Art of Darkness: Joseph Conrad Went to Africa in Search of Adventure. What He Found Ruined His Body but Made His Career

Article excerpt

WHY WOULD A SEASONED CAPTAIN in the British merchant marine go to Africa to pilot a riverboat in the service of the king of Belgium? The idea may have occurred to Joseph Conrad during a Thames cruise aboard the yacht Nellie, a trip arranged by his friend G.F.W. Hope. Hope and Conrad's fellow guests W.B. Keen and T.L. Mears served as models for the characters in the scene that frames Heart of Darkness, Conrad's classic story of one man's journey up a river in colonial Africa and the devastation he bears witness to along the way. Soon after his trip on the Nellie, in the spring of 1890, Conrad was on his way to the Congo Free State, the Belgian king Leopold's private fiefdom in the heart of Africa, as an employee of one of the many companies created to exploit the newly opened territory. Although he was under contract for three years to serve as captain of a steamboat, a single voyage up the river and back was enough to ruin his health and leave him thoroughly disgusted and demoralized. By 1898 he had transformed these experiences into his most famous work, a novella serialized a year later and published in book form in 1902. Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold's Ghost, hails it as "one of the most scathing indictments of imperialism in all literature."

It seems odd that Conrad would have wished to take part in a colonial exploit that he later condemned as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration." But as a child suffering the rigors of exile in Siberia with his parents, Conrad had gazed at maps as others gaze at stars, and the newspapers of his youth were filled with the exploits of intrepid explorers like David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. When he arrived at the mouth of the Congo River, news of the "horrors" being committed upstream had not yet been announced to the outside world. The African-American historian George Washington Williams, who traveled upriver just ahead of Conrad, would soon address an open letter to King Leopold complaining of the intimidations, chicaneries and the "murder, arson and robbery" being committed by his agents and soldiers in their dealings with the natives. In 1890 the outside world was still under the influence of the Belgian king's propaganda celebrating the opening of Africa as a philanthropic mission destined to civilize the natives, to promote free trade and to end the evils of Arab slavery.

Conrad's diaries register the shock and disappointment he felt from the moment he set foot in the Congo. He resolved to keep his distance from the area's agents and officials--the sort of men he later pilloried in Heart of Darkness--with one notable exception: He found Roger Casement, a fearless Protestant Irishman and human-rights activist, "most intelligent and sympathetic." Later, as a British consular agent, Casement would prepare the report that eventually forced King Leopold to give up his personal control of the Congo. …