Imperialism has always been an enigmatic topic of interest for me. The photos of British ‘good sirs’ with colonial hats hunting game and their black servants carrying their most important belongings, this was what I thought of when I was quite small. I still do not think I was so drastically wrong.
After recently watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, I learned about the novella it was based upon, Heart of Darkness. The movie had a quite influential effect on me, on grounds of human darkness and American imperialism.
That is largely why I choose such a topic regarding imperialism. I hope it will be illuminating to all readers who are interested.
I thank to my English Language and Literature teacher Mr. Adam Bennet McConnel for his tolerance regarding technical issues and also my History teacher Mr. Halil Berktay for his indirect contributions to my understanding of imperialism as a whole.
TEXT 1. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
Conrad’s novella can perhaps be seen as a modern forerunner of colonial and imperial criticism in England. If we put aside the core theme of civilized man’s inner darkness and the call of savagery, Conrad’s powerful, metaphorical and poetic critique of imperialism is situated in the centre of the novella.
At the end of the 1890’s, the ‘dark places’ on the maps had been painted with European banners. Colonial empires had already reached to their widest extent but administrative problems were starting to appear. Written in this era of New Imperialism and colonial trade, Heart of Darkness, portrays a dark and malevolent image of Western trading companies in Africa and deals with criticising the corrupt and brutish colonial ambition as a whole.
The second great wave of imperialism, or also known as New Imperialism, ‘The Scramble of Africa’ began in 1875. There were European owned areas and many expeditions before this date but the technological progress of the European powers had now allowed them to go deeper and quicker into Africa.
The European settlement in Congo began in 1876, by the Belgian led International African Association (IAA), a seemingly humanitarian project that eventually led to the Belgian annexation and colonization of Congo. The Belgians used the Congo River to go deep into African soil and transport the natural resources they wanted, such as ivory, rubber and minerals. In 1885 the IAA succeeded into forming a Belgian administered state, the Congo Free State, which was direct property of the Belgian King Leopold II, who was an ambitious colonist.
The Belgian king who gave his campaign an appearance of a humanitarian project and claimed aims such as improving the life standards of the locals had a quite ambitious economic policy. As a colonial (mainly Belgian) administration chaired by him was settled, the rapid extraction of natural resources began. A mercenary force he formed, consisted of European and African soldiers, forced the locals to cheap labour. Wages were reduced to minimum and the quota of rubber was largely increased. By these measures the king managed to amass a huge wealth. His mercenaries used brutal methods to enforce the locals and the extended amount of hard labour left many Africans dead. His rule is today condemned with genocide. It seems that his rule is responsible for the death of 4 million people, directly or indirectly.
The Universal Essence of Imperial Criticism
King Leopold II of Belgium had gained great notoriety during the era of Belgian colonial settlement in Congo. His personal claim and greedy campaigns were quite aggressive towards the local Congolese population. Leopold II, and the Congo Free State became a notorious symbol of greedy colonialism, a scapegoat and a useful worse example for other European imperial powers.
Some British readers have historically avoided seeing their own colonial policies reflected in the novella. The setting of the bloodstained Belgian colony, the Belgian identity of the company and the concrete images of brutality infected to do locals by this Belgian company made it possible to manipulate Conrad’s work into an ‘anti-Belgian imperialist’ declaration. However it is quite striking and clear that Conrad is giving a universal message towards imperialism and it’s brutality. Actually Conrad is not only criticising imperialism, and imperial ambition of the Western civilized men, he goes beyond this and points towards the darkness, violent nature and savagery of mankind as a whole.
Brutality of Imperialism
Brutality and violence that imperial forces commit are commonly portrayed in Heart of Darkness. We see thorough the sensitive and horrified eyes of our observant narrator. Conrad brilliantly expresses an environment that brutality and violence is a part of. The reason for this great expression of a brutal environment is perhaps the way the author warms us up to a thrilling environment. We see a quite ominous, perhaps destroyed environment right before the portrayals of brutality, violence and darkness. An example of this is right after Marlow lands on the Outer Station.
‘… then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of a dead animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees made a thick shade, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. A rhinoceros horn tooted to the right and I saw the black people run.’
The decaying and dead appearance of imperial tools gives us a creepy sense and perhaps this ominous scene is a foreshadowing of the colonial violence that we will witness.
Right after the careful description of environment Marlow portrays a group of alleged ‘criminals’ doing forced labour. A white man is standing firmly at guard. Marlow mock their condemnation as ‘criminals’ by the colonists by saying: ‘They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like bursting shells, had come to them an, insoluble mystery from over the sees.’ Marlow’s strong doubt is that these local men which we can ‘see every rib’ they have, are made and not criminals but simply being forced to do labour. Conrad shows us of the unhappiness and desperation these Africans suffer from such cruel conditions. ‘Each had an iron collar on his neck, and were connected together with a chain (…). All the meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stayed stonily uphill.’ We for sure can see a brutal environment and a typical example of slavery.
Once after seeing such a sight and quickly leaving the place, Marlow harshly and directly criticizes imperialism through his words targeting the company colonists. ‘I’ve seen the devils of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but by all the stars! These were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and droved men-men I tell you.’ This is perhaps one of the strongest humanitarian reactions we have seen from Marlow and a strong critic of the imperial brutality.
Marlow makes a conclusion towards the fate of these desperate locals. ‘They were dying slowly, it was clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation.’ The imperial oppression is so strong enough to brutally and cruelly dehumanize the Africans.
We also observe a scene of torture by the hands a company agent. He adds even more violence to his action by his cries of hate: ‘Serve him right. Transgression, punishment-bang! Pitiless, pitiless! That’s the only way.’
Another symbolical representation of colonial violence is ivory, the reason the Europeans are there for. This is just another act of violence. Ivory trade has been an act of rapid extermination of elephants and that violent act is what the Europeans do after all. Marlow’s narration underlines the search for ivory as ‘brutal raids’.
After all the scenery and events that we are offered, we have developed a harsh, cruel and brutal picture of colonial trade and imperial ambition as a whole.
Hypocrisy of Imperialism
The colonial bureaucracy, the agents, the manager and the others are always seen emphasizing their aim and virtue of civilizing. They name their treatment of the Africans as a project of civilization. This greatly contradicts with what we actually see them doing. Slavery, torture and domination, this harsh picture we see is totally denied by them and hidden under a mask of Western social ideas.
We see that the company agents name what they do as ‘trade’ and ‘industry’ however the ivory is obtained through mass hunting and even taken by force from the locals.
Kurtz, our ‘fascinating abomination’, an enigmatic and inspiring man who covered his heart with darkness, is condemned and deposed by the company for his methods are savage, brutal and violent. This is the hypocrisy of the ‘civilized’ company, whose methods are similarly forceful, but however they stand behind, hide behind Western values of civilization and do not let themselves to be taken by savage instincts. Kurtz is honest, and does not deny the corruptness and dark brutality of his work.
‘Exterminate the brutes!’ a phrase he wrote is the reflection of his honesty and is how he labels his treatment towards the natives.
As his open savagery and violence threatens the international prestige of the company and exposes the brutal methods, Kurtz becomes a ‘persona non grata’ regarding the manager and is eventually removed.
Kurtz: Madness by Imperialism
To be frank, we can say that Kurtz is a man gone mad with imperial ambition, which made him see the dark reality of imperialism and mankind and thus indulge into honest and violent savagery.
However even though Marlow does not witness it, from the reports Kurtz wrote and what people tell of him we can see his fall form the scientific civilizer, a man of intellect and ideals to a man indulged into violent savagery, a man who holds on to a dark truth rather than upheld ideals.
As Marlow reads his report he develops the idea how Kurtz was before ‘his nerves went wrong’, he uses praising phrases for Kurtz’s writings; ‘It was eloquent.’ and ‘a beautiful piece of writing’. It is revealed that Kurtz was a man who believed in the civilizing and instructing function of imperialism and upheld and idealistic view of life, mankind and civilization. His previous idealism may be summarized with two quotes hw owns: ‘Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing’ and ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded’.
But these are the words of an optimistic and inexperienced Kurtz who has neither seen the dark reality of imperialism and who still believes in simple idealism. Samir Elbarby of Kuwait University emphasizes on this: ‘Kurtz’s inexperienced, scientific self in the fiery report is alive with the possibility of the cultivation and conversion of the savages. He would have subscribed to Moreau’s proposition that a pig may be educated’.
Kurtz has not yet seen the difference between theories and practice. Elbarby adds to this: ‘Idealism, which has a Utopian quality, is inappropriate in a world where corrupt interests abound’. Kurtz’s revelation of the complexity of life compared to his simple ideals and the truth of darkness, the truth of imperialism is what drives him mad. This revelation he acquires in Africa traumatically harms this inexperienced man with high ideals and accelerates his transformation into a monster and moral descend into savagery and madness.
As Elbardy says, ‘There is a downward tug in Kurtz’s involvement with the wilderness and he descends into a brute existence. He is reduced to madness, and his aggressive impulses take control of him’. The horrors of imperial ambition are too much for him and cause his moral and ethical downfall, becomes a violent and savage being. He survives ‘the horrors!’ around him through this metamorphosis to a less complex being.
Conrad emphasizes the morally unbearable darkness of imperial ambition and adds the maddening effect in the most poetic way.
The Alien Nature of the West
Heart of Darkness delicately gives the sense how the Western man and the imperial mechanism is alien to Africa and is always separated from it. The imperialists’ indifference of the suffering of Africans is just one justification of this. Even Marlow who is deeply hurt by their suffering cannot truly emphasize with them.
This alien nature of the Europeans is reified by the Congo River, the key to Africa for the colonists. Their travel through the river enables them to go deeper into Africa and the heart of the continent while land while staying separate, separate from all the savageness and wilderness they dislike. But by doing this they are keeping away from the cores of the continent they rule.
Marlow tells us his amazement from the wilderness many times and how he feels different from the wild, prehistoric men. He confesses his alien identity.
The fog that surrounds the boat is an imagery of the white men’s alien nature and inability to see. ‘What we could see was just the steamer we were on, and a misty strip of water. The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept of without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind.’. Africa is an unknown place for the Europeans, a hostile environment that surprises them just as the immediate arrival of the fog was.
Conrad’s Legacy on Imperialism
To summarize, we can surely say that Conrad strongly implies a negatively critical view of imperialism. Conrad conveys this through two ways; by direct or indirect implications made by Marlow, our narrator and by portraying a brutal and ominous environment associated with imperialism.
These evidently created a different view of imperialism and Joseph Conrad, a forerunner of this critical stance, managed to portray a dark, brutal and morally corrupt picture. For the western civilization, this was one of the most significant self-criticism of Imperialism and colonial ambition.
TEXT 2. Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1901)
Mainly a story of adventure, Kipling’s Kim is a novel with extended emphasis upon imperial order and the interaction between the colonist and the locals. Taking place in British India, Kim, contrary to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is implied to be non-critical and supportive of imperialism.
A story telling the adventures of an orphaned Irish boy who grew up with Indians, Kim, portrays a quite positive environment in which British and Indians co-operate in peace against the seemingly antagonists, the Russian agents in India.
We can say that there is not much of a criticism of imperialism however the author praises British imperialism by the tongues of many characters and also by portraying such a positive environment.
Since the end of the 17th century, British traders and seamen were increasing their activity in India. The British East India Company had its agents and managers all around Indian ports. A significant British population had started to grow and the company bureaucracy had started to increase gain de facto dominance over Indian tribes.
After many wars and expeditions, the colonial bureaucracy was settled in 1757 and the de jure British rule was proclaimed. Even though many Indian states and tribes accepted the Company rule and co-operated, wars and mutinies continued and the Company suppressed the rebellious tribes and local resistance. The largest of the Indian states, the Mughal Empire, had accepted British protection in 1804. However in 1858, after the Mughal lead Indian Uprising of 1857, the Company rule was founded inefficient and the British government assumed the task of directly administering India, until 1947.
The background history we see in Kipling’s novel, ‘The Great Game’, was the name given to the diplomatic and political rivalry between the Russian and British governments for authority over Central Asia; specifically the Turkic states, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
In Kipling’s novel, we hear stories about mutinies of the past, the Afghan wars and military clashes with Russian supported tribes. The story begins in Lahore, today part of Pakistan and we also see the Indian cities of Umballa, Lucknow and also the Himalayas. This shows us the extent of the areas that are in the radius of this great game. Kim becomes a part of the Great Game by being recruited by the British as an agent and he successfully participates in operations regarding Russian spies.
We can see the British efforts for imperial authority over Central Asia, and a background theme of the struggle between world powers, being presented in the novel. These not only give the novel some sort of historical accuracy but also a way to emphasize imperial ambitions that the author impliedly supports.
Racial superiority is behind most of Kipling’s positive ideas regarding imperialism. Apart from the novel, Kipling justifies his argument of ‘The White Men’s Burden’ by the racial superiority of the imperial settlers, and in this case the British.
We can see the racial hierarchy in Kim and how it is naturally accepted. Our hero has a privileged status thanks to his British identity. The narrator justifies these privileges, which can sometimes be found immoral and aggressive by the reader, to be right. One example can be found with the narrator’s rationalization of Kim kicking a child: ‘There was some justification for Kim… since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English.’. Literature critic Kutzer Daphne points on to Kim’s superior status compared to native adults. For example Mahbub Ali, a Pashtun horse merchant addresses to Kim in a way that emphasizes his racial superiority: ‘Speak, Sahib: thy black man hears’. We can conclude that age is of secondary importance regarding Kim’s British identity. These clearly show the author’s emphasis upon racial superiority of the British. We also see that he finds this natural and justifies reasons for this.
Another example of racial hierarchy may be analyzed by Kim’s encounter with Father Victor, a travelling minister. He believes Kim to be an Indian because of his appearance and gets ready to punish him for being a thief. When he finds out a British soldier apologizes to Kim and says ‘… I have done the boy an injustice.’. These attitudes and interactions between the characters on the racial basis indicate the novel’s pro-British ideas and belief in some sort of racial hierarchy.
Praise for Imperial Authority
Kutzer Daphne says ‘a complex fantasy of idealized imperialism an colonialism’ for Kipling’s novel Kim. It can not be argued that the novel conveys positive feelings regarding imperial order and justifies it.
To begin with, we can say that Kipling Indians are all supportive of the British rule. One sign of this is that many are in co-operation with the British, as agents in matters of military and also as servants. Another sign is how they speak of the British. An Indian soldier Kim encounters speaks of his days in the British-Indian Army. He addresses to the Sepoy Mutiny, an anti-imperial and anti-British uprising, as madness. He says, “A madness ate into all the Army, and they turned against their officers. That was the first evil…”
Even if we put aside the fact that there are no Indians who fight the British or have a negative view of their colonists, the fact that many Indians like Hurree Babu, Mahbub Ali and Mookerjee help the British in their spying and military activities shows how Kipling idealizes an imperial rule in which the rulers and the ruled are co-operating.
Kipling’s Legacy on Imperialism
Kipling’s Kim, is a quite positive story, a very happy story compared to the pessimistic and dark work of Conrad, Heart of Darkness. We can clearly say that Kim fully fits Kipling’s ideas of the ‘white men’s burden’ and promotes an ideal colonial society. A society which the privileged British colonists most rightfully rule and the natives are happy about this, thus support and co-operate with this imperial administration. He justifies the privileges of the British by the social and cultural superiority they have.
Kipling’s legacy on imperialism can be summarized as his theory of an ideal and happy colonial society in which the colonists and the colonized help each other. His ideas were promoted and used by many European imperial regimes in order to add a humanitarian essence to their colonial actions. King Leopold II was one of those who used such a theory in order to justify his actions.
1) Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914; Patrick Brantlinger
2) Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Peter Edgerly Firchow
3) ‘Heart of Darkness and late-Victorian fascination with the primitive and the double – novel by Joseph Conrad’; Samir Elbarby
4) www.newenglishreviw.com, ‘Heart of Darkness’, Theodor Dalrymple
7) ‘Characterization Shows Pro-Imperial Attitude in Kipling’s Kim’; Vikas Bhatt