Colonial repression at its worst? Conrad and the Belgian Congo

Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness, set in the Belgian Congo, illustrates some of the worst abuses of colonialism. It is important to remember that the book was very much based on real events though. Julia Routledge tells us about the book and contrasts it with actual happenings in the Congo.


‘Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish… The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps… And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.’


The human condition has always embraced the allure of adventure; for Charles Marlow, the intrepid protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novella, ‘Heart of Darkness,’ this fascination with the unknown manifests itself in an urge to command a steamboat down the mighty Congo River. It reminds him of ‘an immense snake uncoiled,’ and he recalls that ‘it fascinated me as a snake would a bird – a silly little bird.’ The ensuing tale is a damning exposition of the corruption and insatiable greed of colonialism, and of mankind’s capacity for savagery. Yet this story is rooted in historical fact: it stems from Conrad’s own disillusionment whilst working on the Congo River in 1890, and Marlow is thought to be his alter ego.

Colonial repression at its worst? Conrad and the Belgian Congo

Proprganda from the Belgian Ministry of Colonies in the 1920s.

Exploration in the Congo

In 1876, King Leopold II of Belgium hosted the Brussels Geographical Conference, aiming to garner support for sowing seeds of civilisation amongst the indigenous people of the Congo. He advocated the creation of an International African Association, under whose umbrella various countries and groups would collaborate: it would be the purveyor of progress to the benighted natives of Central Africa. Leopold was instated as its first chairman, and, whilst his intentions were ostensibly philanthropic, in reality, he used his authority to further Belgian interests in the region.

At around the same time, Henry Morton Stanley – famous for locating the Christian missionary, Dr Livingstone – set out to explore the uncharted territories of Central Africa and to trace the Congo River to the sea. He discovered a region replete with natural resources and ripe for development, yet British financiers were lukewarm about his findings. In King Leopold, however, he found a zealous leader who required an agent to expedite the establishment of a Belgian presence in the Congo. Leopold’s de facto hegemony over the area was confirmed at the Berlin Conference in 1884, where fourteen European states convened to carve African territory into national possessions. The Congo Free State was proclaimed the following year; unusually for an overseas colony, it did not belong to a country, but was instead Leopold’s private fiefdom. Its population was about to experience the ruinous consequences of an ‘enlightened’ man’s unfettered power.

Leopold began swiftly to assert his authority by funding railway construction to facilitate exploration, and challenging the troubling existence of Arab slave gangs, led by the formidable Swahili-Zanzibari dealer Tippu Tip, along the Lualaba River. Leopold had pledged to tackle African slavery at the Belgian Conference, but the gangs’ presence in the north-east also constituted an intolerable threat to the economy, for each labourer or portion of ivory claimed by the traders detracted from the Belgian regime’s power. After several years of tense co-operation, open conflict broke out between the unhappy bedfellows in 1892, and the Arabs were ultimately subdued and crushed.

Leopold promulgated various decrees which stifled free trade and curtailed the natives’ rights, until these subjugated citizens were little more than serfs. He also established the Force Publique: a loyal private army of indigenous soldiers and European officers who enforced his rule with breathtaking brutality. The region offered a cornucopia of exploitable materials, notably ivory and rubber, and although demand for the latter significantly increased with the advent of motor cars and inflatable bicycle tubes, it was around the ivory trade that Conrad centred his book.

Marlow is confronted by the reality of colonial oppression soon after arriving at his Company’s station. In a narrow ravine nearby, he stumbles upon ‘black shapes… in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair.’ It is self-evident that the labourers have come to this place to die: ‘They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought back from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These moribund shapes were free as air – and nearly as thin.’


Fiction and fact

Charged with relieving a company agent, Mr Kurtz, from his station, Marlow ventures into the depths of the sprawling, primordial wilderness on his steamboat. Mr Kurtz’s reputation precedes him: he is a remarkably productive ivory trader who possesses ‘universal genius’, and Marlow nurtures a growing obsession to meet this enigmatic figure. At the end of his perilous journey up river, he finds an individual wallowing in his own supremacy, and so engorged with authority that he coerces the native people to revere him as a god-like entity. Through his quasi-divine status, Kurtz obtains prodigious amounts of ivory from the Congolese; yet lurking behind this glamour is an egregious relationship of elaborate manipulation and viciousness, captured by the gaunt heads on stakes that surround Kurtz’s dwelling.

Colonial cruelty and exploitation were just as dreadful in reality. Appalling punishments were meted out to natives who failed to harvest enough wild rubber to meet their quotas, including the burning of their villages and the murdering and mutilation of their families. One of the most infamous punishments carried out by Force Publique soldiers was to chop off the right hand of a native in order to verify that he had not been squandering his resources on hunting and had instead been actively implementing Belgian authority. Photographs from the era attest to this perverse discipline: in one image, Congolese stare bleakly at the camera, each consciously bending the remainder of their arm inwards; in another, two impassive militiamen grasp severed hands: grotesque tokens of their dominance. Famine, disease and exhaustion were other major killers: they stalked the country, seizing first upon the elderly and weak labourers, before welcoming the able-bodied into their chilling embrace. Although it is impossible to ascertain the true human cost of Leopold’s avaricious and merciless regime, some estimates place the death toll in the region of ten million.

This flagrant indifference towards human life inflamed international opinion, and Heart of Darkness contributed to this outburst of moral revulsion. Leopold might have been able initially to conceal the hideous underbelly of his regime, but by the turn of the century, criticism was mounting. The British government was compelled to establish an investigation into the reality of life under Leopold’s administration, the findings of which were published in the 1904 Casement Report. Roger Casement, a British diplomat and human rights activist, had listed Belgian atrocities meticulously, and an interview with a native illustrates the rampant abuse:

‘We had to go further and further into the forest to find the rubber vines, to go without food, and our women had to give up cultivating the fields and gardens. Then we starved. Wild beasts – the leopards – killed some of us when we were working away in the forest, and others got lost or died from exposure and starvation, and we begged the white man to leave us alone, saying we could get no more rubber, but the white men and their soldiers said: “Go! You are only beasts yourselves; you are nyama (meat).” We tried, always going further into the forest, and when we failed and our rubber was short the soldiers came up our towns and shot us. Many were shot; some had their ears cut off; others were tied up with ropes round their neck and bodies and taken away… Our chiefs were hanged and we were killed and starved and worked beyond endurance to get rubber.’


The report engendered further outrage at the plight of the Congolese, and also triggered the foundation of the Congo Reform Association, a movement which counted Conrad, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle among its notable supporters. Leopold’s position was becoming increasingly untenable, and he eventually succumbed to international pressure by conceding the Congo Free State to the Belgian government in 1908. Yet it was not until 1913 that the Congo Reform Association officially disbanded: a reflection of the Belgian government’s reluctance to investigate or even acknowledge the crimes perpetrated under Leopold’s regime. When considering the abhorrent and systematic abuse of the Congolese, it seems therefore apposite to end with Kurtz’s final, ambiguous yet visceral, exclamation before he died: ‘The horror! The horror!’


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