Before the 1870’s Europeans did not know much about Africa. At this time only a small percentage of Africa, mainly along the coastal areas, was under the control of European countries. One of the most ruthless rulers to tap the wealth of Africa was King Leopold II of Belgium who secured much of the Congo. Leopold set up the International Association of the Congo which extracted the raw materials, rubber and ivory. While claiming to improve the lives of the Congolese, the Belgian invaders were horribly inhumane towards the native people of Congo. During this time, Germany, Portugal, Britain, and France followed Belgium’s lead by claiming land in central and southern Africa. The European countries went into Africa to take the raw materials for their own enrichment but terribly mistreated the native people. In 1884, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and French Premier Jules Ferry arranged for a conference on African affairs to be held in Berlin. Fourteen nations sent delegates but not a single African leader was invited to come. While the intent on the conference was to consolidate each nation’s control over African territory, the real effect was to start the “scramble for Africa.” The Berlin conference started fighting over land in Africa. Britain and France came close to going to war over the Nile River; France and Belgium over the Congo; and Britain and Germany in territory claims to southeast Africa. The Dutch settlers, known as the Boers, and the British did start a war over South Africa. Inevitably the rivalries between the various imperialist nations fighting over African territory would ultimately contribute to the start of World War I.
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An important novel of this period (and beyond) was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, written in 1899. It offered an unblinking look at how the Europeans acted in the Congo. There is a lot of debate and controversy over this book, such as whether it is deeply racist and promotes Imperialist ideas or whether it is trying to get readers to cringe at and thus understand the cruelty of Imperialism. Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness shortly after witnessing the horrors of Imperialism in the Congo himself, so it is of the opinion of many scholars that this book does not encourage Imperialist ideas, but at worst wants to merely bring attention to the horrors and at best is a call to action against the West’s behavior.
Of course, there are a lot of other ideas as to what meaning Conrad was trying to get across with Heart of Darkness. One of the more interesting ones is that Conrad is trying to show readers what happens to a person when he is thrust into a world unfamiliar to him in every way and is forced, or urged. to do things he would never have before, much like a soldier in a war zone.
Since the text is in the public domain, you can find it below, read it, and decide for yourself what the meaning is.
Written by: Malin Serfis and Rachel Manning
*Image: A cartoon depiction of King Leopold’s hold on the Congo
Brantlinger, Patrick. “Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or
Impressionism?” Criticism 27.4 (1985): 363-85. Print.
Frankforter, A. Daniel, and William M. Spellman. The West: A Narrative History. Third edition. Pearson Education, Inc., 624-626. Print.