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Critical Study about the Colonialism in “Heart of Darkness”

Updated on October 01, 2016

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Joseph Conrad was one of the famous novelists in the history of English literature. His famous novel “Heart of Darkness” (1902) is the exploration of complex human nature as well as the relevant matter of colonialism. Romantic realism is the keynote of Conrad's novel. His novel contains mystical, natural, imaginative elements and realistic in the sense of Romanticism. This novel had its origin in personal experience. Conrad wrote this novel in the context of colonialism, its nature and its devil side.

Colonialism in “Heart of Darkness”

Definition of Colonialism:

Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.

Colonialism in “Heart of Darkness”:

In Heart of Darkness, the author, Joseph Conrad explores the nature of colonialism. He reveals the horrors of colonialism and is cynical of the entire process. He uses several symbolic characters to accomplish this. The main one being the shadowy and elusive Kurtz, who represents all of Europe:-

“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”.

Joseph Conrad shows that the very nature of colonialism has not changed much from Roman times to his day, except that the tools and weapons used have become more sophisticated. The main purpose and the results have stayed the same. Conrad illuminates the secret evils of colonialism and the Europeans capitalist approach through Marlow’s journey up the Congo. A brief analysis of Colonialism is stated below:-

Congo's map
Congo's map | Source

(1) Purposes of colonialism:

Joseph Conrad shows that one of the purposes of colonialism is the suppression of the Native’s beliefs and traditional way of life. Conrad begins with a focus on what the Company overtly tells the public: They are going into the Congo to civilize the Natives. The Europeans, on face level, seek to convert the inhabitants of the Congo region to the European way of life.

(2) Dominating theme of colonialism:

White colonialism is the primary concern of the story of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The behavior of the white Europeans is narrated by the novelist with very impressive and effective touches. He drew an accurate picture of the white men and the natives of Congoduring colonialism in this story.

(3) The ancient Roman conquest of Britain:

In the story, Marlow speaks about the ancient Roman Conquerors of Britain. It is mentioned that the ancient Romans were very brute and inflicted many cruelties to the Englishmen.

Ivory | Source

(4) Ivory: a symbol of colonialism:

Ivory was the lucrative trade which was found by the Belgian trading company when Belgian King Leopold II governed the Congo. It was useless to natives but the worthy to the white-men because of its usage in ornament manufacturing. Thus, the motive of white-men was to indulge in the exploitation and brutality extract the ivory from the native people.

Slaver and Colonizers
Slaver and Colonizers | Source

(5) Natives are suspected as inhuman by the white-men:

As a white-man, Kurtz believes that the Natives are in need of being humanized, improved, and instructed in the European way of life. The Europeans believe that the Natives are beneath them and in need of being cultured.

(6) Natives become slaves of colonizers:

Joseph Conrad explains that colonialism is brutal and savage process. The Natives are lulled into a false sense of security and then become slaves of the European colonizers. To the Europeans, the Natives are valuable, if they are productive and supplying ivory and other goods to the Europeans.

Natives are neglected by European colonizers
Natives are neglected by European colonizers | Source

(7) Natives are neglected by European colonizers:

The Europeans do not care about the health and working conditions of the Natives as long as they are productive. They are left to fend for themselves and slowly waste away, starving, unable to find food to eat. The populace is beaten and hanged simply to serve as an object lesson to others around them.

(8) Greediness of European colonizers:

The Europeans who have traveled to Africa to humanize the Natives treat the natives severely and inhumanly. Not only do the Europeans show cruelty and brutality towards the Natives, but it is also shown in the form of greed towards each other. The Europeans are only interested in advancing within the company, making the most money and shipping the most ivory for their own profit.

(9) Callous and Inhuman attitudes of white-men:

This story reveals the dirty and inhuman attitudes towards the native black people of Colonialism by the white-men. During that time, the natives were mostly naked and were moving like ants. Further, half-a dozen were mostly chained to one another. They were punished because they violated the laws of white-men. White-men are quite indifferent to the criminals and torture them mercilessly.

(10) Selfishness of the white-men:

In the story, the manager often talks of having someone hanged so that he will have no competition and able to advance his career. All that is important to him is the acquisition of money and power. To the Europeans it is imperative that they attain wealth, power and prestige. They simply care about what works for them and the betterment of their positions.

(11) Hypocrisy of the white-men:

We see in the time of Colonialism, the white-men were selfish and hypocrite. They were simply wasting time and effort to show they were rendering constructive works. They start a project aimlessly.

For example, they had planned a project to build a railway line in Congo. They blast the rock by gunpowder which is quite unnecessary for blasting the rocks as they were not causing any restriction in the way of railway.

White-men frightened people with weapons
White-men frightened people with weapons | Source

(12) White-men frightened people with weapons:

Consequently, the brutality and savagery of colonialism and the Europeans causes the Natives to fear the colonizers, and the Europeans use this fear to their advantage to get what they want. Through the actions of the Europeans, the Natives are made fearful and in order to protect their lives and the lives of their families they submit to the will of the foreigners. They are advanced in weapon technology. They forcefully frighten others for the Ivory.

(13) Mr. Kurtz’s failure to uplift the savages:

Mr. Kurtz is a classic example of a white-man of Colonialism. He went to Congo to civilize that region. However, the primary motive is collect Ivory not to civilize people. He tried to rule that region in his own way and finally realized he was a complete failure. He was in deep darkness at his deathbed and realized his misdeeds to native people.

(14) Truth about colonialism:

Finally, Conrad explores the true purpose of colonialism. Colonialism is really about obtaining all of the natural resources of the land for profit and in the process. The Europeans are far more interested in ivory that in civilizing the Natives. They would rather obtain the most ivory through whatever means necessary for their advancement within the company. The Europeans destroy the land so they can obtain every valuable object out of the ground.

(15) Pretend natural resources to be own:

Ivory is a natural resource which can be used by human being but it is not the asset of anyone. But the white-men, Kurtz in the story believes the Ivory is only for him. He states:-

“My ivory. . . .My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—’ everything belonged to him”.

The colonialism is really about acquiring of the natural resources to make someone’s own belongingness which is unrealistic and crazy conception which led the white-men in the Colonialism.


In “Heart of Darkness”, the author, Joseph Conrad, is disdainful of colonialism and seeks to educate an immature and blinded society to the true nature and horrors of colonialism. Through Marlow’s journey up the Congo and into the heart of darkness, the horrifying tools of colonialism are laid bare and the true purpose of colonialism and the European capitalist approach is exposed.


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    • osama 14 months ago

      very very informative and helping

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