In the early 1900s, imperialism was one of the last things worrying people in America. In Africa, however, imperialism was a monumental concern. Scarcely more than a hundred years ago (and continuing for over fifty years), millions of Africans were being enslaved in their home country, which was being taking over by Europeans. Forced to work until they died of exhaustion and malnutrition, these slaves lived a life of agony. This time of injustice and horror is vividly captured in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the darkness and pure evil of humanity comes to life. While following the journey of Marlow, the protagonist, the readers travel into the depths of not only Africa, but of the human soul, where heartless acts take place. Heart of Darkness is much more than a work of pure fiction; it’s a recording based on the horrible, historical truth.
What, exactly, is imperialism? According to Mueni Wa Muiu, imperialism is “the economic, cultural and political domination or control of one county or group of people in ways assumed to be at the expense of the latter” (Wa Muiu). The events taking place in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness certainly concur with this definition. At one point in Marlow’s narrative, he comes upon a grove in the woods where natives of Africa are literally sitting in the shade, waiting to die. Marlow describes them as having “attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair,” noting that they were “dying slowly,” and that these men had become “nothing more but black shadows of disease and starvation” (Conrad 83). During another part of Marlow’s narrative, he describes how men were linked together with heavy chains, keeping them together while being forced to do the labor of the white men (Conrad 81).
Wa Muiu continues with his description of imperialism in Africa by saying that the reasoning behind the colonization of this wilderness was to obtain goods that the home country needed (Wa Muiu). In Heart of Darkness, the reason for the expeditions of Marlow and his fellow travelers was to collect ivory to send back to their respective homelands (Conrad 126). Imperialism is evident throughout the entire novel, and Conrad was aware of that when he wrote it.
In a letter to his friend, William Blackwood, Conrad said that he thought the subject of Heart of Darkness was “of our time” (Atkinson), speaking of its imperialistic nature. William Atkinson, who discusses Conrad’s letter, says that Conrad’s comment was not just about imperialism in general, but “specifically… central Africa” (Atkinson). Joyce Oates, who adds commentary to the beginning of Heart of Darkness in some editions, even compares the imperialism in this novella to the events of the Holocaust because both “acknowledge… man’s flawed and treacherous soul” (Oates). Terence Bowers also comments on the imperialism and colonization found in Heart of Darkness; he found significance in the ruined state of the camps and suggested they signify how the attempt at the colonization was...