The Hypocrisy of Imperialism in "Heart of Darkness"

Topics: Colonialism, Africa, Heart of Darkness Pages: 8 (2665 words) Published: April 2, 2006
And indeed nothing is easier for a man who has, as the phrase goes, "followed the sea" with reverence and affection, than to evoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames...It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled--the great knights-errant of the sea. (302)

The unnamed narrator sits aboard a pleasure ship called the Nellie, along with four other men, including Marlow. The five men are held together by the bonds of the sea, yet are restless and meditative aboard the ship, waiting for something to happen. As darkness begins to fall, the men recall the great ships and explorers that have set forth from the Thames on voyages of trade and adventure, often never to return. Suddenly, Marlow remarks that the very region they had been admiring, "'has also been one of the dark places of the earth.'" (302) He points out that England would have been considered a savage wilderness by the first Roman conquerors. This seems to be an odd statement, as the conversation about famous British explorers and their glorious voyages was being conducted in a celebratory tone. Referring to these seamen as "knights-errant" implies that they promoted the splendour of Great Britain, expanded knowledge of the globe, while contributing to the civilization and enlightenment of mankind.

"Heart of Darkness" was written in 1899, a period in which the British Empire was at its peak, controlling colonies and dependencies around the world. While the narrator expresses the common European belief that imperialism is a glorious and worthy enterprise, Marlow contradicts this convention by conjuring images of Britain's past, when it was not the heart of civilization but the savage end of the world. Likewise, the Thames, while associated with celebrated expeditions, becomes an ominous beginning for a journey inward, into the heart of the wilderness. Marlow's own story about his job with the Belgian trading Company begins as an adventure. However, as he proceeds deeper into Africa and becomes exposed to the practices of colonization, he reveals the hypocrisy and cruelty of imperialism. It is clear that Marlow has acquired a critical opinion of imperial conquest, as his story suggests that participation in imperial enterprises degrades Europeans by removing them from the civilizing context of European society, while simultaneously tempting them into violent behaviour, due to the hostile and lawless nature of the environment. However, Marlow's experiences in Africa have not eradicated all conventional European opinion of the continent, as he believes that attempts to civilize native peoples is misguided because they are too overwhelmingly savage for such a project to succeed.

Marlow's story begins with an account of his new career opportunity and his subsequent travel to Brussels, Belgium which he compares to a "whited sepulchre." (306) This is a significant comparison as a sepulchre implies death and confinement, and Brussels is the site of the Company's headquarters. Therefore, Marlow points to the fact that colonial enterprises, which originated in Europe, brought death to both white men and their native subjects. This phrase also has biblical connections, as it is found in the Book of Matthew, where whited sepulchres are described as objects where the external beauty hides the horrors within. This symbolizes the hypocritical Belgian approach to imperialism: although heralded as a lucrative civilizing mission, Belgian colonies were notorious for the violence perpetuated against the natives.

Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about 'weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,' till, upon my...
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