A careful examination of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost shows the fascinating ways in which fact and fiction intertwine. Hochschild describes the nature of
Belgian King Leopold the II’s acquisition and enslavement of the Congo, one of the most violent examples of Colonialism. This is in turn the central theme of Heart of Darkness, as Conrad observed its effects first-hand. Just as Hothschild relates that the reign of Leopold cost the lives of millions of Congolese, so too does Conrad portray the devastation that his “Company” has created in the Congo. There are interesting similarities in the perceptions that the novelist and the historian have on the subject. Both books point to an arrogant, racially motivated air of superiority that illustrates the way that Europeans chose to advance their nationalistic colonial aims.
The egotistic perspective of European colonialists is embodied by the racial prejudices they had toward the natives of the African continent. In Heart of Darkness, this sentiment is pervasive; the way in which the natives are summarily dismissed as being unworthy of consideration is complete throughout the novel. The narrator, Marlow, is shown to be more contemplative and sensitive than the rest of the Company, yet he continually shows a disregard for the lives and well being of the native people. When Marlow first reaches the Outer Station, he notices a number of natives lying among the trees, waiting to
die. There is no great sense of compassion in Marlow as he describes these “black shadows of disease and starvation” (Conrad 14). In fact, all of his descriptions seem to dehumanize the people in this passage, using such descriptions as “moribund shapes,” “black shapes” and “bundles of acute angles.” These descriptions give the reader a sense of the way in which the natives are devalued by the European traders, as even the man who the reader will regard as the conscience of the novel dismisses the plight of these enslaved people. For Marlow, and in turn for all of the men of the Company, the natives become part of the background, as Marlow struggles to refute the “suspicions of their not being inhuman” (Conrad 32).
The attitude toward the native Africans that pervades the European men in Heart of Darkness is also prevalent in King Leopold’s Ghost. Hochschild first draws the overlap between the fictional characters in Conrad’s fiction with real people and events, showing that the fiction accurately mirrors the historical events. Hochschild recounts the story of George Washington William, an early proponent of sovereign rights. His argument that the Congo state was guilty of “crimes against humanity” (Hochschild 112) was rebuffed by King Leopold, and his untimely death brought an end to this movement. In fact, the conceit of European colonialists led them to feel that they were actually suffering more than the enslaved natives. Hochschild gives an example of this in the form of Raoul de Premorel, who ran a Congo rubber-collecting post. In his memoirs, de Premorel describes punishing the leader of a mutiny, concluding ultimately that “sometimes I think it is I who have suffered most” (Hochschild 295) for having to mete out punishment against men struggling to free themselves from enslavement. In a sense, European arrogance allowed the oppressors to perceive themselves as victims.
The disregard for African life was perpetuated by Imperialist greed for the natural resources of the region. Foremost among these was, at least initially, the lust for ivory. Conrad writes, “The word ivory rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it.” (20), Hochschild refers this notion to a historical perspective. He describes the trickery King Leopold perpetrated to gain a foothold in the Congo- the false threat of Arab slavers- that allowed him to exert his influence to harvest ivory, and later rubber.
In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz becomes the evolutionary conclusion to this greed and plundering. Conrad alludes to this with the physical movement of the story, from the Outer Station to the Central Station to the Inner Station, where Kurtz is located. It is a symbolic movement as well, as the Company members espouse more genteel descriptions of their business in Africa as “trade;” this notion become harsher, more brutal as the reader travels into the Inner Station, to Kurtz’s world. Even dying, Kurtz cries out, “Oh, but I’ll wring your heart yet” (Conrad 63), suggestive of the utter completeness of the devestation of the land and people of the Congo. Kurtz embodies the core of the Belgian endeavor in Africa laid bare, a pure exploitation that doesn’t care about preservation of a people and their culture.
Hochschild expresses Conrad’s rendering of the individual and cultural destruction in the Congo through a sense of the legacy of colonialism in Africa. He describes in great detail the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Brussels. However, as he writes, “in none of the museum’s twenty large exhibition galleries is there the slightest hint that millions of Congolese met unnatural deaths” (Hochschild 293). Hochschild also relates that this omission is not unique to Brussels, as other European capitals have forgotten this chapter in their history as well.
Hochschild clearly illustrates the way in which European Colonialism has purposely forgotten the havoc it wrought. Hochschild also alludes to this in an alternative way, describing how Belgium went from oppressor to victim in the eyes of the world when Germany invaded them, precipitating the events of World War I. The utter arrogance and complete disregard for African life is shown in the fact that there is no acknowledgement of the devastation, in terms of human loss, on the Congo in specific or Africa as a whole.
The other aspect of this legacy is the way that violence and exploitation has survived in Africa. Hochschild recounts the way in which school textbooks selectively erased the horrors of the rubber trade by omitting them from the curriculum. He also shows that western interference also prevented sovereign rule from establishing itself in the Congo, as colonial forces opposed Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister after Belgium ceded control, ultimately aiding in his assassination by supporting rebel forces. Hochschild then asserts that the CIA aided in establishing the regime of Joseph Mobutu, who would not oppose the perpetuation of a colonial economy, as Lumumba did. This shows how the colonial arrogance of the west was perpetuated even after rule of the Congo was returned to Africans.
There is a clear overlap in both of these books in the way the authors describe the conceit of European colonialism in Africa, both in scope and meaning of the destruction it brought to Africa. In both books, the reader gets a sense of a basis for this exploitation, which clearly stemmed from the notion of the natives being “inhuman.” Conrad details this directly, and Hochschild alludes to it in the way the history of this exploitation has been erased from African history. In the end, it is apparent that Belgium and the other European colonial exploiters cannot look at their actions, as Kurtz does, and unflinchingly acknowledge them. It is easier to deny this dark legacy.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover, 1990.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.