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Is Joseph Conrad racist?



Scholars and ordinary followers of African literature must be aware of a small but very powerful novel by a key nineteenth century European writer, Joseph Conrad. His novel is entitled Heart of Darkness. It has divided African readers. While we celebrate Africa Day, it is useful to think about that controversial book once more. Although it is a novel from as far back as 1899, it has sparked debate on whether it is indeed a text that is racist. Even the great African novelist, Chinua Achebe, was once sucked into this debate that has been going on for decades now. Heart of Darkness follows one white man’s nightmarish journey into the interior of Africa. Aboard a British ship called the Nellie, three men listen to a man named Marlow recount his journey into Africa up the Congo River in a steam boat as an agent for a Belgian ivory trading company. Marlow says that he witnesses brutality and hate between the white ivory hunters and the native African people. Marlow becomes entangled in a power struggle within the Company, and finally learns the truth about the mysterious Kurtz, a mad agent who has become both a god and a prisoner of the “native Africans.” After “rescuing” Kurtz from the native African people, Marlow watches in horror as Kurtz succumbs to madness, disease, and finally death. The description of African people in Heart of Darkness is unpalatable, at least to a conscious African reader. The Africans are seen as and referred to as SAVAGES. This is what the narrator says about the Africans and Africa: “It (Africa) was unearthly and the men (Africans) were – no, they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They (Africans) howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.” That is not enough because there is some more of this kind of descriptions and here is another: “…as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rich walls, of peaked grass roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling… The prehistoric man (the African) was cursing us (white men), praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell”. The structure and style of Heart of Darkness is the first challenge. We have a narrator reporting Marlow’s narration of Marlow’s experiences in Africa. This is a story inside another story, inside a story! You may say that technically, Heart of Darkness ceases to be Conrad’s story and therefore if the story is racist, then Conrad is not necessarily racist! The story is partially Marlow’s because only what is remembered or deemed important by him gets to be narrated. It is also partially the narrator’s story because his record of what he heard Marlow say is his sole experience. We are therefore faced by a situation where we should not fully ascribe the blame to either Conrad or Marlow. Again: technically the story operates from several “subsequent” points of view. We keep on saying: who is racist here? Chinua Achebe, who happened to find the novel racist, thinks that Marlow speaks for Conrad because Conrad does “not hint, clearly and adequately at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.” Achebe’s assertion that Marlow speaks for Conrad is further strengthened by the fact that Conrad himself makes a journey similar to Marlow’s down the Congo River in 1890. It is the nature of literature to be wholly or very partially autobiographical. Those who agree with Achebe insist on the point that: in the nineteenth century where adventure novels are heavily loaded with the author’s experiences as in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, the authors tended to agree to be associated with their major characters. Conrad, who tended, throughout his life, to see the multiple conflicting dimensions of one thing, would definitely not want to disassociate himself from Marlow, who undertakes the same journey as his creator. For Achebe, Heart of Darkness is racist because it projects the image of Africa as “the other world, the antithesis of Europe… the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanisation, which depersonalises a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. I do not doubt Conrad’s great talents. Even Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments…” The “Achebe school” is also angered by the portrayal of the Thames River as representation of modernity against the savage muddiness and hazardous Congo River of Africa. There is also the “wild and gorgeous apparition of an (African) woman” pitied against the serene civilised mood of the intended (white woman). The “worst insult” is the pitying of the thoughtful life-like white men against the grunting men of Africa. Those who disagree with Achebe and company put across a series of arguments that revert back to the ideological environment under which the novel was conceived and written. Their argument is that the writing of Heart of Darkness was done at a time when considering Africans as savages as and lesser beings than non-Africans was the norm. They point out that Conrad set his story in the Belgian (King Leopold II’s) Congo of the 1890’s when the Africans in the Congo region were being forced to extract ivory and rubber for the Empire at gunpoint. Those who resisted got killed or dismembered and to imagine a kind of discourse that saw blacks as having equal humanity with other races was unthinkable. They even think that Conrad attacks imperialism because he identifies it with clear plunder and not the pretensions of civilising the savage and spreading Christianity. However, even then, Conrad’s attack of imperialism has its contradictions. Conrad questions the morality of colonialism and exploitation but he does not question the colonial mission itself. Although Conrad’s Africans are pitiable, they are nonetheless niggers and are victimised quite as much by their own stupidity and ignorance as by European brutality. One of Kurtz’s last utterances: “Exterminate the brutes!” demonstrates that the term “going native” does not mean becoming one with the savages. Despite the delirium, Kurtz knows the clear cut racial divisions and his white man’s duties in Africa. In addition, “Darkness” in Heart of Darkness tends to be metaphorical. Darkness holds a multiplicity of meanings. The only unequivocal meaning of darkness in the novel seems to be one’s descending to inhuman levels of thought and behaviour – like Kurtz and the whole Belgian colonial establishment. In Heart of Darkness evil is portrayed as African and if it is also African that is because some white men in the Heart of Darkness behave like Africans! Reading Heart of Darkness, you are certain that for the western readers of the 1890s, it must have shown the extremities of conquest, of course, but, it definitely must have confirmed the western concept of Africa as the land of savages. If the novel caused sympathy towards the African, it was that sympathy one has for an animal in agony, not as fellow human beings. It is important to note that Chinua Achebe, who developed a revulsion against this kind of writing, vowed to write a literature that redeemed the black image and rightfully, his novels, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, portray Africans as real beings with strengths, weaknesses, philosophies and languages. The above shows that European and early settler literature about non-Europeans in general and particularly nineteenth century European literature on Africa, can be an example of how Europe developed systematically denigrative ways of looking at “other people.” Memory Chirere

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