chapter  1
21 Pages

Ivory and elephants

In the post-1492 European acquisition of colonial territories for strategic bases, raw materials and markets, Belgium was not a direct competitor with the Dutch or the French, the Spanish or the English. Nevertheless, in the late nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa, King Leopold II acquired vast areas of the Congo, a territory rich in minerals and ivory.1

In contrast to England, Spain and France, Belgium had made little investment in colonial settlement. Instead, Leopold’s interest in the Congo was purely one of asset stripping. The legacies of what was widely critiqued at the time as piracy are evident today as the still rich resources of the region are fought over by international speculators, corrupt post-independence governments, and Congolese and neighbouring militias. Even Leopold’s use of forced African labour is replicated in the current ‘mining wars’ over the extraction of gold and tantalite,2 the latter an essential component in the manufacture of computers and mobile phones. While other imperial powers, to a greater or lesser degree, rationalised

their asset stripping as the duty of saving souls or as a civilising mission, Leopold’s rapacious and brutal raiding of the Congo was openly condemned by non-Belgian writers and politicians. Two of his most famous critics were Mark Twain in his savage satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905), and Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness (1901). Unlike Soliloquy, however, Heart of Darkness initiated a colonial trajectory of its own which ultimately had less to do with Belgium’s colonies than with Britain’s, and with the motherland itself. Heart of Darkness is unequivocally a critique of Belgian colonialism

and, by extension, European3 colonialism, something often forgotten since the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s stinging attack on Conrad’s racism in his 1977 essay ‘An Image of Africa’, and his more oblique

literary response to Conrad in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart. Throughout Heart of Darkness, the Belgian ‘pilgrims’ (as Conrad’s narrator Marlow calls the Belgian employees of the Company4) are represented as mendacious, quarrelsome and cowardly. The results of the Company’s forced African labour policies are poignantly described by Marlow in the ‘grove of death’ scene, while Company administrators are bluntly satirised: ‘Can’t say I saw any road or any upkeep, unless the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead, upon which I absolutely stumbled three miles farther on may be considered as a permanent improvement’ (20). For Marlow, only the legendary Kurtz seems to offer some redemption from this otherwise disgraceful Company enterprise and its obsessive dedication to the acquiring of ivory. While Kurtz is also a very successful ivory collector for the Company, his methods are described as unorthodox, he does not mix with other collectors, and he is primarily known for his impressive voice and striking pronouncements (though on what exactly, the enthralled pilgrims seem unclear). Kurtz, it turns out, had acquired some evangelical fervour for the mission of civilisation; but as Marlow discovers when he arrives, Kurtz’s time upriver has effected a terrifying alteration. Kurtz’s ‘primitive’ instincts, apparently catalysed by contact with African ‘savagery’, have led him to become a participant in ‘unspeakable rites’; no longer the emissary of European enlightenment, he has succumbed to the condition of animality, characterised in the text by unbridled savagery and the temptations of the flesh. But there is another side to Conrad’s critique of the imperial enter-

prise. A painting made by Kurtz and left in a way station on the Congo points to the naïveté of Europe’s civilising mission in Africa. In the picture, reminiscent of Kurtz’s Intended, is a western woman, blindfold, holding out a candle into an area of darkness. Read allegorically, this figure stands for Europe’s good intentions in Africa – civilisation, salvation – but the portrait suggests that these (imagined) motives are as misguided as the (real) relations behind them are exploitative and murderous in intent. In the orthodox modernist reading of Conrad’s novel – an interpreta-

tion exported via education curricula throughout the English-speaking colonial world in the first half of the twentieth century – Heart of Darkness is about the primitive instincts always lurking in the human heart, and the danger of atavistic reversion. Alone (i.e. without fellow whites), Kurtz has reverted to the condition of a brute, while civilisation is revealed to be a mere veneer over the underlying Heart of Darkness. For all their best efforts, the text suggests, human beings may not really have overcome their original condition as animals at all.