In 1890, there was a young Polish officer in the Congo whose name was Konrad Korzeniowski. Korzeniowski had had a difficult time making a living in Europe; he’d fallen into debt and failed to find work as a marine. He decided to go to the Congo in order to find a way to start over, and he ended up spending six months learning how to drive a steamship. Like most of the Europeans who came to the Congo in the 1890s, Korzeniowski initially believed that the Belgians were hard at work “civilizing” the Congolese people. Many years later, Korzeniowski would change his name to Joseph Conrad and become a writer. During his sixth months in the Congo, Conrad suffered from malaria; even so, it’s clear (based on his vivid descriptions in Heart of Darkness) that he saw a great deal of the Congo. In Heart of Darkness, a man named Marlow travels to the Congo and meets Mr. Kurtz, a charismatic but brutal European leader. English professors talk about Conrad’s novella in literary terms, but the book is also important historically because of the account it gives of conditions in the Belgian Congo.
Joseph Conrad was one of the greatest writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His novels and novellas continue to attract a lot of interest and attention in the 21st century. In this short chapter, Hochschild will study Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most famous book, from a historical perspective, since many of the novella’s most famous literary ideas were based on real events from Conrad’s time as an officer. It’s a matter of historical record that Conrad was stationed in the Congo for many months, although he spent most of the time sick (and therefore not participating in or witnessing the worst atrocities of the Force Publique). Previously, Hochschild characterized King Leopold II, (a real person), as resembling a literary villain. Conversely, in this chapter, he talks about the real-life inspiration for Heart of Darkness, a literary work.
In Heart of Darkness, Marlow experiences many horrific events: he sees the dead bodies of African men and women lying by the river, and notices that ivory and rubber are constantly being shipped out of the area and back to Europe. It’s likely that Conrad based Mr. Kurtz on a few real-life figures. Perhaps the most important model for Kurtz was Captain Léon Rom of the Force Publique. Like Kurtz, Rom was said to collect the heads of his African victims. There is even some evidence that Conrad met Rom in the Congo in August of 1890.
Throughout the history of the Belgian occupation of the Congo, we encounter real-life human beings who seem to have stepped out of novels and plays. For example, Léon Rom seems to have been so diabolically, sadistically evil that he belonged in a novel. It’s easy to forget that Heart of Darkness, despite being a fictional work, was inspired by some horrifying but real-life events.
Heart of Darkness is one of the most scathing critiques of imperialism in English literature. But, though Conrad seems to have despised Belgian imperialism for “going too far,” he admired the British Empire greatly. Some critics have argued that Heart of Darkness is a racist book, portraying Africans as grunting, monolithic “brutes.” While there may be some truth in these criticisms, Conrad is insightful about the contradictions and ironies of imperialism. He notes that Kurtz was a murderous colonialist, but also an accomplished writer, who submitted a long treatise on “the suppression of savage customs.” Like Kurtz, Henry Morton Stanley was extravagantly praised for his books on Africa. Similarly, Captain Léon Rom published a book on Africans in the Congo, in which he spoke condescendingly of Africans, criticizing them for their laziness and stupidity. In all, it’s important to remember that, in spite of the fact that Heart of Darkness is a work of fiction, it was inspired by horrific, real-life events in the Congo.
Notice that Hochschild never claims that Heart of Darkness is an ethical, open-minded book. In fact, many critics, such as the writer Chinua Achebe, have convincingly argued that, by modern standards, Heart of Darkness is a highly offensive, racially insensitive book.. Hochschild is careful not to fall into Conrad’s trap in his own book: he portrays Congolese people with subtlety, showing how they transcended their status as victims by rising up against the Belgian administration. Conrad’s condescending, implicitly imperialist view of the Belgian occupation reflects the political ideology of the Congo reform movement—like Conrad, the leaders of the movement opposed some imperialist ventures, but not all, and treated the Congolese people like children.