This is a powerful
indictment of the evils of imperialism. It reflects the brutal
oppression in the Belgian Congo. At the end of the story Conrad
tells us of a man named Kurtz, dying, insane, and guilty of atrocity
and genocide. JB
left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port
they have out there, for, as far as I could see, the sole purpose
of landing soldiers and custom-house officers. I watched the coast.
Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about
an enigma. There it is before you-- smiling, frowning, inviting,
grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of
whispering, Come and find out. This one was almost featureless,
as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.
The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black,
fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line, far,
far away along a blue sea whose glitter was blurred by a creeping
mist. The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip
with steam. Here and there grayish-whitish specks showed up clustered
inside the white surf, with a flag flying above them perhaps.
Settlements some centuries old, and still no bigger than pinheads
on the untouched expanse of their background. We pounded along,
stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-house clerks
to levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness, with
a tin shed and a flagpole lost in it; landed more soldiers--to
take care of the custom-house clerks, presumably. Some, I heard,
got drowned in the surf; but whether they did or not, nobody
particularly to care. They were just flung out there, and on we
went. Every day the coast looked the same, as though we had not
moved; but we passed various places--trading places--with names
like Gran' Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to
some sordid farce acted in front of a sinister back-cloth. The
idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with
whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the
uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the
truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.
The voice of the surf heard now and then was a positive pleasure,
like the speech of a brother. It was something natural, that had
its reason, that had a meaning. Now and then a boat from the shore
gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black
fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening.
They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they
had faces like grotesque masks--these chaps; but they had bone,
muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was
as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted
no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at.
For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward
facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn
up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war
anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she
was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their
wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag;
the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low
hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her
down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth,
sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a
continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame
would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a
tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened.
Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,
a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated
by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of
natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere.
gave her her letters (I heard the men in that lonely ship were
dying of fever at the rate of three a day) and went on. We called
at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance
of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as
of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered
by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off
intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose
banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime,
invaded the contorted mangroves that seemed to writhe at us in
the extremity of an impotent despair. Nowhere did we stop long
enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense
of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary
pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.
was upward of thirty days before I saw the mouth of the big river.
We anchored off the seat of the government. But my work would
not begin till some two hundred miles farther on. So as soon as
I could I made a start for a place thirty miles higher up.
had my passage on a little sea-going steamer. Her captain was
a Swede, and knowing me for a seaman, invited me on the bridge.
He was a young man, lean, fair, and morose, with lanky hair and
a shuffling gait. As we left the miserable little wharf, he tossed
his head contemptuously at the shore. 'Been living there?' he
asked. I said, 'Yes.' 'Fine lot these government chaps--are they
not?' he went on, speaking English with great precision and considerable
bitterness. 'It is funny what some people will do for a few francs
a month. I wonder what becomes of that kind when it goes up country?'
I said to him I expected to see that soon. 'So-o-o!' he exclaimed.
He shuffled athwart, keeping one eye ahead vigilantly. 'Don't
be too sure,' he continued. 'The other day I took up a man who
hanged himself on the road. He was a Swede, too.' 'Hanged himself!
Why, in God's name?' I cried. He kept on looking out watchfully.
'Who knows? The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps.'
last we opened a reach. A rocky cliff appeared, mounds of turned-up
earth by the shore, houses on a hill, others with iron roofs,
amongst a waste of excavations, or hanging to the declivity. A
continuous noise of the rapids above hovered over this scene of
inhabited devastation. A lot of people, mostly black and naked,
moved about like ants. A jetty projected into the river. A blinding
sunlight drowned all this at times in a sudden recrudescence of
glare. 'There's your Company's station,' said the Swede, pointing
to three wooden barrack-like structures on the rocky slope. 'I
will send your things up. Four boxes did you say? So. Farewell.'
"I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, 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 some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying
machinery, a stack of rusty rails. To the left a clump of trees
made a shady spot, where dark things seemed to stir feebly. I
blinked, the path was steep. A horn tooted to the right, and I
saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook the
ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all.
No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building
a railway. The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this
objectless blasting was all the work going on.
slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men
advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and
slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and
the clink kept time with their footsteps. Black rags were wound
round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro
like tails. I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were
like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and
all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between
them, rhythmically clinking. Another report from the cliff made
me think suddenly of that ship of war I had seen firing into a
continent. It was the same kind of ominous voice; but these men
could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were
called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells
had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea. All their
meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils
quivered, the eyes stared stonily up-hill. They passed me within
six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference
of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed,
the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently,
carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one
button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon
to his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence, white
men being so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who
I might be. He was speedily reassured, and with a large, white,
rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into
partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I was also a part
of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.
of going up, I turned and descended to the left. My idea was to
let that chain-gang get out of sight before I climbed the hill.
You know I am not particularly tender; I've had to strike and
to fend off. I've had to resist and to attack sometimes--that's
the only way of resisting--without counting the exact cost, according
to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into. I've
seen the devil 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 drove men--men, I tell you. But
as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine
of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending,
weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious
he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later
and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as
though by a warning. Finally I descended the hill, obliquely,
towards the trees I had seen.
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad