carlists in their bid to seize the throne of Spain for Carlos de Bourbon; a desperate man, he attempted suicide in 1887, and like all desperate men he must have been a good schemer and, for all we know, might have written Heart of Darkness in its ambiguous inflammatory form to serve his private survivalist ends. And to put it in typical Achebe fashion, it is easy for the man who defecates to forget the stench of his own excreta but the man who has to clean it up cannot forget. And this is what is now making Conrad turn in his grave.


Achebe, Chinua: “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Hopes and Impediments. Selected Essays 1965-87.

Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness.

About Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede
Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede is a poet and MA student of literature at the Hannover University in Germany. He has had poems featured in Voices From The Fringe, Junge Nigerianische Lyrik, The Fate of Vultures (BBC Prize winning poems) and a host of journals, newspapers and magazines. He is the author of Collected Poems: A Writer's Pains & Caribbean Blues. Ede won in 1998 the All Africa Okigbo Prize for Literature. He is a founding member of the German chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors.

34 thoughts on “Conrad the Bloody Racist: A cultural criticism of Heart of Darkness

  1. What an awful essay. The worst part is that you took a quotation COMPLETELY out of context and so changed the meaning entirely:

    This echoes Marlow’s opening speech above and confirms Conrad’s endorsement of imperialism in the suggestiveness that Conrad saw ‘the civilising work in Africa a justifiable idea’.

    He did not see the the civilising work in Africa a justifiable idea, in fact, the sentence is

    ‘The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilising work in Africa is a justifiable idea.’

    Do you see the difference? He saw the criminality of inefficiency as a justifiable idea for a story.

    This shouldn’t even be available online.

  2. The example here is not exactly flawless. Merely because Conrad uses ‘kinship’ instead of ‘brotherhood’, does not necessarily mean the former is a greater distance from the latter. Is one’s ‘brother’ not one’s ‘kin’? And, unless the African in the book that you refer to has no ribs, ridiculously strong ankles and heavy feet, and the world’s most flexible spine, it would be difficult for him – regardless of his colour – to drink from a lake, lakes being, typically, below ground level. The trouble is that once people hear the word ‘racist’, and know that Conrad was a Victorian writer, writing about Africans, suddenly they make the ‘Victorian’ and ‘racist’ qualities equivocable, and totally inextricable. The many letters Conrad wrote during his life demonstrate that, far from the imperialistic racist many swayed by Achebe’s ill-thought-out rantings believe him to be, Conrad was forward-thinking and progressive.

  3. The writer of this article would do well to read HoD properly, along with Conrad’s other books, and to read Cedric Watts’ critique of Achebe’s own reading of HoD. Notably, one of the first indications of Kurtz’ dehumanisation is his scrawled message: “exterminate all the brutes”. Frequently, in Conrad’s novels, those characters who show the most prejudicial views are portrayed as the most corrupt – the almost-bestial Kurtz who calls the Africans ‘brutes'; the unlikeable station manager whose only complaint is ‘unsound method’. Marlowe is a character who may believe the Africans to be savages based on his own prejudices, but over the course of the book, he comes to recognise both his own kinship with them, and the even greater corruption and hollowness of the whites.

  4. Excellent analysis. I read the book years ago as a sophomore in college and was seduced by the aesthetic (as the young often are). The imagery, the exotic, the Apocolypse Now of it all played into the thirst for scintillation. It was as far from the Midwest I could be. It’s only much later, especially, after meeting and knowing many a West African, that I began to feel Heart of Darkness delved into African characterization as close as tour guide gets to animals on a Safari. Not even the noble savage women would I classify beyond an inert soul. I would love to see a novel with the character of Marlowe from the perspective of the Congolese tribes people as much as I’d like to see a Vietnam War movie from the perspective of North Vietnamese foot soldier.

    Thanks for the illumination.

  5. “Acceptance of people on the content of their character would be far better served by stabilising African governments and improving the respect of Africans in other countries for the needs of their societies by encouraging productivity and lawfulness rather than crime and a bastadisation of those countries’ languages.”

    Well, ‘Unknown user’, thank you so much for emancipating all of us! You exemplify exactly what this and any other critique of colonising, racist, western texts attempt to underscore. I wonder if you would defend the study of the Kebra Nagast or any other non-western masterpiece so fervently.

    I am so glad that you have been able to remind us of the danger of “a single story”.

  6. I am a Nigerian myself, however I think quite alot of people have misunderstood this novel when it comes to analysing it.

    It is NOT the author that you should be analysing when it comes to their works but their actual works instead. Whether or not Conrad was in fact a racist or not, it is irrelevant. It is what he is representing or trying to portray in his novels about the society that he lives in at the time.

    Authors do not write books based on their thoughts or their personal experiences and if they did then they would obviously be called ‘autobiographies’ and not ‘fictional’ novels.

    There is no point analysing a fictional novel and letting your own personal emotions get involved therefore not doing the job properly.

    You are an academic and you analyse it academically.

    If Conrad was in fact a racist then why havent you picked on every single other writer of the Victorian era?

    Do not judge Conrad….Judge the book!

  7. As a Queer postcolonial poet (yes, Nigerians cringe at your phobic discriminations mapped as they have been by your embrace of colonising Islam and Christianity), Heart of Darkness remains a touchstone text and the critic’s reduction of the text to a previous but significant reduction-Achebe’s muddled and misguided moment-is, well, unreaderly and unwriterly, in the Barthusian sense.

    As for Africa, it is very interesting how the Kurtzian figure of modernity has found so many successive bodies-black bodies, I might add-to possess, which leads me to think: during the remains of the day, how different is the will to absolute power no matter the body’s skin.

  8. Conrad contributed towards a book highlighting the atrocities in the Congo in the 1800’s brought on by King Leopold II of Belgium who was the one responsible for the Congo Free State and everything that went on there. Conrad was an anti-imperialist and his veiws and opinions on race cannot be deducted from the opinions and attitudes conveyed by a FICTIONAL character that he createdto entertain a mass Western audience just as much as Dan Brown’s opinions about the Catholic Church and religion cannot be deduced from his two novels containing such ideas.

    I tihnk it is very important to reverse the concept and imagine what a man born and bred in the Congo would have thought of wesrternised society is he experienced it for the first time. I can only imagine he would have our tall buildings and hard roads a disgrace against nature and may assume we were barbaric for watching sports such as boxing, wrestling or even cage fighting. I know that if I had come from a place of beauty, diversity and tribal culture I would see westernised Humans as being one of the same, always follwing trends and copying each other, this is apparent lack of humanity. However, what do we expect a man to think about a place which is so alien to him he can only describe it in the terms he learnt on his own soil?

    This is a very poorly written essay with barely any personal analysis and hoards of spelling, punctuation and grammatical mistakes. Referencing other writers or scholars should be done in order to AID your own point or understanding of a text, not to make your point for you while you back up the writer/scholar’s opinions.

  9. I thought everyone knew that people had a different view a hundred years ago? Isn’t it obvious that Conrad was a victim of his time? I agree with Alina, you are beating a dead horse. It is like accusing Shakespeare for not being a feminist. The world changes. Get over it. I wish I could write this in my essay, but my teacher is also brainwashed like you.

  10. Joseph Conrad is a racist. The only redeeming quality that the Africans have, as presented in the book, is that they have a remote kinship, not brotherhood, but a kinship with Europeans. Yes, Conrad wrote this book to criticize imperialism. But, since when does criticizing imperialism negate any prejudice one might have about a certain “race”? On page 17 of the book, Conrad depicts an African walking on all fours to get a drink in the lake. Needless to say, Africans do, in fact, walk upright. Basically, Conrad chose to depict the Africans in a way that places them as Europe’s savage inferiors regardless of his stance on imperialism. I would elaborate further, but I have to write an essay to write, on Heart of Darkness.

  11. Did you not understand the meaning of this book? Well, apparently you didn’t. This book was ment for radical change. Joseph Conrad was nothing like a rascist. Suppose the “N” word was thrown about, however he was just telling a story. A story about truth. He wanted to expose those who were unfair and unjust. Congrats for a really bad critique of a really good book. I know it can be difficult relizing that its also just a parrallel to the “Inferno” but maybe you should look at “Heart of Darkness” o ne more time.

  12. You do have a vaild arguement, Heart of Darkness can be taken as racist. However, the mind set of the time and Conrad's own experiences created these characters. The Africans were "absent", yet to the "white" man of the time he was. Perhaps the white man was somewhat absent to Africans. Another culture that was misunderstood, a language never heard and sounding nothing like anything else, there is an alienation factor there. There was no communication, to the white man Africa was a savage place full of savages. Perhaps Africans did not feel the same, and from my understanding some thought white men to be gods. I honestly believe you are taking this far too seriously. It's a fictional book based upon the author's own experience. Enjoy it for the literary masterpiece it is, instead of looking at as racism. It isn't. It's a story just like Perter Cottontail. I do hope you understand the refernece to that story. It's the R word as well. You know, I'm sure. What I want to know is why you pick up a decades old book to complain about racism with. Certainly there are more, oh, shall we say, modern works that could be used? This topic is like beating a dead horse, and it can be beaten both ways I promise you. Have a nice day, and I hope you can get over the racism issues, because there is so much more out there for such an outstanding writer as yourself.

  13. Similar to views expressed in my M.A thesis: Joyce Cary: The African Novels…Michigan State University, 1965, on colonial writers.

  14. Daniel Monti Ngwenya · Edit

    I think that the author creates story threfore, actors and events in the story are creations of the author's ideas. The character speaks because the author made him/her to. Even if Conrad is not racist, the fact remains that the paper has highlighted on visible evidence regarding the portrayal of racism. In trying to rate the article, I believe my emphasis should largely be on factual relevance than any other aspect. Thans for the work yoy did.

  15. Whilst it is interesting to have an African perspective on this novel, the argument is poorly constructed, and several errors weaken the authority of the essay. Calling Marlow "Mallow" is inexcusable. And the conclusion is weak – if you think Conrad is racist, say so! For an academic work which quotes from several sources, not to cite those in the bibliography us sloppy.

  16. I just read the book and I did not see the author as being racist. In fact, the racism that is present in the book is used to show how idiotic racism is. Look at the book more closely. The racist terms and acts in the book are not supposed to be taken at face value. To understand what Conrad is trying to convey you must look at the book as a whole rather than picking out sections.

  17. A B Westwood (PhD English - C19th Colonial Literat · Edit

    I think there has been a misunderstnading here. It is NOT Conrad who is racist but his character, Marlow. Marlow's comments on the indigenous inhabitants of the Belgian Congo reflect those of many European men (and women) of the late nineteenth century.

    Furthermore, it is usually accepted that the insistence in calling the black people in 'Heart of Darkness' "savages" is actually one of the many examples of Conrad's irony in this novella.

    I would contend, therefore, that the writer of this article has actually missed the point.

  18. Conrad uses the technique of 'frame tale' therefore the narrative is the words of Marlow, who we must remember is a VICTORIAN IMPERIALIST holding all the typical prejudices a man of his time would, thus any derogatory phrases used in H.O.D are surely used for authenticity rather than a direct attack of Conrad's on the African people. ALSO, are the European characters not portrayed far more negatively than the African 'savages', who Marlow even admits he holds a 'remote kinship' with, as his understanding of the culture develops. 😛

  19. Conrad was racist, no doubt about it. So was every other European at the time. The main point on racism in Heart of Darkness is this: Conrad dehumanized all cultures, both primitive and advanced. He claimed that the African natives answered to base instincts that led them to dark deeds. He also attacked his own, claiming that the European's greed caused the disintigration of the soul. He heapen upon all heads a good deal of criticism, yet, in comparision to his fellows of the time, was remarkably forward-thinking and radically open-minded.

  20. I have gathered from my reading of Northrop Frye, the esteemed Canadian literary critic, that a book cannot in and of itself be 'right' or 'wrong.' Depictions of events in books (such as portrayal of Africa as a 'dark' continent) are not statements of truths, nor even of that which the author believes. They are statements of those things which are always true in literature: Where the unknown land populated by unfamilliar peoples (be it an alien planet, or England under the heels of the first Roman conquerors) seems somehow dark and foreboding. The darkness is not a moral one, and though Marlowe and Kurtz subscribe as characters to westernized notions of morality, where the chaos and upheval of the primordial jungle could be seen as 'evil.'

    Conrad, I might hasten to add, has Marlowe speak of early England in the same way that Africa is spoken of. He talks about the fear, uncertainty and desperation which faces the Roman soldier when faced with the 'uncivilized' land before him.

    Perhaps when we make contact with extra-terrestrial life-forms some day, their authors and analysts will reach the same conclusions about much of our science fiction which portrays these sentient, advanced and cultured peoples as savage and dangerous creatures.

    A book which discusses the perspectives of a white man and a white man alone is not a racist book. It is a book with a narrator whose perspective is limited by his experience, thus rendering it realistic and well-written, but not written with any malicious intent.

  21. Dear Sir, I believe that you did a fine job with your analysis and agument, but i think you may have failed to realize some of the finer points of the story. I suggest re-reading the story, but without looking for a racist connotation. Instead simply read it for what it is.

  22. I've given your article a very poor rating for several reasons. The first reason is the immature use of advanced grammatical structures and vocabulary which plagues most collegiate writing these days. It would be an obstacle to the ammelioration of this cancer if i did not point it out to you. The second reason I am rating your article so poorly is the nearly complete lack of new material it presents. Any essay that considers it necessary to include a separate section to address the reader's concern that it is unoriginal my contribution is surely so. The final and most important reason for my disatisfaction as a critical reader is the complete irrelevance of its subject. Even if Conrad was the most racist individual ever to live, it would make no difference to the work he produced.

    Chinua Achebe (in his almost equally poorly organised essay) asserts without previous address that HD should not be considered a work of art: an idea which has absolutely nothing to do with racism. In fact, it seems strange that he this revelation should even occur to him, since one of his primary devices for asserting it is the Picture of Dorian Gray, whose author (Oscar Wilde) spent his entire life essaying into the role of morality in art and prefaces the said novel with the conclusion: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. A book is well written or badly written. That is all." Heart of Darkness is one of the most well written books of all time; Achebe admits that himself. It is a book which I would argue has little to do with good and evil or, as achebe might put it, assigning guilt. It is about a character whose very encounters with moral zeal bring him to a full understanding of the mystery of death. Its prose is flawlessly and artfully executed, and its subject matter fascinating on a cross-cultural, even universal, level.

    The only thing I intend to illustrate with this hastily written forum comment is the vacuity of arguing such irrelevent points. The only reason racism persists in the western world today is the same reason that racism continued in Conrad's time. There are statistics which illustrate an exceptionally high occurence of theft, vandalism, and murder among African populations in the west. African governments are the least stable and most volatile in the world. Arguing about under whose "fault" the circumstances were precipitated will not improve the position of Africans in the average westerner's esteem, and certainly neither will an endless, irrelevant dialogue obout racism in a masterpiece of LANGUAGE such as HD. In fact, according again to the Preface to the Picture of Dorian Gray, only proves that it is a better work of art, "Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital." Conrad was stylistically a member of the symbolist school, along with Joyce, whom you also seem to imply as "evil" or somehow unworthy of praise. Their style sought to portray a realism of human experience through symbols, similar to Jung's approach to psychology, and to criticise them for a sense of style is really quite petty, especially when it was done more for the progress of world literature than any other school in the last 100 years. The point is, criticising this work is without point. Acceptance of people on the content of their character would be far better served by stabilising African governments and improving the respect of Africans in other countries for the needs of their societies by encouraging productivity and lawfulness rather than crime and a bastadisation of those countries' languages.

  23. It's very simple — read HoD. The only redeeming part of this article comes at the end when readers realize this author only serves to reinforce Conrad's thesis: Bias is inherent.

    Note to Mr. Ede: Like him or not, Conrad is one of the greatest authors of his time. Had you payed any attention at all to any literary analysis prefessor, you would realize that the greatest quality of the greatest author is never revealing your own views through your character's.

    But go ahead, keep blaming racism on Conrad. I'd just like to know when you found the time to actually speak with him. After all, what is this article if not a cess of hyperbole?

  24. I enjoyed reading the article. I do agree that this piece was very similiar to that of Chinua Achebe's. I think that you, the author, should read the book, Heart of Darkness, over and form your own positon on the short novel. I am sure that the students in my AP English class wouldn't appreciate it to find out that professionals such as yourself eat off of brillant writers such as Achebe and not write something of your own interpretation. Our teacher refuses to take any paper from us if it even looks a little close to another writer's paper, especially Achebe. Overall, job weell done.

  25. Besides the fact that there were numerable spelling and grammar errors, I feel that the information stated in this article is not only irrelevant, but only restates the argument already portrayed in Achebe's "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Furthermore, I believe that Ede based most of his information off of the article written by Achebe and not his own interpretation of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."


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