Category Archives: Colonialism

The Horror

At first Kurtz could not stand to looking into the Heart of Darkness either.  He said, “I can’t bear to look at this.” But eventually he did. He broke down and looked.  But that drove him mad. This is how Marlow described it:

“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.  I had—for my sins, I suppose to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. Kurtz looked into the mind of all of us—into the heart of darkness within each of us and declared “The horror. The horror!”

Kurtz, went to the edge and looked down into that heart of darkness that most of us just cannot do. We cannot stand it.

Though Marlow could not muscle up sufficient courage to go to the edge and look down into that heart of darkness, as Kurtz had done, he remained loyal to Kurtz for that was his “choice of nightmares.” He respected the courage of Kurtz “to dream the nightmare out to the end.”  Marlow recognized that he had learned tragic things about life, like Leslie Fiedler’s hero who could carry that torch to the end of the cave. Marlow described the lesson this way, with just the hint of a summing up of his philosophy, of what he has learned from his encounter with Kurtz,

 “Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.  The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.  If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”

Marlow’s final statement was less declarative, more tentative than that of Kurtz.  Marlow knew that Kurtz “had summed up—he had judged. The horror!”  Kurtz’s final statement had “the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate


Yet somehow Marlow saw Kurtz’s final summing up with its astonishing characteristics. For it was the most horrible conclusion imaginable.   Yet Marlow said “It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last.”

But what was the victory?

That was why Marlow when he returned to London, the “sepulchral city” as he called it,  he felt sorry for those poor shallow souls who had not gained such knowledge as he had in the jungles of Africa. He had gained knowledge. A terrifying knowledge but knowledge nonetheless. As he said,

“I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams.  They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew.  Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficult in restraining myself from laughing in their faces , so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets—there were various affairs to settle—grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons.”


This reminded me of what my great uncle Peter once told:  If you have been through the Russian Revolution you would not bother going to the bar in Labroquerie. After all was it not true that in Labroquerie all I did was gulp my unwholesome beer and dream my insignificant and silly dreams?

Joseph Conrad was wise. After reading Heart of Darkness we might be a little wiser too. This book is well worth the read.




The Final Dark Truth


In his novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad tried to show us what he thought was a dark truth. It is not just a truth about European society, he showed it was a truth about all of us. You and I too.

Bu how can a person face this horrifying darkness?  Marlow has some advice. Clearly pious phrases are not the answer. Nor noble truths.

“Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look without a wink. But he must at least be as much of man as these on the shore. He must meet that truth with his own true self—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags,–rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.”


You need deep inner strength to face such horror. It takes strength of character and courage. It reminds me of the person Leslie Fiedler, an American literary critic described in his bookLove and Death in the American Novel—the person who had the courage to go the end of the dark cave with a torch to see the tragic.  Fiedler like Conrad, realized that “The final horrors, as the modern society has come to realize, are neither gods nor demons, but intimate aspects of our own minds,” Fiedler said in his book.  We are the final horror! What an awful truth to face.

Fiedler saw this as the final consequence of the age of reason. I disagree. I think it is the final consequence of the abandonment of reason. Racism, white privilege and exploitation on an insane scale,  were the result of reason being forsaken in favour monstrous desires. The age of reason Fielder said, dissolved in sentimentalism, “in a debauch of tearfulness; sensibility, seduction, and suicide.”  Fiedler noted how the French philosopher Diderot wrote about Richardson the author of that classic novel, Clarissa: “It is he who carries the torch to the back of the cave… He blows upon the glorious phantom who presents himself at the entrance to the cave; and the hideous Moor whom he was masking reveals himself.”  Surely, “the hideous Moor” is a striking symbol of the demonic in ourselves, which the Enlightenment inadvertently discovered in its quest for light.”  Not that dissimilar from Kurtz who found that demon in his pursuit of noble ideals in the deepest jungle of Africa. We have created that image of the hideous Moor.  He is not real except in our own minds.

 The racial component here is not accidental either. The hideous Moor is, of course, black. He is at the heart of darkness. It is the black Moor that we fear the most and will do anything to stamp out. But that Moor is Us! He is the product of our original sin!

Kurtz found that demon when he looked at those shrunken shriveled heads on poles.  Heads that showed shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of teeth grinning horribly and “continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”  Those heads “only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.”

From that came the understanding only at the last that “the wilderness had found him out early and had taken him on a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it whispered to him things which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.”

As I said earlier, the horrors perpetrated by Kurtz in the jungle were never described by Marlow. That was because he did not know what they were. He just knew that they would be even worse than the heads on spikes. Marlow had the feeling that

“such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s window.  After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief.”


The heart of darkness within the human mind was much, much worse. That was what Marlow could not bear.  He could not carry the torch into the back of the cave and confront that horror, as Kurtz had done. He did not want to know. He did not want to know the truth about himself. Do we want to know truth either?


Philanthropic and Missionary Enterprises


In the novel Heart of Darkness, Marlow had no regard for the philanthropic or missionary enterprise.  The marauders used such concepts as camouflageto fool their prey and even themselves. They used such words to convince themselves that they were doing good—God’s work. Kurtz first, and Marlow second, saw through that hideous lie. They thought of themselves as exploring the world in search of Eldorado—the city of gold. Yet according to Marlow, they were “reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage.”  They were worthy of no respect—only shame.  All they really wanted to do was loot, pillage no matter what the cost.  “To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.


Then astonishingly the natives treated these rapacious burglars like gods. Imagine that!  The whites no doubt could hardly believe what they saw. Marlow compared that to how “sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.” That is exactly it.  It is entirely unreal—fantastical. Horribly fantastic. Marlow described the scene this way,


The earth seemed unearthly.  We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.  It was unearthly, and the men were,–No, they were not inhuman.  Well you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.  They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours  the thought of remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes it was ugly; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in which you—you remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.


Marlowe also calls it the “edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.”    Again, he is vague and circumspect, but all the more chilling and terrifying for that. It is an incomprehensible horror. And the real horror is that this is the result of our humanity. It is not inhuman; it is human incarnate. No matter how frightful that seems. This is the heart of darkness. Our own dark centre.


Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”


Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

The Real Prince of Darkness and the False Gods


When Marlow found Kurtz in the centre of the heart of darkness, he had already given in to the powerful forces of darkness. He fell under the spell of the prince of darkness within his own heart. This was no bogey man devil created by religious zealots to scare us into submission. This was the real prince of darkness who resides in us all and who can conquer us as he did Kurtz if we allow it to do that.

Joseph Conrad, through his protagonist Marlow, described Kurtz this way,

“The wilderness has patted him on the head, and behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball; it had caressed him, and—lo!—he had withered; it had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his flesh, and sealed his soul to its own by the inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation. He was its spoiled and pampered favorite.”


Kurtz had become the pampered favorite of the forces of darkness.  As a result, he found unimaginable heaps of ivory. Stacks of it. “You would think there was not a single tusk left either above, or below the ground in the whole country,” Marlow said. That was his ivory.  That was what he got in exchange for his soul.

When the Europeans arrived in Africa, as when they arrived in the New World, they were seen as gods. At least some Europeans thought they were seen as gods. Evil gods perhaps, but gods nonetheless. That is what happened after the good intentions of men like Kurtz failed. Many white men succumbed to this dangerous illusion that compared to the indigenous people they were Gods.

This was the original sin! The sin of believing they were superior!

 Some whites still suffer from that sin. It continues to stain some of them.

Noble Causes


Joseph Conrad in his short novel shreds western illusions viscerally. For example,  Fresleven, was the most gentle and quiet creature enthralled by the “noble cause,” but he was seen whacking an old black chief with a stick.   Conrad knew that the illusions would fail and then something brutal would happen.  I want to warn you there is an awful word coming here. Conrad described it this way, “he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly, while a big crowd of his people watched.” That tells you a lot about Fresleven. It wouldn’t be the same without that awful word.

Kurtz came to the centre of Africa thinking he would do good work. He had the best of intentions.  Yet those intentions ended with a ring  of hideous human heads on spikes around a campfire in the centre of the dark jungle. This was a place where Kurtz came to be worshipped like some evil god. That is where his good intentions and illusions inexorably led.

After being in the jungle, in that darkness, Kurtz came to see everything as belonging to him.  It was all his.  As we know that is a common western attitude. As Kurtz said,

“‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my’– everything belonged to him It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places.  Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.  That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible—it was not good for one either—trying to imagine.  He had taken a high seat among the devils of the land—I mean literally. You can’t understand with pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion?”

The Europeans thought they owned everything. There was a big illusion.

In that dark place people no longer have their illusions to protect them. They are naked subject to the devilish forces hiding in the dark terrible forest. No policeman can help us there, for none is available.  We have to rely on our own inner strength and convictions genuinely held. False pretenses of doing charitable work will not save us.  No cause no matter how noble will be enough. Only the truth can save us.

Joseph Conrad and The Heart of Darkness and The Conquest of the Earth


It is time to return to the classics. The novel, The Heart of Darkness is certainly one of the best books I have ever read. I think I have now read it 3 times.   It is well worth a re-read. It is a definitely a classic. And it is a short read (unlike Moby Dick).

The book was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in England in1899 by Joseph Conrad whose original language was Polish. He only became fluent in his twenties. It always amazes me that he became such a good writer in English in such a short time.

It is a simple story. A steamboat captain Marlow, travels up the Congo River to meet Kurtz an agent of the ivory company for whom he works. There, Marlow finds Kurz living among “the savages.” He tells the story to a group of civilized Englishmen drinking and smoking cigars while sailing the river Thames in London.  The setting is important. A key question is whether or not the heart of Darkness is London or the Congo.

The novel describes a journey by Marlowe, the protagonist and narrator, to the heart of Africa.  It was a trip up the winding Congo river, (we presume). That river is described, not accidentally, as a snake. There Marlowe found a corrupt agent of the English company hunting for ivory.  The book powerfully describes the black heart at the centre of European colonialism and exploitation of the continent of Africa and other places as well. He reveals the deep dark truth hidden by the pretense of lofty moralistic goals.  Illusions he calls them. Of course, the book is more than a trip to the heart of the darkness of Africa, it is also a trip into the heart of darkness of each of us who remain behind in the safety and comfort of our homes. That darkness exists there too.  And what Marlow finds, and what we would find in the centre of our own heart of darkness, if we were brave enough and honest enough to make the journey was horror!

One of the interesting things about how the story is told, is that it is told by Marlowe to 4 or 5 others sitting on a boat in the Thames. Why there? Why is this relevant?  In my view it is important because Conrad wanted to make it clear that everyone is capable of savagery. The savage is within each of us–even civilized people in London, the centre of the world at that time. London is also in the heart of darkness!

Conrad lays bare the reality behind the ‘civilizing’ goals of the European traders. With that he lays bare the thin veneer of civilization and the thin armour around our own darkness inside of us, for none of us are pure. We are all tainted.  We all share the rapacity that engulfed the traders like Kurtz.

With Conrad’s analysis we also learn the despairing truth behind the notion of the “benevolent despot” that has so tortured Africa. It is a lie. A lie that Kurtz embodied.  Kurtz who eventually gave way to unspeakable lusts and gratifications had gone to the heart of the continent with enlightenment goals. Sentimentally, he wanted to be a humanitarian helper. So many Europeans have gone with similar lofty goals only to be thwarted. Not usually as sensationally as Kurtz, but they have been destroyed nonetheless by their own rapacity and naiveté.

As Marlow takes the trip up that river he realizes the land is a swamp and he feels the reality of the person who ventures into this dark heart on behalf of some commercial enterprise back home.  Conrad feels for the innocence of that intrepid venturer, who does not know what he is getting into.

” Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know,–coming out here in the train of  some pretext, or tax-gatherer or trader even, to mend his fortunes.  Land in a swamp, march through the woods, in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had close around him,–all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.  There’s no initiation either into such mysteries.  He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestableAnd it has a fascination, too that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. “(emphasis added)


Our commercial enterprises into the heart of dark continent have come cloaked in lofty goals.  But, according to Conrad, the people who came may have looked like religious zealots looking to help the poor savages, but they were the real savages.  They came with strength. It was an accidental strength based on the technological weakness of the indigenous.  There was no moral superiority that accompanied it. Conrad described those efforts this way,

“It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before and offer sacrifice to.”


One of the things Conrad looks at in the book is the conquest of the earth by the men of Europe a dubious enterprise at best.  Conrad took a close look at colonialism and the sense of superiority and what he saw as the darkness at its heart. As he said, it was not always pretty.

The Price of Colonization


Canada after 1867 took over as the colonial authority in Canada. The policy of colonization is closely tied to the concept of white supremacy. The colonial powers—first the French and English, followed by the Canadians—saw their role as civilizing the savages. They believed they were doing a favor to the Indigenous people by taking over from them. With the collapse of their way of life and food source (hunting and fishing) Indigenous society was getting ready for disaster and so were their schools. Canada faced a health crisis largely of its own making.

As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report said,

“The high death rates in the schools were, in part, a reflection of the high death rates among the Aboriginal community in general. Indian Affairs officials often tried to portray these rates as simply the price that Aboriginal people had to pay as part of the process of becoming civilized. In reality, these rates were the price they had to pay for being colonized. Aboriginal livelihoods were based on access to the land; colonization disrupted that access and introduced new illnesses to North America. Colonial policies wiped out food sources and confined Aboriginal people to poorly located reserves, with inadequate sanitation, and shelter. The schools could have served as institutions to help counter these problems. To do that however, they would have had to have been properly constructed, maintained, staffed, and supplied. Government officials were aware of this. They were also aware that death rates among students at residential schools were disproportionately high. It would be wrong to say the government did nothing about this crisis: the 1910 contract did provide a substantial funding increase to the schools. But the federal government never made the type of sustained investment in Aboriginal health, in either the communities or the schools, that could have addressed this crisis—which continues to the present. The non-Aboriginal tuberculosis death rate declined before the introduction of life-saving drugs. It was brought down by improvements in diet, housing, sanitation, and medical attention. Had such measures been taken by the federal government earlier, they would have reduced both the Aboriginal death rates and the residential schools students’ death rates. By failing to take adequate measures that had been recommended to it, the federal government blighted the health of generations of Aboriginal people.


Principal J.F. Woodward complained to Indian Affairs: “For sickness, conditions at the school are nothing less than criminal. We have no isolation ward and no hospital equipment of any kind.” Despite many principals advising the federal government of the horrible conditions in residential schools who had no means of containing illnesses their pleas went unheard. As the TRC said, “General Aboriginal health care was never a priority for the Canadian government. Tuberculosis among Aboriginal people largely was ignored unless it threatened the general Canadian population.”

In 1937, Dr. H. W. McGill, the director of Indian Affairs for Canada, sent out an instruction that Indian health services “must be restricted to those required for the safety of limb, life or essential function.” As the TRC concluded, “Hospital care was to be limited, spending on drugs was cut in half, and sanitoria and hospital treatment for chronic tuberculosis were eliminated.”

The conclusion is inevitable. Health was only important for the Canadian government when white people were affected.