Hypocrisy of Imperialism in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

Tushar Kanti Baidya
Published in
12 min readAug 8, 2020


In the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad we are able to see European Imperialism to its utmost extent. First published in 1902, this magnificent novella is the evidence of the hypocrisy of Belgium imperialism. Though, Conrad’s narration is a bit ambiguous but we are able to observe the brutal outcome of imperialism. On this note, Edmund Dene Morel (founder of the Congo Reform) called Conrad’s novella, “The most powerful thing ever written on the subject”. In the novella, we see Marlow exploring the center of the Congo region during 19th century Africa, when the Belgium Empire was colonizing there. In this issue, Edward Said stated in his “Two Visions in Heart of DarknessCulture and Imperialism (1993)” that, “This imperial attitude is, I believe, beautifully captured in the complicated and rich narrative form of Conrad’s great novella Heart of Darkness, written between 1898 and 1899” (Said 1). We are clearly able to see that that, in the name of civilizing the “savage” people, exploitation and oppression were going on. In the course of civilization, the European imperialists were abandoning their civilize morality and becoming “savage” themselves, which is represented through “Kurtz”. The

purpose of this paper is to trace the hypocrisy of the Belgian imperials and how in the name of “civilization,” they became savages themselves. This paper will try to accomplish this, through selected criticism of journals and articles and focusing upon the novella itself Heart of Darkness which embodies many examples of the hypocrisy or the imperialists through their atrocities upon the innocent people of the Congo.

Full fledged imperialism occurred in Congo when in 1878 king Leopold II[1] started to colonize the “Congo Free State”. He took the help of explorer Henry Stanley to explore and colonize this region. In the year 1892, Leopold II declared that all the recourses available are his own property. After this declaration Belgian traders went further deeper inside to explore new

[1] Leopold made Congo free state his own private property by acquiring 900,000 square miles of this region. Karin Hansson in his journal “Entering Heart of Darkness” from a postcolonial perspective stated, “The Berlin conference of 1885 recognized the Congo Free State as the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium and gave him full control of an area 80 times as big as the mother country” (Hansson 6). Though, Leopold II explained to the [1]rest of the Europe that his purpose is to civilize the native people and end slavery but his real motive was to gain precious materials from Congo such as Ivory. The most surprising fact is that Leopold II did not ever set foot there in his lifetime. He formed a company that ran the country on his behalf.

sources of Ivory. In order to do that, they built stations alongside of the Congo River. The Belgian traders brutally tortured the Congo natives of this region by chopping off their heads and hands.

Figure 1: Collecting Ivory for trading

Figure 2: Victims of brutality by Belgian traders

This novella is inspired by Conrad’s journey to the Congo in the years of Belgian colonization[1]. Throughout the narration of the novella we get to witness the exploration of the Congo region in a Eurocentric perspective. That is why, Edward Said in his “Two visions in Heart of Darkness” Culture and Imperialism (1993)” stated that, “This narrative in turn is connected directly with the redemptive force, as well as the waste and the horror, of Europe’s mission in the dark world” (Said 25). He also added, “Conrad wants us to see how Kurtz’s great looting adventure , Marlow’s journey up the river , and the narrative itself all share a common theme: European performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa” (Said 25). I also agree with Said, throughout the novella and the narration itself, emphasizes on the European Imperialism. Maybe, that is why this novella is a great success[2].

The novella starts with Marlow’s narration. He starts his narration by saying that he was going to the “darkest place of the world”(Conrad 19 ). It begins on the Thames river outside London where Marlow is telling about his journey into the Congo region which he describes as “…one of the darkest places of the earth.”[3] (Conrad 19). As we hear him saying, giving the example of Roman imperialism, describing how Europe was colonized we understand the main aspect of this novella is imperialism. We hear Marlow, criticizing the Roman Empire[4] for colonizing England by saying, “…They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind…” (Conrad 21). It is a surprising matter, to see Marlow criticizing the Roman Empire for their violence, but the Belgian Empire caused more brutality than the Romans. Being a part of the Belgian empire himself, Marlow does not criticize them. Author Jonah Raskin said in his journal “Heart of Darkness: The manuscript revisions” that, perhaps Marlow wanted us to emphasize on the mistakes that the Roman Empire made , the similarity of the Roman and modern empire on the colonized view . On this note, Raskin explains.

Marlow wants us to interpret the lessons of the Roman Empire and apply them to his society, and his analogy between the Roman and modern empires is designed to make the reader see colonialism from the perspective of the colonized, not the colonizing. Thus, he asks readers to imagine a philanthropic association for the development of Britain, an idea which jars and arouses national pride and forces us to question the validity of philanthropy in colonial regions. By excluding this section, it seems to me, Conrad makes his tale less specific politically. By cutting the discussion of the Roman colonial enterprise in Britain he does not immediately involve the English reader of 1900 in the critique of empire building. (Raskin 32)

The most crucial example of imperialism is given by Conrad in Heart of Darkness. Here we observe the most heart-touching description of six skinny native men carrying heavy baskets on their heads, iron collar and chained in their neck. This description represents the brutality of the Belgian imperialists. In the name of “civilizing” they were “enslaving” they were torturing them violently and doing manual labor work by them. This description is very heart touching by Conrad:

Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth in 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. (Conrad 33)

Figure 3: Iron chained native people of the Congo region

Likewise we observe, there is a mention of an oil painting in the novella. It is painted by none other than “universally genius”(Conrad 45 ) Mr. Kurtz[5].The description of the painting is given by Marlow as, “…a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blinded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber — almost black…” (Conrad 44). This painting reveals the hypocrisy of the European imperialists. They were representing themselves as the civilized people, who came to civilize them by bringing the light of civilization to the undeveloped region.

The violence caused by the power loving imperialists is the revelation of their hypocrisy. Whoever disobeyed them, were tortured brutally. We can find such descriptions of violation in the novella. One description is worth to mention, which is the beating up of black man. The narration by Marlow was, “…A nigger was being beaten nearby. They said he had caused the fire in some way: be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly. I saw him, later, for several days, sitting in a bit of shade looking very sick and trying to recover him; afterwards he arose and went out- and the wilderness without the sound took him into its bosom again…” (Conrad 43).

In a similar vein, Conrad successfully portrays a heart touching description of the people who were dying all around the place. In this inhumanely description, we see the effect of Imperialism on the people of Congo region. They were very much exhausted with the never ending work routines by the colonizers. The brutal oppression was very much visible in the description. The pain and agony they suffered, it was unbearable. Furthermore Marlow states that:

They were dying slowly-it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, and they were nothing earthly now, -nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. (Conrad 34)

In my opinion, this description introduces s us to the racist side of Conrad. Also, we realize that how colonialism was oppressing the poverty stricken people, suffering from malnutrition and numerous diseases. Despite of giving them medical treatment to make their health better the European imperialists were forcing them to work night and day like animals.

Heart of Darkness is a perfect example of the misuse of the Imperial system in a wrong way. First of all, we have to understand that imperialism has a very significant relation with Colonialism. From the system of Imperialism, Colonialism occurred. As we know, the meaning of Imperialism is the policy of controlling another country. In this way, Colonialism occurred from Imperialism to install political power, settlement on the people on the land of another society. Colonialism began drastically when the European overseas expansion started at 1500. We can say that, Imperialism began to start at Africa when exploration in the distant regions of Africa began. Europe was very much developed with the modern technologies. To obtain power the Europeans used this power to rule over all the undeveloped land. But their ruling method was soon contemplated with the lust of power and greed. As we have observed in the novella, the Congo region which is imperialized by Belgian empire is very much brutally tortured and exploited by the superior powers. In Marlow’s narration we are able to see how the native people are brutally tortured. They were being beaten, forced into slavery, deliberately pushed near to dead and left all alone to die. The real scenario of the black native people is portrayed here. They were treated very inhumanly. To the power authorities they were just nothing but a tool to full fill their need of valuable recourses to maximize profit. In my opinion, the white men were very much frightened by the power of the black people. That is why; to restrain the power of the innocent black people they would dominate them.

Since the beginning of civilization, there have been many colonizers and imperialists. In the novella we find “Kurtz” as an imperialist/colonizer. He symbolizes the hypocrisy of the white men, who claim to civilize the backwards. Discussing about Kurtz, Author Bruce R. Stark in his journal “Kurtz’s intended: The Heart of Heart of Darkness” stated, “…What makes Kurtz so remarkable is his intense commitment to both kinds of darkness; he is the best of the white agents and one of the keenest participants in the Black’s savagery. These two activates are not, of course, unrelated since Kurtz used the Black’s adoration to gratify his own lust for power and health…” (Stark 538).

In the novella we observe “Kurtz” as a very talented man. We observe himself successful in his life including his career. Acknowledging his glorious career, Belgian Colonizers assign Kurtz in the Congo region as an ivory trader and also appoints him as the chief of the inner station. But, after coming to the Congo region, the lust of power exceeds his ethics and principles and he starts accumulating all the precious resources by himself. He represented himself as a man with a mission to civilize the native peoples but instead, he became one of the “savage” himself. That is why, we see him taking part in the midnight dances with the native peoples which always ends in “unspeakable rites” (Conrad 60). Observing the characteristics of Kurtz, we realize that how excess lust of power can lead a man to insanity. Admirations by the native people as a God made him more distant of his normal self.

The most astonishing fact is that, Kurtz became so evil in this process of fulfilling his need of power and material resources that he became a cold hearted person that could kill anyone because of his own purpose. As an example, we can say that, in the novella there is a mention of Kurtz becoming almost determined to kill the Russian who did not surrender him a small amount of ivory given to him by a tribal chief. This example represents Kurtz’s selfish nature who only thinks of his own purpose. Resembling to this nature of Kurtz, we see Marlow finding a note written by him which says, “Exterminate all the brutes” (Conrad 77). This reveals that his mindset of will to kill anyone who comes his way. That is why to create terror and evoke, he decorated skulls on the stakes outside of his house. Marlow’s horrific narration demonstrates this particular sighting by seeing this for the first time:

These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic: they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing — food for thought and also for the vultures…

Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way. I was not as shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was nothing but a moment of surprise. I had expected to see a wood of knob there, you know. I returned deliberately to the first I had seen- and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids- a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of teeth, was smiling too,… (Conrad 87)

Towards the ending of the novel we observe the tragic death of Kurtz. Suffering from adverse sickness and receiving no medications, he falls to death. Just before the moment of his last breath we see him uttering the word, “The horror! The horror!”(Conrad 101). We can assume that before dying his morality shook him, and he realized the endless sin he committed by killing and oppressing people endlessly. We can assume, realizing this strong sense of guilt consumed him and he uttered those words.

In my observation, in a mission to demolish a region’s darkness in order to civilize, his own darkness consumed him as he got defeated by the darkness of his own nature which constructed him in the evil way and as a result, he had to undergo a terrible death. The effect of Kurtz over Marlow was very vivid in Conrad’s description. Though at first, Marlow had a very negative idea about him. But as soon as he met him as a person, he became overwhelmed by his personality and his overwhelming voice. Kurtz was a very charming persona indeed. That is why; he did not fail to charm Marlow with his overpowering speech and alluring persona. Maybe affected by this and thinking logically about the brutal process of imperialism, Marlow started to feel sympathetic towards him. That is why, we hear him saying “…All the Europe was responsible making him…”(Conrad 78 )[6]. In my opinion, it is true fact indeed. One can argue that Kurtz himself was only responsible for his own insanity and pathetic situation in the end. But in my refutation, my view is Kurtz was responsible to some extent for his own condition that he could not control his never ending greed and lust of power. But if we think with our close observation we cannot deny the fact that in the surrounding of a large amount of precious resources it becomes a quite practical fact for a simple human being to lose control over his morals. It is a representation of the reality that, man’s goodness does not always win. Because when the power of evil possess too much of human’s mind it becomes impossible to resist it like Kurtz was unsuccessful to restrain himself.

Without any doubt, Joseph Conrad was very successful to paint a realistic picture of the hypocrisy of Imperialism in his narration by his own personal experience. As a reader, we get to observe the brutality of imperialism and the imperialists becoming a savage by themselves. It is a real eye opening issue that we give our sympathy for and which we cannot overlook.

[1] In the year 1890, Conrad went to Congo being appointed as a captain of a river steamboat. Attacked by serious illness, he came back from Congo. This journey made a deep impact on the mind of the author. In the year 1902, when Heart of Darkness was published; it exposed the true color of the European colonization, its violence effect on the innocent native peoples and the hypocrisy and madness of Imperialism

[2] Oh this note, Said acknowledged that, “…Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so to speak, imperialist…”(Said 26).

4If we think deeply we would realize that in the name of civilizing they were instead colonizing the “savage” people.

[4] At one point, Marlow praises the Roman Empire’s colonizing method and emphasizes on the fact of believing in the idea of doing good in the process of civilizing like the Romans. Marlow says on this note, “…What redeems it is the idea only. An idea on the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea…” (Conrad 22)

[5] The painting by Kurtz represents a blindfolded woman carrying a lighted torch in a black background. We can interpret the lighted torch is the symbol of bringing light of civilization to the dark region. Unlike the painting, in the name of civilization they fulfilled their lust of power by gaining precious resources such as ivory.

[6] Because of Europe made Kurtz what he had become, feeling sympathetic towards him Marlow hides the truth to his intended and tells her that, “The last word pronounced was- your name”(Conrad 111)



Tushar Kanti Baidya
Editor for

Educator and Human Rights Activist from Dhaka, Bangladesh