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Colonialism and Moral Conflict in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s tale of nineteenth-century Africa asks deep questions about colonialism, the moral justifications of the occupting power and the consequences for the underdeveloped country on which western intervention is focused. In Heart of Darkness the setting is the Belgian Congo, but the issues raised apply endlessly to the various western colonial adventures of more recent years, certainly to the Vietnam war, as Coppola so skilfully showed in Apocalypse Now, and indeed to the present Iraqi conflict.

When the French warship is seen dropping shells senselessly into the jungle, the explanation is that there are “enemies”, more precisely “a camp of natives … hidden out of sight somewhere” (20), in the same way, perhaps, as all anti-coalition forces in Iraq are “insurgents”. We know very little about them, but they are “enemies” or “criminals” like the wretches in the chain gang Marlowe sees on whom “the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come…, an insoluble mystery from the sea” (22-3), or perhaps like the “gooks” that Colonel Kilgore (who we know was based on a real Vietnam commander) speaks of in Apocalypse Now.

“Damn gook names, they all sound the same”, he says when discussing Willard’s access to the mouth of the river. Marlowe sees the workers dying, largely because of the incompetence and unimaginativeness of colonial administration. “Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient” (24).

The workers at Kurtz’s station are also contracted on western lines, though “I don’t think a single one of them had any clear idea of time” but “as long as there was a piece of paper written over in accordance with some farcical law or other” (58) the colonial authorities were satisfied and asked no questions. No one was concerned to understand these people or their traditions – to ask what they ate, or how they lived. They are “natives” or “savages”. In Apocalypse Now, the general briefing Willard on his mission says that he can understand Kurtz, because “with these natives” there is a temptation to play God.

Vietnam of course was fought partly for reasons of geopolitical influence, but it was also partly driven by the beliefs of liberals, that there was a moral requirement to resist the domino effect in South East Asia. Despite much current cynicism, a leading factor in the Iraq invasion was, and still is, the belief that a democratic Middle-East would be a happier and safer place for all mankind. Heart of Darkness is full of the ideas of progress and hope. Kurtz is a great man, we hear early on in the book. “Oh, he will go far, very far” (28).

The uncorrupted Kurtz has noble ambitions: “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things… for humanizing, improving, instructing” (47). The visionary quality is enough to enchant the young Russian Marlowe meets, who says that “this man has enlarged my mind” (78) and “he made me see things” (79). But Kurtz’s journal shows the cracks. While he argues that colonialism is a noble thing, by which “we can exert a power for good practically unbounded” (72), Marlowe notices that there are no practical ideas of how this might be achieved.

He suspects that it is all no more than “the unbounded power of eloquence” (72), until he suddenly comes across the scrawled words at the end of a page “like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’” (72). For just as the natives are the victims of the colonial adventure, so is Kurtz, whose moral nature is destroyed by the contact with the “darkness”, which seems to make him aware of how close “civilized” man is to savagery. The story makes the point in many ways.

Marlowe starts his story with the reminder that even the Thames estuary, the way to London “has been one of the dark places of the earth” (7), and he tries to make his hearers understand what can be the result of solitude and dislocation from “solid pavement under your feet” (70) and the absence of neighbors and policemen. Kurtz has succumbed to the temptation. His people love him, the greed for ivory “had got the better of the – what shall I say – less material aspirations” (82), and a line of skulls on poles surrounds his house.

“The wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion” (83). He has glimpsed “the horror! ” both of the capabilities of human nature, and of his own. In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz tells Willard a story about his own experience. When he was with the Special Forces he went into a Vietnamese village to inoculate the children. After they had left, the Vietcong came to the village and cut off the arms of the children who had been vaccinated, to terrify the villagers into refusing to cooperate with the Americans.

Kurtz cried “like a grandmother” at this barbarity, but then suddenly realized “the genius of that! ”. The soldiers who had done it had families of their own, but they “fought with their hearts”. If he could have ten divisions of men like that “our troubles here would soon be over”. The lesson is that the best soldier is totally ruthless, and all the cant and hypocrisy about democracy and humane action is irrelevant in war.

This is no doubt the truth, but in the interests of our common humanity we can never give up the struggle to prevent it governing our actions when we have power over others. We are too close to events to make historical judgments about the Iraq conflict, but what is always the case is that barbarism given a chance will always emerge in conflict, and the dangers of corruption like Kurtz’s are always present.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. Coppola, Francis Ford. Apocalypse Now. U. S. A. : United Artists, 1979.

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