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Published:October 23rd, 2006 05:10 EST
Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

By Krzys Wasilewski

Joseph Conrad finished writing Heart of Darkness in 1899, nine years after his famous trip down the Congo River.  An experienced traveler though he was, what he saw in Africa deeply touched his soul.  Never before, either in the cold, remote steppes neither of his native Poland nor on the tropic, bushy islands of the Pacific, had he seen so wanton and inhumane exploitation of men as on the black continent.

This self-made writer published his masterpiece, all things considered, at the worst time possible.  British Empire was in full blossom: more and more territories accepted (seldom voluntarily, often by force) the kind, but just reign of Queen Victoria.  If James Thomson`s poem Rule Britannia " had been just a mere wish of a patriotic poet of the early 1700s, at the outset of the 20th century, it became the national anthem of the sole and unconquered master of land and sea.  From the green fields at bottom of the Stable Mountain in South Africa to the red prairies in Australia, to the exotic jungles in India " redcoats heralded the arrival of civilization.  No surprise that back in London people wanted to read about courageous adventures of Christian missionaries in East Africa, or tempting exoticness of harems and belly dancers in fashionable Egypt.  In general, everything what polished up the impeccable picture of proud, but humane British Empire immediately became a best-seller.  In addition, when this aggressive empire building reached fever pitch, Conrad produced one of the darkest books in literary history.  The book that blighted the empire.

The story begins innocently.  After a long and at moments a dangerous cruise, The Nellie, a cruising yawl ", arrives in London " the very heart of civilization.  As it is still a few hours until the harbor duties are to be carried out, the four crewmembers: the Lawyer, the Accountant, Marlow and the unnamed narrator; use priceless moments of rest.  With the sun lazily disappearing over the horizon, they feel a pang of great pride: they are in England - the shipyard of all worlds` most beautiful and greatest ships, the mother of such famous sailors as Sir Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson.  Suddenly this idyllic scene is brutally broken by Marlow.  And this also, " says Marlow , has been one of the dark places on earth. "  The rest of the crew is deeply shocked.  London?  One of the darkest places on earth?  A heart that pumps inspirations and innovations through the veins of the seas and oceans to the rest of the world?  The old sailor remains unmoved.

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps.  I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration ", Marlow begins his story.  Among all the exotic places they he had fancied as a young boy, Africa, and the Congo River in particular, took the special place.  It had become a place of darkness.  And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird " a silly little bird. "  Years later, as an experienced seaman, when a chance appears, he boards a French colonial ship and sets off to central Africa.  Like most of his contemporaries, he is ready to carry the burden of the white man: to bring light to scores of savages living in the darkness of rampant jungles.  The farther he goes into the interior, however, the weaker the light he keeps in his heart.  It is not only the dense and humid climate of the black continent that makes most Europeans die before they reach their posts.  Marlow`s organism is strong.  It is the sense of unpronounced inactivity that fills the air, the ghoulish delight in humiliating the natives that Marlow has to witness every day.  It is the wanton and cruel exploitation of the indigenous people forced to work without any reasonable purpose.  A huge, thick, impervious shield seems to have erected over this swathe of Africa and blocks even the slightest rays of the sun.

At the end of his journey, Marlow meets Dr Kurtz - the self-crowned king of Africa.  Contrary to what the readers in London might have expected, Kurtz was not the type of Dr Livingstone who would passionately and tirelessly turn scores of savages into faithful Christians.  The Empire, in Kurtz`s own belief, is about killing the natives and robbing their land of diamonds and other pricey minerals.  His is ready to kill Marlow and other colonial representatives just to stay at his post and drain Africa from her juices.  Even the old seaman finds it impossible at first to resist the hypnotizing character of the trade agent.  Until he sobers up, and confrontation between the two strong men seems unavoidable.
When Marlow leaves Africa, he is a moral bankrupt.  Neither of his previous aims have been achieved " savages remained savages and the black swathe of Africa that he had spotted on the map as a kid, is no less a place of darkness than before his expedition to the Congo.

In 1884, Great Britain and other colonial powers gathered in Berlin decided that the Congo would become the private property of King Leopold of Belgium.  For almost 80 years, the Belgians had been remorselessly robbing the country of its vast natural resources.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo that was constituted after the Belgian withdrawal in 1960, throughout over four decades of independence, has enjoyed less than 5 years of peace.  Diamonds, gold, and copper have been constantly falling prey to dozens of foreign and local warlords who, like Dr Kurtz, imagine themselves more than gods.  What historians call Africa`s world war has claimed four million lives, left another two million homeless, and condemned to starvation.  Despite growing international pressure, former colonial empires have not reacted.

"I raised my head.  The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."

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