Heart of prejudice

No one better described the encounter with Africa of European adventurers, explorers and colonialists than Joseph Conrad. Andrew Marshall shows how he unveiled the attitudes that still blind us to the realities of Rwanda and Zaire
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The Independent Online
``And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."

Thus, on the River Thames, begins a story that is one of the most compelling and influential works of English literature in the last century: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It is the story of Marlow's journey through the jungles of the Belgian Congo to find the mysterious Kurtz, a colonial figure of mythic status who has gone mad, acquiring power and influence over the natives while losing his own mind in the process. It is an account of the descent of a Westerner into savagery as he encounters Africa, of a man who has lost his moral bearings deep in the jungle.

A tale of colonial adventure in what is now Zaire has obvious relevance as foreign forces prepare to arrive in that benighted country to deliver humanitarian assistance. But it is not quite the message that a casual reading of the story would give us, the reading that is pressed upon us by those who see in central Africa's problems merely humanity gone mad. A message is being sent when the phrase "heart of darkness" is casually bandied around: that Africa is irredeemably savage, the dark continent, a place where light and civilisation (a Western preserve) can never penetrate. Conrad's work, and the casual use of its title to refer to bloodshed and war, has become an icon of Western attitudes towards the Third World, and Africa in particular, a supporting argument from art for the thesis that parts of the Third World are mad, bad and dangerous to know, and irretrievably so.

But it is not so; and a careful look at Conrad, and the background to his novel, reveals far more than casual racism or the careless perpetration of stereotypes. As Conrad knew, when we stare into the darkness we are looking into our own hearts.

The story was first printed in Blackwoods Magazine (a dark irony itself, the title of the publication). It is about the hypocrisy inherent in colonialism, and the violence it begets. Marlow, a sea-captain, is given the mission in the first place because his predecessor has been killed after he savagely attacked an African chief in an argument over two hens. "He had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way," comments Marlow, laconically.

He is told that Kurtz is a prodigy, "an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." Kurtz has written an eloquent report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. Yet this is also a man who can say: "Exterminate all the Brutes!" And when he finds him, Kurtz is gone, dying, his soul already lost: "The wilderness had found him out early." He is no longer the mythic figure that Marlow has sought, just a sad and broken man dying from fever.

Conrad's story is about the clash between the colonial ideal, the mission civilisatrice, and the reality: enslavement, murder, plunder and disaster. The subject is colonial hypocrisy, not African madness. He locates it in Africa, and in the Congo, I suspect, both because he had been there and because Congo was not British, it was Belgian. Conrad (Polish by birth) apparently did not wish to antagonise his British readers. For the book is at least partly about Britain, and British colonialism (Kurtz is half- English, half-French). Conrad softened his message, but it is always there, nudging gently at our conscience.

He starts his book on the misty Thames just down the river from The Independent's office, not on the Congo; and this strain runs throughout the book, seeping through in references to the Romans in Britain, to Drake (the subject of a critical article in Blackwoods), and to Sir John Franklin (whose expedition to the North-West Passage ended in disaster, and in cannibalism).

At the centre of Conrad's book is the appalling spiritual contradiction faced by those who left Europe for Empire, taking with them the belief that they were going to do good. Nowhere was this belief more prevalent than among the Britons who set out for Africa, India or Asia. Yet the idealism was inevitably contradicted by the brutality that they found themselves indulging in, a brutality that they could not bear to countenance. Faced with their own descent into violence, they often took refuge in a belief that this was, somehow, not happening, or that they had no choice in the matter. The men of empire, writes Kathryn Tidrick in her book Empire and the English Character, were forced into this denial of violence "not only because they had moral reservations about physical coercion but because they believed that they were blessed with attributes of character which enabled them to prevail without it." Out of this psychological contradiction, and its unsustainability, comes Kurtz's madness. Tidrick's book is full of good men who found this hypocrisy hard to bear, and who were led as a result to brutality, madness, or both.

Certainly, Conrad did not have far to look to find examples. He draws heavily upon the career of the journalist Henry Morton Stanley, author of In Darkest Africa, for whom the search for a story led to exploration, and then to involvement in the events he described. After his famous meeting with Livingstone, Stanley moved on to the service of the Belgian King Leopold, who ran Congo as his personal fief under the cover of the International Association for the Exploration and Civilisation of Africa. Stanley was widely regarded in Britain as a freebooter and a thug. "He has no concern with justice, no right to administer it; he comes with no sanction, no authority, no jurisdiction - nothing but explosive bullets and a copy of The Daily Telegraph," wrote The Saturday Review.

There are obvious modern parallels. Francis Ford Coppola's sprawling film masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, is based on Conrad's novel. It expresses the yawning gap between the ideals behind American intervention in Vietnam and the reality, and the inability of either Marlow (now a young Special Forces captain) or Kurtz (a colonel in the Green Berets) to bridge that gap. This is a war where, as Kurtz puts it, young men may drop fire on people from their helicopters, but they cannot write the word "Fuck" on their helmets; where, as Marlow puts it, soldiers can cut someone in half with a machine gun and then give them a Band-Aid. But if Coppola associated Vietnam with Conrad, it is not hard to think of other areas of the world where the "international community" has intervened, only to find itself condoning, or even supporting, brutality. Think of the Dutch marines, tasked to defend the people of Srebrenica in Bosnia, but in effect allowing the town to fall to Serbs who would massacre thousands. Think of the Canadian paratroopers in Somalia, torturing two of the people they had been sent to feed.

If, when we look at the tragedy in Zaire, we simply see a caricature of tribal clashes and jungle savagery, then we see false. The roots of today's struggles, deaths and disasters in central Africa lie in the deadly encounter of Europe with Africa. It was Belgium and France that created the state structures of Zaire, Burundi and Rwanda; emphasised the "ethnic" differences that now fuel genocide; drew the boundaries; and decided who would rule whom. In Zaire, it is not just the Hutu militias from Rwanda that bear the blame for the crisis: it is the Western-dominated UN Security Council, for ignoring them until it was (almost) too late; and it is those who armed and supplied the forces on the ground (which appears to have been almost everyone). And in Zaire, crumbling rapidly now that the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko is all but over, who was it that provided the cash to prop up a corrupt regime? Who supplies the weapons to the rebels who seek to overthrow it? Who flies the transport planes, sells the rifles, feeds the constant wars for resources and influence throughout Africa? Is it any surprise that the French are seen as far from neutral, with their history of involvement in the Hutu-Tutsi antagonism, or the British suspect, with their background in the area?

The darkness that Conrad saw was not in Africa; it was in the hearts of the colonialists themselves, those men who travelled from far away with their high hopes and saw them fade into their worst fears. Nor was it just colonialism; there is a fin de siecle pessimism, a sense of doubt about Europe itself and its "civilised" values that pervades the book. This, too, is bound to strike a chord with us as we head towards the end of our bloody century.

Conrad was writing at the end of the 19th century, when the ideas of progress, faith in science and rationality were ebbing. A few years before, William Booth, founding the Salvation Army, had seen the human destruction wreaked by industrialisation and dared to pose the question: "As there is a darkest Africa, is there not also a darkest England?" Britain was about to plunge into the Boer War, where concentration camps were pioneered. Within 20 years, the whole of Europe was to be plunged into a savage and bloody war to rival anything the world had ever seen, barbed wire running from Belgium to Switzerland, poison gas drifting across the plains of northern France, the corpses piled up across the continent.

All of this is just below the surface as Marlow finishes his traveller's tale, and the boat drifts on the Thames. "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds," the narrator says, "and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."