Racism Portrayed in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

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Racism Portrayed in Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been considered to be one of the greatest works of fiction writing in the English language. It is prized by many, discussed and debated by scholars throughout the globe. While this novel is largely popular, it also has some unfavorable criticism attached to it. One example of this was by Chinua Achebe, a famous Nigerian writer, and he claimed that Conrad was “thoroughly racist” and that his book was highly offensive. I agree with Achebe’s reasoning for why he feels this novel is of racist nature, despite the many serious scholars who have praised and raved about this book. There are many examples of his racism that could have been easily overlooked by someone not willing to accept these claims. Marlow, the main character, represents a journey that Joseph Conrad took on a previous trip into the Congo and tells the story through his eyes.

During the later part of the 19th Century, European countries participated in the Scramble for Africa (Bentley & Ziegler, 740). Within 20 years, European countries had colonized 90 percent of Africa. The Congo became a direct possession of King Leopold II. His main economic mission was to extract rubber and ivory from the country, and do that in the cheapest way possible. Europeans did this through forced labor. Missionaries attempted to record the horrors but the king had stopped it before much evidence was leaked. King Leopold credited himself with ‘civilizing’ the Congo. This thought of needing to instill order and civilizing the natives was a major problem for Africa and a main objective of the whites. Racism wasn’t a bad thing during this time and they felt that they were doing the Africans a favor. King Leopold once said, “The only way the black man can be civilized is by the whip.” This idea was partly to blame for the massive killings and mistreatments of native Africans. Joseph Conrad was the captain of a steamboat that sailed directly into the heart of the Congo on river during the height of European Imperialism. He witnessed these horrors first hand and some of which were accounted in his book Heart of Darkness. While Conrad thought he was enlightening Europeans about the negative effects of “trade” in Africa, he was actually taking a more racist viewpoint, especially in the way he spoke of the natives. The feelings portrayed by Conrad were not necessarily all his to blame. During his life, blacks had no equality among whites and racism toward Africans went largely unnoticed.

Chinua Achebe is enraged with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I feel that his main problem with the text was its widespread popularity. Many people and even scholars felt this was one of the greatest books ever written. Achebe claims that what appears to be normal statements made my Conrad, are actually very racist. For example, throughout the text the natives are known as savages and this dehumanizes the natives. Countless times throughout the novel, white characters refer to natives as niggers. While this was a commonly phrase used phrase when the text was written, today it is extremely racial. This is another reason why Achebe has reacted so strongly. In a different account Conrad explains the attire of one white man. Despite the fact that he was in the middle of the wilderness, he still manages to dress far more superior then the rest. Marlow says, “in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance” (Conrad, 21). Conrad is trying to reinforce the idea that whites were far more sophisticated than the “savages.”

One of the first claims, by Conrad, that can cause the reader to feel that this novel has racist foundations, is in the way he describes the Congo. The Congo is the complete contrasting view of Europe at the time. The Europeans feel the natives are the epitome of bestiality. Right in the beginning of the text, Marlow speaks out saying, “and this has been one of...
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