Racial Attitudes in “Heart of Darkness”

The following was written by my daughter Grace… 

joseph conrad

Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest books I have ever read.  It isn’t an easy read.  The language is complicated with long sentences and archaic words, and the plot itself, while flowing, does not have a good sense of the passage of time.  But it is a great book.  It is meant to be very dream-like – more of an ambiance than a story – to convey “that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”  And it does just that.  You may not understand the book, but you feel it.

One theme that caught my attention while I was reading Heart of Darkness was the attitude towards race relations.  Being set in colonized Africa, there is a lot of reference to the actions and reactions amidst white and black people.  From a simplistic outlook – and indeed this might be the final verdict- it seems clear, and historically accurate, that the white people’s view towards the Africans on the whole was patronizing at best.

The very setting that Marlow (the main character) is in, is that of Belgium setting up trade routes in Africa for the export of ivory. Belgium had “subdued” the areas and was hard at work, profiting on the African’s labor and resources.  The Europeans who came in to work at exportation – and those who came to stay just because – had a very high-minded, superior attitude towards the African natives.  Some people did not consider Africans to be human; others chose to ignore that they might have feelings and needs like their own.   Mostly the European interference was a reign of terror.

Others, including Marlow’s aunt who lived in Africa, had a slightly more humanitarian view.  She viewed the Africans as ignorant poor souls who needed to be “weaned from their horrid ways.”  The influence of English culture was considered for their good.  Even Marlow could see that she was very deluded about what was really happening.  Civilization in the sense of material things may have been being introduced to some degree, but the ones who were bringing it were brutal to the degree that they themselves became more savages than the “savages” they were exploiting.

Marlow touched on this idea more than once.  He traveled by steam boat, his crew consisted mostly of cannibals and a few Europeans.   At one point he had a shocking realization that the odds of cannibals to non-cannibals was 30 to 5.  The cannibals could have easily overpowered and eaten them at any time – and they had a reason to, for most of their food had been thrown overboard because some of the others couldn’t stand the smell.  But they showed a most remarkable restraint.  Marlow, at this point, admires them. And he is the only person who does.

Indeed, Marlow is the only person who pays any attention to the fact that the Africans are humans same as the Europeans.  He is saddened and infuriated, in turns, by the brutality that the white men show to the black – beatings, overworking, shooting for any reason.  He does not shoot any black man, even when being attacked – choosing instead to blow the steamboat whistle to scare them away.  He scares the natives away again when the white men on board are planning to attack.  He gives his dead black helmsmen a burial at sea – rather a hasty affair, but that ended up saving the dead body from being eaten by the cannibals.  Marlow gives a biscuit to a starving African.  He turns away from the sight of a chain gang.  And in this shows a remarkable sensitivity that one does not always see in older books.

And yet there are incongruences in his actions.  In many ways he treated the Africans with more humanity, but in his thought and speech, you can tell he did not think them equals.  He used many derogative terms, several times mentions them as lazy, and does not provide for his crewmen.  He expounds on the primitiveness of their ways in a way that is both belittling and wistful.  He says, “…you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of [their dancing], a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.” In that he seems to call it savageness, yet wishes he could take part.  When asked why he didn’t go and dance with the natives, he replied that he might have, had it not been for the work on the steam boat, which required complete attention.

Needless to say, Marlow was alone in his sentiments. Even Kurtz – arguably the real focal point of the novel- who was the most intimately involved with the Africans, far more than any other European, viewed them as people to be manipulated, first for their own good, but later for his own.  And as I have stated, this was the common viewpoint. Unfortunately, this led to a long and cruel European reign in Africa which is still being healed.  May God, and Africa, be merciful for our sins.


(image “JOSEPH CONRAD//Józef Teodor…” from NCMallory, some rights reserved)

2 thoughts on “Racial Attitudes in “Heart of Darkness”

  1. Hi, checked out your blog after you commented on my poem – this is a great read, has your daughter written this for an essay? It brought it all back to me because I studied this book at Uni – well I remember skim reading it for a seminar 😉 but I enjoyed a whole selection of books on this subject as we did a unit on ‘the other’ and lots of work on Post-Colonial literature. Have you (and your daughter) read Passage to India? Things Fall Apart? Buddha of Suburbia? All great reads too. I’ll take a look at some of the posts you have written too now, but great work from your daughter! x

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