Imperialism: A Lack of Accountability and Efficiency in Heart of Darkness Imperialism that started with the idea of civilizing the world ended as an act of ‘pure dominance and land grabbing’1. The idea behind imperialism was to populate the uninhabited lands, and to educate the primitive people of the ‘dark lands’ [i]. But when we study the history of the colonized countries or lands it is evident that imperialism never proved to be a good idea. No good has ever been done to those colonized lands and people. Rather the colonizers themselves were badly affected by it. It is desirable that the earth should be peopled, governed, and developed, as far as possible, by the races which can do this work best, i. e. by the races of highest ‘social efficiency’. ”2 This idea led to the act of colonization in the world. The act of colonizing other countries was justified by the idea of civilization and this social efficiency. Many European and British countries considering themselves efficient and civilized, thought it their duty to spread “the spark from the sacred fire”, along with “the seeds of commonwealths, the germs of empire”3 to the “dark” and primitive uncivilized nations[ii].
How far they succeeded in their sacred mission is another question. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness relates well the effects of imperialism on both the colonizers and the colonized. This novella also reveals how the act of imperialism was going on in Conrad’s time and how he felt about it. It is not merely a novel dealing with some psychological and metaphysical themes; it is ‘fiction’s strongest statements about imperialism’4.
After reading Heart of Darkness we can find that how imperialists’ exalted mission turned out to be a mere philanthropic pretence; the emissaries of light became the epitome of greed and brutality; and how instead of civilizing the ‘savages’, the white themselves lost their civility. Conrad is not only dealing with the darkness of Congo and the natives but also the Darkness of White man’s heart. He reveals how there were many evils prevalent among the Whites. They have greed for ivory, they were jealous of each other.
They were not fulfilling their ‘higher’ aim. How could they civilize others when they themselves had no civilization left in themselves? As Marlow sees: “There was an air of plotting about that station… it was as unusual as anything else- as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern. ”5 However the term imperialism is not monolithic. It was different in different colonies of different colonizers. But everywhere the slogans of “sane imperialism”6 and “national efficiency” proved mere pretences to gain power over the lands and its resources. iii] Conrad wrote about imperialism as he saw it to be in his time: “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…”7 This shows that Conrad approves a certain kind of imperialism i. e. it might be redeemed by an idea. Edward Said explains the reasons for Conrad’s ideas about imperialism. In his essay “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness” he sees Conrad as unlike other colonial writers, aware of and critical of his actions.
He says that Marlow’s story started and ended with darkness and thus suggests that Conrad could not see the end of this darkness i. e. imperialism. The reason for not seeing the end of imperialism was that Conrad lived in a time of widespread imperialism. He could only imagine a world ruled by a few European powers. In his time “independence was for whites and European; the lesser and subject people were to be ruled; Science, learning, history emanated from the west. ”8 Being a “creature of his time” Conrad could not realize an alternative to imperialism.
The ‘natives’ were incapable of independence and for him European tutelage was a ‘given’. He could not foresee what would replace imperialism when it ended; he could not see that “it would have its moment, then it would have to pass. ” Conrad uses two different words-‘colonists’ and ‘conquerors’- to describe two different kinds of imperialists. The difference between these two words is that the latter follows the “idea”. This “idea” is interpreted as something ‘that distinguishes the colonist as commitment to the role, to the place, and to the men among whom he lives. According to this definition all the imperialists in Heart of Darkness are “conquerors” rather than “colonists” as none of them shows any commitment to the “idea”. At times it is suggested in the novel that white men were not doing anything good in Congo. They were not there for the betterment of the natives and the land but: “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the earth was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe. ” 9 This imperialist crises was a result of “lack of accountability” 10.
Kurtz and other whites had no fear of laws and authority, as Marlow says” “There was nothing either above or below him and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. ”11 Taking the political side of the novel in view we will see that the situation of Congo in this fictional work is very much similar to the real condition of the Congo in king Leopold’s rule. The “inefficiency” that is revealed in the novel is so much prevalent in king Leopold’s Congo that Conrad had a chance to see. The inefficiency is revealed by describing the “objectless blasting”, lack of any currency system, forced labor and so on.
Leopold pledged to improve the moral well-being of the natives. But there is denial of the “idea” of the civilizing mission as king Leopold in reality and the white colonizers in the novel violated the trust by forced labor. Conrad is not against imperialism but when it is inefficient, selfish and wasteful. He is not just condemning the Belgian imperialists but also anyone, either British or Belgian, who is not committed to the “idea” and lacks the efficiency. [iv] What makes Conrad different from other European writers is his demeaning the whites’ acts of greed and brutality.
Edward Said says: “Your self-consciousness as an outsider can allow you to actively comprehend how the machine works, given that you and it are fundamentally not in perfect synchrony or correspondence. ” 12 Conrad was not a “wholly incorporated and fully acculturated Englishman” 13and this allowed him to preserve an “ironic distance” in his works. Hence his disfavoring and condemning the White imperialists. Conrad’s ‘tragic limitation’ of not seeing the end of imperialism however does not make him the ‘purveyor of Comforting myths’. v] On the contrary, “far from being a purveyor of comforting myths, Conrad most deliberately and most incisively debunks such myths, the myth of white superiority, the myth of inevitable progress, the myth of civilizing the natives. ”14 Notes: [i]
This expression has been used by Marlow to describe the primitive land of Congo. I use it to describe any colonized land as their lack of civilization was the reason for which they were colonized. [ii] Rudyard Kipling’s “The ‘Eathen” expresses the same idea and describes the duty of civilizing the world as “the white man’s burden. [iii] The colonizers colonized other countries under the pretence that it was sane and positive to help people get education, civilization, progress and the like. But it was only a pretence to loot the land of its treasure e. g. ivory in Congo. [iv] Achebe in his criticism calls Conrad a racist as to him Conrad appeared to be favoring white colonizers. But Conrad only expressed the prevalent ideas of his time. He does not favour selfish imperialism done by anyone. [v] For more detailed account see Chinua Achebe’s Essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness”.