Racism in ‘Heart of Darkness’ [short version]

Heart of Darkness is often regarded as an anti-colonial text in the sense that Conrad points out the hypocrisy of the ideals of the European ‘civilising’ mission and casts doubt as to the validity of the ideals in the first place (Hawkins, 2006). Marlow even says at one point about a group of Africans rowing a boat off ‘their’ shore that they were want of no ‘excuse’ to be there, as opposed to himself and the other Europeans. Nonetheless, anti-colonialism does not necessarily equate to an absence of racism.

In evaluating how far Heart of Darkness supports Chinua Achebe’s view that Joseph Conrad was a ‘bloody/thoroughgoing racist’, this argument will outline attitudes towards race at the turn of the nineteenth century, examine the Marlow-Conrad distinction and Conrad’s linguistic treatment of Africa and its inhabitants, drawing on the work of Achebe, Hawkins, Wallace and others.

In Conrad’s time racism was essentially the norm,  “the word did not exist”. (Firchow, 2000, in Hawkins 2006). Negroes were believed to have weak or non-existent moral sentiments, exhibiting ‘the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’ (Hegel, 1830:209). Social Darwinists like Wallace (1870) felt that Anglo-Saxons should exterminate the ‘lower’ races as it was inevitable and would in fact be the decent thing to do.

Marlow does acknowledge kinship with the Africans, ‘humanity—like yours. Ugly… kinship … if you were man enough you would admit … there being a meaning in it which you … could comprehend.” The often misinterpreted point of this quote is that the ugliness in question is like that of the Europeans; a universal truth.

Hawkins goes on to suggest the pertinence of differentiating degrees and kinds of racism. Conrad  ‘certainly did not share the extreme racism of his time…annihilation of non-Europeans…’ (p.374) and overall the book offers views on many topics, including race, that are ‘…multiple, ambiguous, ambivalent, conflicting and perhaps even ultimately incoherent.’ (Hawkins 2006:336).

Nonetheless, Conrad still expressed race in the terms of the time —Darwin and Wallace’s Evolutionary Theory had become firmly entrenched by the time of his writing— and while sympathetic and empathetic in parts, he ultimately viewed the Negroes as ‘less’ than Caucasians and this makes him racist. Anti-colonial does not equal not racist; empathy does not equal equality. So in terms of the evidence within Heart of Darkness, Conrad would perhaps be better described as ignorantly racist as rather than actively racist.

Read the full essay here.

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