Category Archives: Exploitation

Genocide Repudiated

 

The Indian Residential Schools established by the Canadian government under the provisions of the Indian Act were instruments it used, often through its church partners,  to ensure dominance over indigenous people. Even if the Popes had disavowed the Doctrine of Discovery, the basis of these notions were also the foundation of that doctrine, which I have called vile.

Here is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’)  said in its report to the Canada in 2015,

“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.””

 

Since that report was delivered many critics have said the TRC was too gentle with Canada. They suggested the word “cultural” should be dropped from that destruction. They say, Canada was guilty of genocide. Pope Francis on his recent visit to Canada said he thought it “genocide.” The subsequent report of the 2019 Inquiry into Missing and Murdered  Women and Girls, said the actions reported on in that report amount to “genocide.” There was no qualification. It may be that the reticence of the TRC was a consequence of it not being authorized to accuse people of crimes, and genocide is a crime.

The TRC said this about genocide:

“Physical genocide is the mass killing of the members of a targeted group, and biological genocide is the destruction of the group’s reproductive capacity. Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practices that allow the group to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.”

 

 

And then the TRC added, “In its dealing with Aboriginal people, Canada did all these things.” If Canada did all 3 things necessary to be classified as genocide, then the TRC is saying, Canada committed genocide in its dealings with its Indian Residential Schools. According to the TRS, and was amply justified by the evidence revealed in its report,

 

As if that was not enough the TRC also said this,

“Canada denied the right to participate fully in Canadian political, economic, and social life to those Aboriginal people who refused to abandon their Aboriginal identity. Canada outlawed Aboriginal spiritual practices, jailed Aboriginal spiritual leaders, and confiscated sacred objects. And, Canada separated children from their parents, sending them to residential schools. This was done not to educate them, but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity.   In justifying the government’s residential school policy, Canada’s First prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.”

 

But as if that was not enough the TRC added,

“These measures were part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people as distinct peoples and to assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”

 

Who can possibly deny that taking children away from their parents for such a vile policy is not genocide? I think the conclusion is clear and unassailable.

In my opinion these genocidal policies are incompatible with the statements made by Pope Francis in Canada. He spoke plainly and clearly. This was a most welcome message from a Pope.

 

The Doctrine of Discovery Moves from Religion to Politics and Law

The Doctrine of Discovery originated as policy in the 15th century as a result of Papal Bulls (decrees) to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain.  According to According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations this amounted to a “virtual declaration of war against all non-Christians and an official sanction of the conquest, colonization, and eventual non exploitation of non-Christian people and their territories.”

Yesterday, I promised that I would opine on the historic comments of Pope Francis in Quebec last week.  I have decided to make a few more comments on the Doctrine of Discovery today before I do that tomorrow.

As a result of a conversation yesterday, with a friend who is a professor of Religious studies, and clearly knows a lot more about the Doctrine of Discovery than I do, and says that the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated by Catholic Popes and church leaders more or less from the beginning. However, the attitudes that underpinned it, namely white supremacy and its corollaries, dominated western thinking for centuries. Those attitudes allowed the people from Europe to believe they had an inherent right, if not a religious right, to dominate the people of what they referred to as the New World. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging,

 

“The main principles of the discovery doctrine was accepted by European colonizers and remained an unspoken assumption until the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that the European colonizers had assumed dominion over North and South America during the Age of Discovery, and that the indigenous peoples had lost their rights to absolute sovereignty, but they did retain the right of occupancy in their own lands. In addition, Marshall claimed that the United States of America, upon winning it independence from Great Britain, simply assumed this right of discovery and the authority of dominion from the British. Succinctly put, the colonizing powers assumed the right to claim possession of the Americas by virtue of their belief in the superiority of Christianity and its adherents . In turn, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had inherited their right of possession, by way of the British, from the doctrine of a fifteenth century pope who was attempting to curry favour with the King and Queen of Spain.”

 

The basis of the policies that flowed from the doctrine were based on a fundamental assumption of European superiority over indigenous people. That attitude poisoned the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples for centuries even if Popes repudiated it.  The religious leaders could not erase the attitudes of assumed European supremacy.

 

Doctrine of Discovery: As Vile as Vile can Be

People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer.  I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.

 

First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide.  I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.

I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope.  Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because  all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.

To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.”  The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.

This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.

The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants  in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.

The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as  letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official.  Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.

The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.

France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.

After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.

The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.

Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock  Indian Reservation.

The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada  made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.

Bloodlands

Many of us have not paid much attention to Ukraine until this year. That is a mistake. Ukraine is important. And very interesting.

Europe is well known around the world for colonizing countries for its own benefit. When I was young, I actually believed they did that to spread civilization to the world. That seems almost unimaginably naive now.

What is not commented on as much is Europe colonizing other parts of Europe–colonizing itself in other words.  In no part of Europe was this more significant than Ukraine. First, the Soviet Union under Stalin colonized Ukraine. That was Stalin’s attempt to make Ukraine and Soviet Union one. It was a shot gun wedding.  After that there was the attempt by Nazi Germany to colonize Ukraine. Again this was another bloody union. Neither of these imperial powers used seduction—only brute force. When this also failed, Russia quickly stepped in to fill the void. It would do what Germany was not able to do for long.  As Yale Historian Timothy Snyder who is an expert on Ukraine,  said  in his book The Road to UnfreedomNo other land attracted as much attention within Europe. This reveals the rule: European history turns on colonization and decolonization.” That is why Snyder in another book referred to this area, that included Ukraine, as “the Bloodlands.”  He named an earlier book after that. That  is what Putin is trying to do again.  He wants to join the ranks of Stalin and Hitler.

Everyone wanted the bread basket of Europe. That was and is Ukraine. That is still true. Joseph Stalin realized that Soviet Russia unlike other European countries had no overseas possessions such as India, North America, or South America. He did not think that was fair. It really wasn’t fair for any country to possess other countries, but that was not relevant. Every European country thought it had the God-given right to exploit other countries. As a result, Soviet Russia had no alternative but to exploit its hinterland. Since Germany had no hinterland left, it exploited what it could. Here are some astonishing numbers that Snyder drew to our attention:

 

“Ukraine was therefore to yield its agricultural bounty to Soviet central planners in the First Five-Year Plan of 1928-1933. State control of agriculture killed between three and four million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine by starvation. Adolf Hitler saw Ukraine as the fertile territory that would transform Germany into a world power. Control of its black earth was his aim.  As a result of the German occupation that began in 1941, more than three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were killed, including about 1.6 million Jews murdered by Germany and local policemen and militias. In addition to those losses, some three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat as Red Army soldiers. Taken together, some ten million people were killed in a decade as a result of two rival colonizations of the same Ukrainian territory.”

 

Think about that. Let those numbers sink in. And I learned none of this in High School. How ignorant could I be?  Answer: very ignorant. For good reason, Snyder has called these lands “Bloodlands.”

In the western Ukraine the western districts which had been part of Poland before World War II, Ukrainian nationalists resisted the imposition of Soviet rule over them. Hundreds of thousands of those Ukrainian resisters were deported to the concentration camps called the Gulag. More bloodshed again.

Many of those prisoners were still alive when Stalin died in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin. In the 1960s and 1970s Ukrainian communists joined their Russian communist comrades and together ruled the largest country in the world. According to Snyder, Russian communists never denied that Ukraine was a nation, they just thought Ukraine would be better off under Russian rule. That is what colonists always believe. They are exploiting the colonized for their own good.

In 1991 the failed coup against Gorbachev opened the way for Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian ruler, to lead Russia out of the Soviet Union. At the same time, Ukrainian communists agreed with Ukrainian oppositionists that Ukraine should also leave the Soviet Union. As Snyder said, “In a referendum, 92% of the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine, including a majority in every Ukrainian region, voted for independence.”

These are the people that Putin says are tyrannized by Neo-Nazi Ukrainian leaders into forcing Ukrainians to stay separate from Russia. Many Russian agree with Putin.  According to Gwynne Dyer, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press,

“In a telephone survey of Russians three weeks ago by Lord Ashworth Polls 76% said they supported the “special military operation” in Ukraine, 81 % said it was necessary to protect Russian security, and 85% had a favorable view of Vladimir Putin. The numbers are untrustworthy of course; would you always tell the truth to a stranger ringing up out of the blue and asking dangerous questions? It was also striking that a majority of the youngest group (18-24 years old) actually opposed the war, so there’s some hope if you want it. But a clear majority of Russians strongly back the invasion of Ukraine.”

 

It seems unbelievable that so many Russians would support their leader. It shows the power of lies. It shows what happens when powerful countries fight over weaker ones. Blood land is created.

George Orwell once said if you want a vision of the future imagine a boot stomping a human face forever.

 

 

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.