Monday, June 25, 2012


Racism and "The Heart of Darkness"

This essay was my own personal look at essays that explored racism in particular works and what accomplished authors had to say on the matter.

Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image if Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, was written about the apparent racist undertone of Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness”. The book takes us on a journey into the Congo’s and how Africans are described and treated in the time of European expansion and its thrust for ivory. Achebe’s attempts to explain to his readers why he thought the “Heart of Darkness” and its author were both racist. Achebe proves his point by quoting parts of the novel that emphasized color over everything and the language that the author uses to describe the African natives was racist and unnecessary. As an example Achebe uses is Conrad’s description of the African mistress in the novel and her European counterpart. “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent…she stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose”, (Conrad, pg. 341). Achebe emphasizes his disdain for the contrast between the African mistress and her European counterpart by stating “The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these women is conveyed in too many direct and subtle ways to need elaboration”, (Achebe, pg. 341).

The constant contrast that the novel paints for us is that of black versus white, African culture versus European civility presents us with the image of European racism against the people of African. Achebe also states that Conrad himself is a racist by pointing the language he himself uses when referring to Blacks and how he speaks when referring to his fellow European. Even though Conrad’s book shows his character Marlow’s momentary sympathy for the Africans he saw slowly dying, Achebe doesn’t think that moment clears Conrad. Ultimately Achebe’s point is that the “Heart of Darkness”, doesn’t give the people of the Congo enough credit and what is described in the novel makes the African seem like a races of savages with no language or culture.
Achebe’s essay shows us the racism that exists in “Heart of Darkness”, but he fails to provide an answer into why this was happening. When we think racism, we think about issues of race from a modern day American’s prospective, but we must remember that racism, the form that is illustrated in “Heart of Darkness” isn’t like what African Americans in North America were experiencing. So Achebe’s essay still leaves us with the big question of why African’s were being subject to such racist treatment in the time of English expansion as shown by Conrad’s novel.

Achebe does not provide much of an answer to our question of why this was happening in his essay. His essay mainly went through “Heart of Darkness” comparing the language and visuals used to describe the European and the African in contrast to each other, mainly trying to provide evidence of racism in Conrad’s book. Where we can find a much better answer to why the Africans were treated in such a manner is by taking a look at Ronald Takaki’s essay “The “Tempest” in the Wilderness: Shakespeare’s Dream about America”. Takaki’s essay shows us the deliberate separation of the races the English used to differ themselves from the people that they conquered. They are able to usurp native land without feeling compassion for the people by labeling them as savages.

The main focus of Takaki’s essay was the treatment of the Irish and the Native Americas in the time of English expansion. When the English first engaged the Irish they labeled them savages because they were “living outside of civilization; they had tribal organizations, and their practice of herding seemed nomadic” (Takaki, pg.183). From this encounter the English went on to base what they thought civilize and what was savage. The encounter with the Native America is what is more important in this essay. The conflict between the English and the Native American, best illustrates for us why and where the racist treatment of Africans stemmed from.
Some may think that this racism against the African was because of slavery and skin color, but all those things were only a small, but still important factor that added to racism. So this brings us back to the “Heart of Darkness”, where we can clearly see, that the Europeans that came to the Congo did not come there for slaves, since when this book was written slavery was already abolished by the English in 1800’s, because it was deemed un-Christian. What the European now wanted was land and profit. My own view is that Blacks in the “Heart of Darkness” were treated as savages and savagely like the Native Americas and looked down upon because it was a clear but enough reason the English could think of to be able to gradually come in and steal the natural resources and land from the African people.
The evidence Takaki’s essay shows is how the Native Americans were villianized due to greed and from that greed is where the distinct separation of the races is where opportunistic racism sprouted. The same things happen to the African. They are imprisoned, subjugated, used for physical labors that the English themselves didn’t want to do. Marlow’s character comes across the first view of servitude in the book when he travels to one of the company stations, “Six black men advanced in a file trolling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small buckets full of earth on their heads and the clink kept time with their footsteps”, (Conrad, pg. 15).

These men that serviced the English were more than likely free men that they had capture and labeled criminals so they were able to keep using them as free labor. “Each had an iron color on his neck and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking”, (Conrad, pg. 15). The men seemed to be kept as slaves even though we know that slavery was already outlawed in English colonies, so why are they being held there and forced to work is it because like the early colonist they didn’t know how to survive in this “new world” or like the colonist they believed the African to be idle and lazy so they had the right to put them to work against their will. “They were called criminals and outraged law like the bursting shell had to come to them an insoluble mystery from sea”, (Conrad, pg. 16). Achebe in his essay points out a paragraph that indicates that these men that they were using for labor weren’t criminals, “They were dying slowly-it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts” (Conrad, pg. 17). Marlow states this after seeing starved, mistreated Africans lying around under a tree waiting to die. Like the Native Americas the Africans were accused of crimes or extorted out of their land and as their punishment for their ignorance forced to labor for the English.

According to Takaki the Native America were forced into servitude on their own land, “A year later, Governor Thomas Gates arrived in Virginia with instructions that Indians should be forced to labor for the Colonist and also make annual payments of corn and skins”, (Takaki, pg.193). I believe this reflect a lot of what we see in “Heart of Darkness”, Africans laboring for European gains. Even though they had outlawed slavery the English government condoned the miss treatment and forced servitude of all those they didn’t consider their equals. The African was certainly no considered the equal of the white man but his junior and in being so at the short end of the stick. The Europeans came to these new countries unprepared for the way of life so they took what was already there.
In the Heart of Darkness we see that the main focus of the novel was this man Kurtz, who we can see presents himself as more than just a man to the African tribe that he uses “He came to them with thunder and lighting, you know and they had never seen anything like it – and very terrible. He could be very terrible”, (Conrad, pg.55). Kurtz uses is influence over the African people and have them labor for him, by bring him ivory and also stealing it from neighboring villages. “But he had no goods to trade with by that time, I objected. There’s a good lot of cartridge left even yet, he answered, looking away. To speak plainly, he raided the country”, (Conrad, pg. 55). Kurtz made himself a part of the lives of these Africans by living on their land and using them as he saw fit. Takaki explains the driving force being this was a cultural thing, “Colonists were encouraged by their culture of expansion to claim entitlement to the land”, (Takaki, pg.193). So by falsely representing himself like most of the colonist during the time of English expansion, Kurtz used his status as a “God” among the natives to take what property they had and that of their neighbors used them for his own gains.

The English always thought that the future of their country always lied somewhere else, “The future of Englishmen lay in American proclaimed Hakluyt, as he urged them to “conquer a country” and “to man it, to plant it and to keep it, and to continue making of wines and oils able to serve England”, (Takaki, pg.186). Takaki demonstrates in the quote that the push to conquer and drive out or subdue the natives was all in the services of England. The English didn’t see taking the land of the natives as robbery, since they claimed that the natives did not use the land and wasted it, so it was their right to drive the natives off the land as claim it as their own. Takaki states that when the natives fought back that is when they were mainly described as savages, but it isn’t until page 198 in his essay that we see the real separation of race. Two lines that stand out in Takaki’s essay that could easily explain reason why Europeans treated the Africans like they did are found almost at the end of the essay.

The African’s weren’t all savage they were farmers and hunters, but since like the Native Americans they lived outside civilization the Europeans made up their own views of the African as savages. “Many colonists in New England disregarded this reality and invented their own representation of Indians. What emerged to justify dispossessing them was the racialization of Indian “savagery”, (Takaki, pg.198). The colonist associated the Indians with the Devil because they thought the Indians to be lazy, idle, and not in control of themselves. “This social construction of race occurred within the economic context of competition over land”, (Takaki, pg. 198). So there you can clearly see that the Europeans weren’t really out to be racist they only found it convenient to practice it so that they could argue their entitlement to land and whatever property they found profitable that the natives were supposedly not utilizing.

The cultivation of tobacco pushed for a want of more land. The exportation of tobacco had become a large source of income for most colonists. The exportation of tobacco grew from 2,300 pounds in 1616 to 19,000 by 1617 and 60,000 by 1620. The influx of new colonist that the agriculture of tobacco had started also leads to territorial expansion and conflict with the natives. In “Heart of Darkness”, a clear picture isn’t painted for us on whether or not the Africans of the Congo had their land taken from them by such force, but as I stated earlier in Conrad’s character Kurtz we see that the greed for ivory had driven him to use the power that he had to invade and steal ivory from the villages that were in the surrounding area.

It’s not until the arrival of the Puritans that we see the totally demonization of the Native American and the total illustration of what they say is a great waste of resources. The Puritans believe since the Native Americans didn’t utilize the land nor did they dwell their permanently it was theirs for the taking. This can also be transferred to the English views on unused ivory. The African natives did not use all the ivory that they had; they buried some, which to the English devalued the ivory. Kurtz character brings a strong image of the colonist that even though some of them traded with the natives there were others and eventually all found that it was easier to just take what they had instead of trying to cooperate with them. This greed in my opinion can be identified as an inherited trait of Europeans, like the traits that they had labeled the Native Americans with and also Africans.


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” “Heart of Darkness.” Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. p. 341.

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Ed. Paul Armstrong. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. pp. 15-17, 55.

Takaki, Ronald. “The Tempest in the Wilderness: Shakespeare’s Dream about America.” “The Tempest.” Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. pp. 183, 186, 193, 198.