As part of my ongoing quest to become a man of letters I just finished #67 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Books of the Century. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a stunning look into racism and colonialism in turn of the 20th century Africa. At once visceral and rich, the entire book is permeated with a psychological tension that exposes empire and raw avarice. It’s short and will almost certainly be even better upon rereading.
The book is a fictional account of a brutal operation by the Congo Free State which was a private colonial operation by King Leopold II.
The Congo Free State was a large area in CentralAfrica which was privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Its origins lay in Leopold’s attracting scientific, and humanitarian backing for a non-governmental organization, the Association internationale africaine. Using first the multi-national AIA, then the “Committee for Studies of the Upper Congo” (French: Comité d’études du Haut-Congo), and finally the International Association of the Congo (French: Association internationale du Congo), Leopold secured control of most of the Congo basin. Unlike the multinational AIA, the AIC was Leopold’s personal vehicle. As the sole shareholder and chairman, he increasingly used it to gather and sell ivory, rubber, and minerals in the upper Congo basin (though it had been set up on the understanding that its purpose was to uplift the local people and develop the area). He gave the AIC the name Congo Free State in 1885. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908. The Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the increasingly brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources, leading to its abolition and annexation by the government of Belgium in 1908.
Under Leopold II’s administration, the Congo Free State became one of the greatest international scandals of the early twentieth century. The reportof the British Consul Roger Casement led to the arrest and punishment of white officials who had been responsible for killings during a rubber-collecting expedition in 1903 (including one Belgian national for causing the shooting of at least 122 Congolese people).
The loss of life and atrocities inspired literature such as Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, and raised outcries, even from such upholders of the colonial mission as Winston Churchill. One view is that the forced labour system directly and indirectly eliminated 20% of the population.
European and U.S. reformers exposed the conditions in the Congo Free State to the public through the Congo Reform Association. Also active in exposing the activities of the Congo Free State was the author Arthur Conan Doyle, whose book The Crime of the Congo was widely read in the early 1900s. By 1908, public pressure and diplomatic manoeuvres led to the end of Leopold II’s rule and to the annexation of the Congo as a colony of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo.
Leopold II (French: Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor, Dutch: Leopold Lodewijk Filips Maria Victor) (9 April 1835 – 17 December 1909) was the king of the Belgians. Born in Brussels the second (but eldest surviving) son of Leopold I and Louise-Marie of Orléans, he succeeded his father to the throne on 17 December 1865 and remained king until his death.
Leopold is chiefly remembered as the founder and sole owner of the Congo Free State, a private project undertaken on his own behalf. He used Henry Morton Stanley [of Dr Livingston I presume?] to help him lay claim to the Congo, an area now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Powers at the Berlin Conference in its final Act in 1885, committed the State to improving the lives of the inhabitants. From the beginning, however, Leopold essentially ignored these conditions and ran the Congo brutally, using a mercenary force, for his own personal gain.
Leopold extracted a fortune from the Congo, initially by the collection of ivory, and after a rise in the price of rubber in the 1890s, by forcing the population to collect sap from rubber plants. Villages were required to meet quotas on rubber collections, and their hands were cut off if they didn’t meet it. His harsh regime was responsible for the death of an estimated five to 15 million Congolese (the indigenous inhabitants of the Congo River basin). The Congo became one of the most infamous international scandals of the early 20th century, and Leopold was ultimately forced to relinquish control of it to the government of Belgium.
The book takes place in a small sailboat on the Thames river outside of London. A group of men are gathered listening to a man tell a story about his trip on a steam ship up the Congo River in Africa. Heart of darkness uses a Frame Narrative (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frame_narrative) aka a story within a story. For all it’s eloquence, this frame narrative is overly ambitious and turns out clunky. Yet it is one of the critical metaphors in the book. Sunset and darkening night aboard the boat in the Thames bely the darkening tremor aboard the steamship on the congo river. The passage of time and the darkening sky during the storyteller’s narrative parallel the atmosphere of the events in the book.
The writing is at times amazing but it’s not consistent and the story doesn’t always quite make sense. Still, it’s pretty good and it gave me a stronger feeling for how events at the turn of the last century played into colonialism. I give it a nubs up!
I’ll close with this excerpt from The Congo, a 1914 Poem by Vachal Linsay
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
* #44 on Modern Library’s list The World According to Garp uses the frame narrative expertly and to great effect.