When Heart of Darkness first appeared in 1899, many critics celebrated the novella for its psychological complexity. Instead of considering its treatment of colonialism, they framed it as an exploration of the spiritual darkness that resides within the individual, and particularly the European individual. However, as more recent critics have argued, Heart of Darkness should be situated in its particularly sociohistorical context. This is particularly true given the novella’s autobiographical content. In June of 1890, Joseph Conrad embarked on a journey into the Belgian Congo. After signing a three-year contract in Brussels to work as an officer on a river steamboat, Conrad left Europe energized. However, once he arrived in the Congo, he quickly became disillusioned by what he saw there. His harrowing experiences left an indelible mark on him, and he returned to Europe in December of that same year, deathly ill and ready to denounce the evils of Belgian colonialism.

To understand fully Conrad’s critique of colonialism, it is necessary to know something about the history of Belgium’s presence in the Congo. In 1876, just eleven years after he became king of Belgium, Leopold II organized a conference in Brussels to establish “The International Association for the Exploration and Civilization of Africa.” This conference gave Leopold an official excuse to begin investigating the possibility of acquiring a slice of Africa for himself. As Leopold saw it, Britain and France already had many overseas possessions, so why should Belgium not have its own colonies? In 1874, the British periodical Daily Telegraph financed the journalist Henry Morton Stanley to explore and map the lakes and rivers of central Africa. The success of Stanley’s mission convinced Leopold that the Congo region held great promise for further exploration. Subsequently, Leopold convinced the European community that his interests in the region were essentially humanitarian in nature, and in 1885, Belgium took possession of what became known as the Congo Free State.

The Congo Free State encompassed a vast amount of mostly unmapped jungle, some 76 times the size of Belgium. Although it began as Leopold’s personal vanity possession, the Congo Free State quickly revealed its productive potential: the world’s rubber trade was beginning to pick up, and the Congo had an extensive store of untapped rubber. Leopold embarked on a scheme to exploit this natural resource, forcing countless Congolese people into the difficult and dangerous work of harvesting rubber latex. The Congo Free State rapidly descended into a slave colony in which Europeans perpetrated widespread looting, arson, and even rape to coerce Africans to cooperate. King Leopold’s grip on the colony was violent and cruel. When Conrad journeyed into the Congo in 1890, he witnessed firsthand the gross violations of human dignity that played out in the name of filling Leopold’s coffers.

Although in Heart of Darkness Conrad singles out the evils of Belgian colonialism, he also hints at the corruption involved in all forms of imperialism. This argument may seem counterintuitive, since Conrad’s primary narrator, Marlow, tries early in the novella to distinguish between “good” and “bad” forms of imperialism. As the reader may recall, Marlow criticizes Belgian colonialism for its “inefficiency,” but he maintains that the “idea” at the center of the imperial project remains relevant. In this way, he seems to justify British colonialism, which is comparatively less brutal and characterized by the efficient extraction of resources. The reader may be tempted to take Marlow’s position as a reflection of Conrad’s, particularly since the two men’s experiences bear a strong resemblance. But in this case, it is important to remember that Conrad carefully distances himself from Marlow through the use of a frame narrative. Marlow remains an unreliable narrator, and for this reason, the reader cannot take his dubious distinction at face value; it is certainly not a reliable summary of Conrad’s position. Indeed, as Marlow himself proclaims later, “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” indicating that the whole of European civilization is corrupt, not just Belgium.

Regardless of Conrad’s treatment of colonialism, not all critics have celebrated his vision in Heart of Darkness. Indeed, instead of seeing the novella as a pioneering rejection of a European civilizing mission, recent critics have castigated Conrad for what they argue is his unwitting reflection of nineteenth-century racial prejudice. In 1977, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe decried Conrad as being “a bloody racist” whose work reiterates colonial stereotypes about Africans. Among other things, Achebe emphasizes that Heart of Darkness frames Africa as a dark and uncivilized place full of savages who are barely recognizable as human. Africa thus becomes the antithesis of Europe and its “enlightened” civilization. Although Achebe acknowledges Conrad’s critique of imperialism, he argues compellingly that Conrad’s way of representing Africa and Africans remains tied to Eurocentric, racist views. Therefore, any celebration of the novella’s critique of imperialism must be complicated since its inherent racism undermines that same critique.

Read more about Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart.

If Conrad’s way of representing Africa and Africans is racist, it is because Conrad himself never fully escaped the scientific and philosophical discourse about race that flourished in his lifetime. Over the course of the nineteenth century, scientists such as Georges Cuvier and Charles Pickering developed a theory that posited race as naturally occurring and physically objective. These scientists also claimed that race determined a person’s moral character and level of intelligence, and it could therefore predict behavior. Similar views from the realm of philosophy took such scientific claims further, claiming that not all human races were created equal. For instance, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel infamously claimed that Africans were closer in appearance to apes than humans. Not only did this make Africans inferior to Europeans, but it also made it to understand their “inner being.” Certainly, Marlow’s obsession with the “inscrutability” of both Africans and the African landscape can be read as an echo of Hegel’s misguided opinions. As mentioned above, however, the extent to which Marlow’s language reflects Conrad’s views remains a challenging question that critics have yet to resolve.