In the colonial period, Africa became the land of opportunity for Europeans who exploited the people and resources for profit. When Europeans went to Africa, home of black skinned people, they looked at the land as available to use as they wished. They never considered that this land belonged to its original inhabitants. Neither did they consider themselves thieves. They did not bother to think of black natives as human beings, but rather sought every way possible to use them to make money. Rather than openly admit their mercenary motives, whites assumed an attitude of superiority and declared that they were acting out of generosity to bring civilization and Christianity to primitive peoples. The thesis of this essay is that the colonial period in Africa was characterized by the arrogance of whites and atrocities committed against blacks. The focus will be on the British Empire and it's monstrous interactions with the dark continent especially as viewed in the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, with supplementation from other sources.
In 1896 King Leopold of Belgium, about to begin building his empire in the Congo, expressed his intention "to open to civilization the only part of our globe where Christianity has not penetrated and to pierce the darkness which envelops the entire population." (Hennessy 87) It was also Leopold whose often quoted words made clear that the "primitive barbarism" of Africans must be replaced by subservience to whites of which the primary consideration was forced labor: "They must accustom the population to general laws, of which the most needful and the most salutary is assuredly that of work." (Hennessey 86) Of course this labor was salutary only to the whites.
Joseph Conrad was one British citizen who saw through the rhetoric and hypocrisy to the dark heart of the horror of British imperialism. In his novel, Heart of Darkness, he did not hesitate to explore the underlying drive behind imperialistic inhumanity. The Heart of Darkness is about clashing cultures, about whites who think they have the right to totally control the lives of blacks. In his novel Conrad shows how Africa, known as the dark continent to the colonizers, represents all that the British Empire does not wish to see about itself: its fearful dark interior; it's damaging colonial policies; its superiority, prejudice, racism, inhumanity and its violation of basic human rights. For Conrad, British Imperialism in Africa comes to represent the shadow side of the human soul, the dark, forbidden side that most of us don't want to acknowledge. Conrad's novel shows how this dark side shows up when humans come into contact with something other than that which they know well, like the unknown of the African continent. The fear that surfaces in British imperialists springs from the depths of their own hidden inner selves.
In Heart of Darkness Conrad explores many aspects of our shadow side: duplicities that dominate human thinking of a group, ideas about slavery, darkness of heart, the unnatural, horrors below the surface, greed, exploitation, profiting, surviving, thriving at the expense of others, inhumanity, atrocities, and extermination. All these were factors in British imperialism in Africa. Often Conrad creates an ironic tone, using the grandiose language of empire itself, to undermine imperial logic, as in this description of the Thames as the voyage begins:
hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearing of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of the river into the mystery of an unknown earth!...The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires." (Conrad 67)
Seeming greatness has embarked from this river, yet what smallness lies beneath, says Conrad. Then, as the sun sets, the narrator Marlow adds, in ironic contrast to the image of light, "And this also... has been one of the dark places of the earth." (Conrad 68)
Here at the start of his tale, Conrad acknowledges, through Marlow, that the intent of empire builders was far other than to bring religion and civilization to the dark continent:
They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force -- nothing to boast of... since your strength is just an accident arising from…