Royce Davis is a writer and thinker at Bard High School Early College in Cleveland.
Africa has endured colonial pain and suffering, but the Congo took that suffering to a new level. European colonizers came in and took what they wanted — when they wanted — without a second thought. The diverse culture of the Africans was washed away due to European savagery. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, even though the Africans have lives and personalities of their own, they are overshadowed by the Europeans’ words and the enslavement of their people.
Before the Europeans showed up, the African population was somewhat similar to the Native Americans. With tribes and different family traditions, the Africans thrived with their own people, until the Europeans came in and started enslaving them. Even during forced labor, the Africans still found ways to express themselves. Marlow notices that an African had tied a bit of “white worsted round his neck — why? Where did he get it? Was it a badge — an ornament — a charm — a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck, this bit of white thread from beyond the seas” (85). This African man has lost everything except for this peace of cloth that he holds dear. Every person has some charm or item that is important to them and them alone. Sometimes others just don’t understand the item’s significance, and they don’t need to. As long as it matters to the man in this scene, he should keep it and take it with him to the ends of the earth and back. The enslaved man cherishes this mysterious piece of cloth that has some type of story and value to him that make it worth cherishing. Marlow criticizes Freslevens, a station manager, stating, “he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched him, thunderstruck, till some man, — I was told the chief’s son, — in desperation at hearing the old chap yell, made a tentative jab with a spear at the white man — and of course it went quite easily between the shoulder-blades” (86). Even though the poor chief of that village is beaten senselessly, his son steps in and defended his father like how a normal human would. Freslevens wants to assert his “self-respect” (more like his dominance) on the African individuals and fails terribly because he does not think of the reactions of humans. He thinks only of the reaction of animals: kill the leader of the pack, you become the leader. But when this situation comes to humans, they don’t react like that. The Africans are as human in the book’s time period as you and I, but because Europeans are humans who are naturally afraid of the unknown, they assert their dominance on the Africans to make money and supposedly tame the wild beasts.
After the Europeans enslave the populace of the Congo, they try to overshadow the Africans’ humanity with savagery. But by doing so the Europeans look more savage than anything they can say about the Africans. Even Marlow asserts that the Europeans are the savages. The enslaved men “could by no stretch of the imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outrage law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea” (83). Just by looking at the enslaved men, Marlow can tell that the so-called savages look more like innocent people who have been demoralized and stripped from their homeland. They look like normal people just getting intruded on by their own neighbors and suddenly having to do all of this work and follow all of these rules because someone tells you to — the Europeans also have a gun pointed at their heads, too.
The European colonizers are not the only ones to dehumanize Africans. Marlow does it too. Marlow notices “near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested his forehead, as if overcome with great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. While I stood horror-struck, one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and went off on all-fours towards the river to drink” (106). Look at how Conrad describes the Africans. He calls them “acute angles” and “creatures,” but never does he call them something remotely human. The word of the Europeans have warped his way of thinking. He sees Africans as some kind of things or creatures that are built like humans, but who do not think or move like a human. In the end, the Europeans wound up taking much of Africa with sheer power and influence (until everyone revolted and took their land back).
The identities of the Africans are taken and twisted by Europeans for profit. In the end, the boss man Mr Kurtz lays on his deathbed and recites the famous line, “The horror, THE HORROR!” before he dies (153). His last words can be interpreted in many different ways. Some would say he sees hell when he dies. Others say that he sees the ugly mug of the grim reaper, slowly approaching him to reap his soul. But what I personally think he sees is the true horror of his actions as his life flashes before his eyes. He sees the pain and suffering he inflicted onto the Africans through his power and greed. His most devilish act of all is taking away the Africans’ humanity and personality so that he could make his actions appear just. This is the true horror of this book: the depriving humans of their humanity. This deprivation is the darkness that plagues Mr Kurtz’s heart for his final breath.