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Heart of Darkness

Apocalypse Now is director Francis Ford Coppola's film based on Heart of Darkness but set in the jungles of Vietnam. While some found the film belabored and muddled, most agreed that it was a powerful and important examination not only of America's military involvement in Vietnam, but like Conrad's novel, a disturbing treatment of the darkness potentially inherent in all human hearts.

Conrad's Congo Company masquerades as a philanthropic and humane institution bringing "light" to Africa. Coppola's Army pretends to be greatly disturbed by the fact that Col. Kurtz has broken from their command and begun fighting the war in his own way.

Although Polish by birth, Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) is regarded as one of the greatest writers in English, and Heart of Darkness, first published in 1902, is considered by many his most famous, finest, and most enigmatic story. The tale concerns the journey of the narrator (Marlow) up the Congo River on behalf of a Belgian trading company.

Engaged in "the merry dance of death and trade," Conrad's imperialistic adventurers were in quest of ivory and entertained few scruples over slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants of "the phantom world of the dark continent" in order to obtain it. The subject of Conrad's work, in which the story told by the always ambiguous Marlow is recounted by an unnamed narrator, is the encounter of Africans with "superfluous" Europeans "spat out" of their societies. As the author of the whole tale as well as the tale within the tale, Conrad was intent not "to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters."

Marlow, a character twice removed from the reader, is aware that the "conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing." It is in the person of the "remarkable" and "eloquent" Mr. Kurtz that Marlow seeks the "idea" that alone can offer redemption: "An idea at the back of [the conquest], not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea." As Marlow's steamer penetrates "deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" in search of Kurtz's remote trading station, Africa becomes increasingly "impenetrable to human thought."

Kurtz, who exemplifies the European imperialist ("All Europe contributed to [his] making"), has written a report to the "International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs." It is a report in the name of progress, of "good practically unbounded," and it gives Marlow a sense "of an exotic Immensity ruled by an August Benevolence." But at the bottom of the report's last page, "luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky," Kurtz has scrawled "Exterminate all the brutes!"

The Colonial State

This unspoiled piece of Africa appealed to the imagination of adventurers. For scientists too, a whole new world of knowledge and possibilities laid within reach. The first reports about the population and the landscape came to the West in the form of accounts of the journeys of explorers such as Livingstone and H.M. Stanley. Geologists, geographers, cartographers, biologists and ethnologists also set forth in the hope to make name and fame through the exploration of Congo Free State.

From 1840 to 1872, the Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, engaged in a series of explorations that brought the Congo to the attention of the Western world. During these travels, Livingstone was out of touch with Europe for two years. Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist, was commissioned by the New York Herald to conduct a search for him. The two met at Ujiji, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, in 1871.

Three years later, Stanley was commissioned by the New York Herald and London's Daily Telegraph to continue the explorations begun by Livingstone. With three British companions, Stanley began the descent of the Congo from its upper reaches, completing his journey in 1877. Returning to Europe, he tried to interest the British government in further exploration and development of the Congo but met with no success. His expeditions did, however, attract another European monarch.

Stanley's adventures brought the Congo to the attention of Belgium's King Leopold II, a man of boundless energy and ambition. The European occupation of Africa was well under way, but the Congo River basin remained for the most part unknown to Europeans. With no great powers contesting its control, the area appeared to present an ideal opportunity for Belgian expansion. Recruiting Stanley to help him from 1878, Leopold II founded the International Association of the Congo, financed by an international consortium of bankers. Under the auspices of this association, Stanley arrived at the mouth of the Congo in 1879 and began the journey upriver.

He founded Vivi, the first capital, across the river from present-day Matadi and then moved farther upriver, reaching a widening he named Stanley Pool (now Pool de Malebo) in mid- 1881. There he founded a trading station and the settlement of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) on the south bank. The north bank of the river had been claimed by France, leading ultimately to the creation of the colony of French Congo. The road from the coast to Vivi was completed by the end of 1881 , and Stanley returned to Europe. He was back in Africa by December 1882 and sailed up the Congo to Stanleyville (now Kisangani), signing more than 450 treaties on behalf of Leopold II with persons described as local chieftains who had agreed to cede their rights of sovereignty over much of the Congo Basin. In 1884 Stanley returned to Europe.

The spread of bicycles and automobiles around the world created a growing international market for tires made from rubber. Rubber prices quadrupled between the late 1880s and the early 1910s in the world market. Africa, led by Congo, supplied nearly half of the world’s rubber production. To acquire wild rubber, Leopold implemented a system of rubber quotas, taxation, and forced labor brutally enforced by Leopold’s army, Force Publique (FP), by cutting of the limbs of anyone who failed to comply or tried to fight back.

But hostage taking was the preferred method of forced labor. Soldiers would arrive in a village, attack the villagers, and seize the women until the chief could bring in the required quotas of rubber. The women were repeatedly raped until the rubber was collected and then they were sold back to their families. Whole villages were wiped out and the hands of villagers became a sort of currency among FP soldiers.

Leopold’s brutal practices caused the death of as many as ten million Congolese between 1885 and 1908, cutting the population at least in half. The atrocities led to the first great international human rights movement of the twentieth century. The international outcry over the killings and atrocities caused the Belgian state to annex the Congo Free State from Leopold in 1908. Renamed Belgian Congo, the territory remained a colony for more than fifty years.

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Page last modified: 23-06-2015 20:53:07 ZULU