Magazine article History Today

New Light on the `Heart of Darkness'

Magazine article History Today

New Light on the `Heart of Darkness'

Article excerpt

A century after the publication of Joseph Conrad's novel, Angus Mitchell reflects on the grim reality underlying the fiction, and the fight against slavery it inspired.

IN THE SPRING OF 1899, when Heart of Darkness was serialized in Blackwood 's Magazine, its author, Joseph Conrad, could scarcely have predicted that he had penned one of the most provocative and controversial literary works of the next century. For a hundred years now this short novel has been a window through which Europeans have glimpsed the scramble for Africa by their empire-forging ancestors. Behind Marlow's river journey in search of Kurtz lie the great conflicts that seethed beneath the jingoism of Empire. The struggles between civilisation and savagery, nature and progress, cannibalism against culture, Christianity versus magic: all these opposites and others battle in the dense undergrowth of the narrative. Heart of Darkness was the first novel to attack concepts of Western progress and question dubious social Darwinist attitudes that were used to justify many brutal facets of Empire-building.

The debate over Heart of Darkness has grumbled on unabated ever since -- to a point where it is now something of a cliche to mention it at all. The theme has attracted and sometimes obsessed the creative mind. Orson Welles adapted the story for radio. Film director Francis Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now (1974), reinterpreting the weird nightmare to fit the psychedelic madness of American folly in Vietnam. Radical critics of Empire like Edward Said and the African writer Chinua Achebe have praised and lambasted the book respectively. A metaphyiscal dimension to Heart of Darkness makes it a hard book to pin down. The literary debate and the `Conrad controversy' will doubtless continue for another century. Africa still lives in the shadow of horror and the significance of Heart of Darkness has matured with the vintage of the years.

But what worth has Conrad's imagining of Heart of Darkness for the historian? Was there an historical Heart of Darkness? Can it now be identified in history? Certainly in recent years there has been an effort to try and configure the fiction with fact. A number of African adventurers have been singled out as possible prototypes for `the universal genius' Kurtz, whose great skill in collecting ivory at an up-river station eventually sends him over the edge: he turns from being the `civilizer' into the savage.

The story begins on the banks of the Thames -- the Imperial artery of commerce and civilization -- but the main arena for the tale is another river altogether -- the Congo. The historical framework of the narrative is set within and specifically alludes to the horror that lay beneath the surface of the Belgian King Leopold II's Congo Free State. Leopold is never mentioned by name in the novel, but he lurks in the shadows nonetheless.

Heart of Darkness appeared at a moment when horror began to take on a new graphic dimension in the European imagination and ideas on slavery demanded redefinition. During the 1890s rumours started to circulate widely that aspects of imperial policy were going terribly wrong. Conrad's ostensibly imaginative work gave these reports intellectual force. Following its publication new attitudes towards Africa emerged among radical humanitarian thinkers. Some started to wonder just where the flag of Imperial progress was leading.

The opening up of the tropical heart of Africa had been a rapid process. In 1800 Africa's interior south of the Sahara was unmapped terra incognita. At the Berlin conference in 1884-5 the colonial powers carved up Africa amongst themselves. Much of the territory by then had been traversed. The names of the epic adventurers responsible for opening up the interior: Sir James Bruce, John Hanning Speke, Sir Richard Burton, David Livingstone and Sir Henry Morton Stanley echo through classrooms even today. Their travel writings helped appropriate African territories in the Victorian imagination. …

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