In his essay entitled An image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Chinua Achebe makes the claim that Joseph Conrad was a ‘thoroughgoing racist’ giving specific examples from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This essay will attempt to show that while Heart of Darkness may contain certain racist elements Joseph Conrad was not a racist and that Heart of Darkness is not a racist text. One of the first claims for racism in Heart of Darkness that Achebe makes is that ‘Africa is presented as the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilisation’ (Achebe33).
Achebe discusses the opening scene in which The Nellie is at rest on the river Thames which is calm and tranquil. Achebe states that Conrad is worried by the similarities that the river Thames shares with the river Congo; England too was once one of the dark places long ago before it was conquered by the ‘civilised’ Romans. Conrad seems to say though that the darkness never truly leaves a place; Marlow states “it is like a running blaze in a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds.
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We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! ” In this passage it seems as though Marlow is saying that there has been darkness in this place and that darkness shall return to this place and that the present time is the flicker of light in the darkness. This darkness resides in the hearts of people, and with some careful prodding it can be set loose. Having been to the Congo and having seen the atrocities that Europeans are capable of Marlow has had firsthand experience of the darkness.
It is not that Africa is a place that makes men wicked, there are most definitely wicked men living in Europe, however Africa happens to be a place where the wicked men of Europe do not encounter the checks and balances that keep their wickedness curbed. , and in fact Conrad states “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz. ” Conrad tells us that Europe made Kurtz what he was; Africa merely gave him the opportunity to embrace who he truly was. Another case that Achebe makes for racism in Heart of Darkness is the passage dealing with the fireman, which is a rare example of a specific description of an African.
The fireman is an African who has been trained to operate the boat’s vertical boiler. Marlow says that through instruction he’s an “improved specimen,” but he doesn’t really understand the machine- he thinks there’s an evil spirit inside who gets angry if you don’t give him enough water. Marlow gives a not particularly flattering description of the fireman likening him to a dog dressed as a person. However Marlow also states that the fireman “ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.
Despite the less than flattering likening of the fireman to a dog dressed as a human, it seems as though Marlow sympathises with the fireman. Marlow feels as though the fireman would be better off engaged in the tribal activity of his kinsmen, instead he has been separated from his family and forced to work for the Europeans who in return are providing him with ‘improving knowledge’. Perhaps Marlow is being ironic in his use of the words ‘improving knowledge’ realising that the knowledge gained from this man’s work for the Europeans will do very little to improve his way of life.
Marlow is likely sincere in his statement that the fireman should be out clapping his hands and stomping his feet, taking part in the day to day life of and African tribesman. Achebe discusses the fact that, “for Conrad, things being in their place is of the utmost importance” (Achebe 340). Achebe states that “Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold between the policeman and the baker to take a peek into the heart of darkness” (Achebe 340).
It is true that all of the events and tragedies discussed in Heart of Darkness would have been avoided had the Europeans not decided to colonise Africa. This fact seems to reflect the idea that Conrad felt that Europeans had no business being in Africa and that all of the hurt and suffering that stems from their occupation is the fault of the occupiers alone. None of the Europeans depicted in Heart of Darkness are interested in trying to help or educate the Africans and most of them seem happy to ignore human suffering in order to continue their work.
The fact that Conrad decided to portray the Europeans in such a negative light seems to suggest that he disagreed with the European occupation of Africa, and hoped to show the negative effects of this occupation to his audience. Conrad himself said “Barbarism per se is no crime deserving of a heavy visitation; and the Belgians are worse than the seven plagues of Egypt insomuch that in that case it was a punishment sent for a definite transgression; but in this the Upoto man is not aware of any transgression, and therefore can see no end to the infliction.
It must appear to him very awful and mysterious; and I confess that it appears so to me too. ” (Hawkins 368). Achebe uses the argument that Conrad’s lack of focus on any of the African characters in Heart of Darkness is a sign of the works racist nature. However Conrad seems more concerned with showing the savagery of the ‘civilized’ Europeans, the first instance of which is the scene focussing on the French man-of-war. The French ship is at war with a camp of natives in the jungle.
Marlow describes the scene; “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. ” The idea of a French warship shelling a small village armed with spears and arrows seems ridiculous. The appalling treatment of the natives at the Company’s station further highlights the savagery of the civilised whites. First Marlow sees a chain gang of Africans who seem starved and nearly worked to death. As they pass by, they seem to have the blank stare of death, unconscious to Marlow’s presence even though they pass within six inches of him.
Again in the grove of death, Marlow sees the effect of the civilizing light of Europe upon the natives. “They were dying slowly . . . nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation . . . lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest”. Marlow implies in this passage that the natives were mistreated, used relentlessly for labour until they were spent, at which point they were “allowed” by the civilized whites to crawl into the grove of death to die.
Marlow begins to give insights into some of the Africans that crew his ship. He states of the cannibals “fine fellows – cannibals – in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. ” Marlow places great stock in the importance of work stating “I don’t like work, no one does, but I, like what is in the work, the chance to find yourself. ” The fact that Marlow places such an importance on the value of work, and the fact that he describes the Africans as “men one could work with” seems to how that Marlow at least has a respect for the Africans that work with him, in fact Marlow does not describe any of the Europeans as men one could work with. In another scene the European ‘pilgrims’ throw the cannibals only source of food overboard and Marlow expresses wonder at the restraint the cannibals show in not eating the Europeans; “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.
Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul . . . ” the restraint demonstrated by the cannibals is in stark contrast to the ‘pilgrims’ who “simply squirt lead into that bush” paralleling the French man-of-war depicted earlier in the story.
Here Marlow is highlighting the differences between the Africans and Europeans and the savagery of the Europeans with the ‘nobility’ of the Africans. The Africans show an inexplicable integrity in not eating the Europeans whom they outnumber thirty to five, though this integrity is not based on any moral, religious or philosophical foundation Marlow seems to emphasize the importance of integrity as an end to itself. Another African whom Marlow forms a relationship is the Helmsman who is responsible for steering the ship.
Marlow is not particularly fond of the helmsman; however Marlow does state that finding Kurtz is not worth the death of the helmsman. Heart of darkness is not a racist text, and while it does have a tendency to focus on and give insights into European characters whilst somewhat marginalising African characters, this is not due to racism, but to a deliberate attempt to demonstrate the savagery of the European civilising mission and the European characters.
Conrad shows how being freed of the constraints of their society many of the European characters revert to primitive and animalistic states, whilst the ‘savage’ African cannibals show restraint that is lacking amongst the European characters. Joseph Conrad was trying to show the brutality of European imperialism to an audience that, for the most part, would have been ignorant of the events occurring. The true message of Heart of Darkness is that power corrupts and absolute power orrupts absolutely; the darkness exists inside of every person, and given the right conditions it may be set loose. In Kurtz’s case the right conditions happened to be his position in Africa. Works Cited Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2006 Achebe, Chinchua. An Image of Africa. In Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition, 336 – 348. Hawkins, Hunt. Heart of Darkness and Racism. In Heart of Darkness Norton Critical Edition, 365-375
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