Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a large and effective critic of imperialism, which exposes the hypocrisy and tyranny of imperialism portrayed through the brutalities in Africa. Conrad in this novel criticized the intentions of imperialism, which challenged the presumptions of society. His aim in Heart of Darkness was to unveil the underlying horror of imperialism. Conrad sarcastically remarks that it was “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle", which demonstrates how he despised the justification of imperialism.
The keynote of the theme of imperialism is struck at the very outset of Marlow’s narration. Marlow speaks of the ancient Roman conquest of Britain,. Their conquest has always been associated with cruelty and brutality. To Marlow:" 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 ."
Conrad's view of imperialism is reflected through Marlow. Marlow challenges the practice of imperialism. " It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind." There is a hint of evil in Marlow's reference to the city of Brussels as a “white sepulcher". The phrase "white sepulcher" means a place which is outwardly pleasant and righteous but inwardly impure, full of vices, corruptions and evils. Marlow’s experiences in the Congo clearly show that instead of civilizing the savages the white men who went there became exploiters. The colonizers treated the Africans was more like slaves rather than people. The evilness of imperialism s shown very well in this quote: “As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and finally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery.’’ At the very least, the incidental scenery of the book offers a harsh picture of colonial enterprise.
This novel also portrays the inhumane behaviors as we find in the below quotation
"Each chief was authorized to collect taxes; he did so by demanding that individuals should work for a specific period of time for a minimum payment. This, of course, was another name for slavery. The so-called taxpayers were treated like prisoners; their work was carried out under the supervision of armed sentries" (Heart of Darkness; pg 81). This quote sums up the immortality and the misuse of power against the Africans. It also gives insight into the horror of the colonization that was taking place at that time. One critic (Wilson Harris) helps describe Conrad's view and vision of the way that the Africans were treated. Harris writes "He sees the distortions of imagery and, therefore, of character in the novel as witnessing to the horrendous prejudice on Conrad's part in his vision of Africa and the Africans".
As we go through the novel we find that the sole purpose of the white men was to indulge in the exploitation of ivory from the natives and brutality over them. Thus "faithless pilgrims", is Marlow calls them. “They do not work; they simply laze around and intrigue. Everyone is there for the money; they have no higher principles or purpose in life.” Their sole desire is "to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land ,. . . with no moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe."
Through the descriptions of Marlow in the novel, Conrad conveys to us the callousness of the white man towards the natives. After getting down from the swedish captain's steamer, Marlow sees some awful and grim sights. He sees a lot of people, ‘’mostly black and naked, moving about like ants’’. Marlow feels deeply upset at the sight of the Africans.
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.
He sees black figures crouching under the trees, leaning against the trunks, and clinging to the earth, dying slowly. ‘’They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation…lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, become inefficient, and were allowed to crawl away and rest. (Conrad 2)
The Company had no qualms regarding the mistreatment of the natives, as described by the following account:
It is also disgusting for us to watch the manner in which the cannibal crews of Marlow’s steamer are being treated by the white owners of the steamer. The cannibal crews are studious and fine fellows. But the pity is that they are properly fed. Their hippo meat war thrown overboard by the white men who could not stand the rotten smell of the hippo meat. Now the cannibals crew have nothing to eat. But they exercise self restraint amd do not attack the white men on board in order to meat their flesh. Thus the white men are absolutely uncovered about the welfare of the cannibal crew on whose labour and toil they depend.
“Heart of Darkness is by, common consent, one of Conrad’s best things an appropriate source for the epigraph of the hollow men.” (R. R. Leavis)
Conrad not only exposes the futility and the failing of the Belgian imperialism over the Congo but also reminds us of British imperialism in various countries of his time. Today white imperialism has crumbled and most of the counties have become independent. Conrad's accusation of imperialist rule in Congo had a valuable message for both the exploiters and the exploited. In the business of exploration, both exploiter and exploited are corrupted.
To conclude we can sum up, Heart of Darkness is a poignant account of the horrendous brutalizing effects of colonialism. Conrad here discloses the reality of imperialism and shows this system as corrupting. This story becomes the longing to wring the heart of the wilderness and exterminates all the brutes. It is an excellent portrayal of the evilness and suffering caused by imperialistic powers exercising their powers in wrong ways. The white men are presented as the blood suckers monsters that have on sympathy, human feelings for the barbarisms, and uncivilized natives of distant islands. Conrad's aim in this novel is thus to expose the evilness of imperialism by providing a glimpse of truth.