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How Heart of Darkness Revealed the Horror of Congo’s Rubber Trade

Heart of Darkness was published in the literary periodical Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, and in book form in 1902. It appeared on the face of it to be the quintessential river story, running from here to there: a journey from Europe to Africa, overlaid by metaphorical journeys from present to past, light to dark, civilization to savagery, sanity to madness. Heart of Darkness also looked in some ways like a clear passage from truth into fiction. As a matter of biographical fact, none of Conrad’s other works of fiction could be so closely pegged to contemporary records of his experience. And to its early readers, the book’s portrayal of Congo as a “heart of darkness” that drove white men mad also seemed to tell a true story. For in the years between Conrad’s visit and the publication of Heart of Darkness, the Congo Free State had become a “horror” of imperial exploitation, its idealistic principles in tatters over the most nakedly abusive colonial regime in the world.

King Leopold II had been pumping cash into the Congo Free State since its inception—building stations, setting up the Force Publique, underwriting the Matadi–Léopoldville railway—but with scant return. In late 1891, the king hit upon a novel solution to his debt problem: he declared huge tracts of Congo territory to be a domaine privé, on which the government alone could reap and export products.

The king and his agents set about wringing profit from their concessions by several methods. First, they seized more territory. Conrad himself had been in Congo when Alexandre Delcommune set out on an expedition for Katanga in 1890, an expedition that resulted in the region’s annexation. The Force Publique made forays into southern Sudan and, in eastern Congo, launched a campaign to unseat the Zanzibari Arabs. The capture of the Arabs’ capital Nyangwé in 1893 was heralded by Belgian propagandists as the triumphant fulfillment of Europe’s promise to “substitut[e] the benefits of civilization for the horrors of slavery and cannibalism.” To those in the armies’ tracks, however, the fighting brought “horrors scarcely recorded since the worst days of the Spaniard in Central America, or the Englishman or Dutchman in Southern Asia.”

A second way the king’s men took more out of Congo was by collecting more tax revenue from the populace. Congolese couldn’t pay taxes with money because there was still, deliberately, no cash economy in the Free State: Europeans traded imports like bolts of cloth, mitakos, guns and alcohol for food, ivory, and rubber. But because, under the domaine privé, all “fruits of the land” already belonged to the state, the Congo’s indigenous owners had been stripped of commodity wealth, too. So how could they pay? The government proposed an answer. Congolese could work off their tax burden instead.

An extensive system of forced labor took shape. State agents traveled from village to village to draft people into work, equipped with censuses of able-bodied men, chicottes, and guns. Along the route between Matadi and Léopoldville, men ran into the bush to avoid conscription as porters, so the state adopted a novel method to enforce compliance, by taking women and children hostage until the men returned. In some areas agents encouraged people to raid their neighbors’ villages and deliver up the captives to the government. The Force Publique, originally manned by recruits from West Africa, also filled its ranks by coercion. Many of its “volunteers” were libérés acquired from Arabs, essentially shunted into another form of captivity.

Leopold and his agents had discovered a third way to squeeze profit from Congo. They found a new natural resource to extract. If you were a late-19th-century European lady or gentleman of leisure, passing your hands over the piano keys or clicking balls on a billiard table, you might have touched a piece of Congo ivory. If you were one of the millions all over the world who started riding a bicycle in the 1890s “bicycle craze,” you may have coasted on a cushion of Congo rubber. The pneumatic bicycle tire, patented by John Boyd Dunlop in 1888, contributed to a massive global demand for rubber. The best places to satisfy it lay deep in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon and Africa, where rubber trees and vines grew wild. Almost overnight, rubber became the Congo’s most sought-after export. In 1890, the year Conrad traveled in Congo, the state exported a modest 133,666 kilograms of rubber. By 1896, it exported ten times as much (1,317,346 kilos), enough to be the biggest rubber producer in Africa. Profits from rubber sales surpassed those of ivory on the Antwerp exchange, netting 6.9 million francs.

Rubber grew in the jungle for the taking, but extracting it was a beastly business. You had to go into the rainforest, your feet squelching deep into mud and standing water, hoping not to step on a snake, ears pricked for the rustle of leopards a pounce away. You had to pick out a rubber vine in the vegetable tangle, then shimmy up its stalk to a point soft enough that you could slice into it to release the sap. It was faster just to cut a vine in half, but because that killed the vine, the state forbade it. You had to wait for the creamy liquid to drip into your pot, then wait for it to thicken and gum into latex. The easiest way was to smear the sap over your body. Once it dried, you could tear it off your skin (taking your hair or skin with it, if needed) and roll it up into balls. It could take days to fill your basket with enough tough, gray pellets to satisfy the state or company agent.

“If you refused to work, you would be punished. If you didn’t make your quota (and even full-time tapping might not yield enough), you would be punished.”

This was slow, painful, dangerous work, and nobody volunteered to do it. So European agents developed an arsenal of coercive methods. Henceforth, the state required Africans to collect rubber in lieu of paying taxes. District officers set quotas for each region and dispatched the Force Publique into villages to round men up to work. In the concession territories, European agents fixed posts every hundred kilometers or so, made lists of all the men in the villages in their district, and used teams of armed sentries to push them into the forests at gunpoint. These (usually African) soldiers-cum-tax-collectors got paid for delivering rubber to their white bosses, so they had an incentive to use whatever means were necessary to make people go get it. If you refused to work, you would be punished. If you didn’t make your quota (and even full-time tapping might not yield enough), you would be punished. If you were caught cutting down vines, you would be punished. If you tried to run away, you would be punished. “Everywhere I hear the same news of the doings of the Congo Free State,” reported one of Stanley’s former associates, “rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form.”

When Heart of Darkness first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, vanishingly few Europeans knew of “the horror” unfolding in central Africa. They saw only what King Leopold showed them, and he was busy setting his profits in stone: a palace to outdo Versailles, a triumphal arch to trump the Brandenburg Gate, a seaside promenade to make Ostend into the Cannes of the north. For the Brussels Exposition in 1897, he spent £300,000 on an African pavilion in Tervuren. Inside, Belgium’s finest designers fashioned an Art Nouveau jungle in wood, recalling the twist of rubber vines and elephant tusks and trunks. They called their new look “whiplash style,” naively oblivious about the lacerating terror of the chicotte.

But by the time Heart of Darkness was republished in the volume Youth–and Two Other Stories in 1902, a young Anglo-French shipping clerk named Edmund Dene Morel had almost single-handedly raised public awareness about what was going on in the Congo Free State. Puzzled by company account books that showed tons of imports from Congo yet virtually no exports, Morel had stumbled across the extent of forced labor in what he suddenly realized was the “Congo Slave State.” He threw himself into a campaign to end Congo’s regime of “red rubber,” stained in African blood. In May 1903, six months after the volume containing Heart of Darkness appeared in bookshops, the House of Commons passed a motion agreeing to strive “to abate the evils” in Congo. The Foreign Office dispatched its consul in Congo to gather evidence.

That consul was none other than Roger Casement, the railroad surveyor Conrad had met in Matadi in 1890. Casement returned to Britain from his mission with notebooks ablaze with damning testimony, ready to write up his own report on the suppression of savage (European) customs. One of the first people he contacted to support the cause was his old acquaintance Joseph Conrad.

Because hadn’t Heart of Darkness seen and said it all? As a reviewer had recently pointed out, “The ‘going Fantee’ of civilised man, has been treated often enough in fiction . . . but never has the ‘why of it’ been appreciated by any author as Mr. Conrad here appreciates it, and never . . . has any writer till now succeeded in bringing . . . it all home to sheltered folk.” Here was Conrad calling out “the conquest of the earth” for what it was: “the taking of it from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.” He saw through the hypocrisy of Africa’s would-be civilizers, granting a pass only to British domains, “because one knows that some real work is being done in there.” He even captured the Europeans’ “unsound method” in sadistic detail—right down to the heads on posts around Kurtz’s house, which Conrad may have based on a report of the Belgian station chief of Stanley Falls, who had placed “twenty-one heads” of African victims “as a decoration round a flower bed in front of his house!”

Casement gave Conrad one of Morel’s pamphlets, detailing the latest abuses. “It is as if the moral clock had been put back many hours,” Conrad said, aghast. “And the fact remains that . . . 75 years or so after the abolition of the slave trade (because it was cruel) there exists in Africa a Congo State, created by the act of European Powers where ruthless, systematic cruelty towards the blacks is the basis of administration.”

Yet for all that Conrad had seen and written of “the horror” in Congo, he never joined the Congo Reform Association founded by Casement and Morel. “It is not in me,” he admitted. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” He’d been raised, after all, in the shadow of an idealistic crusade against savagery that went nowhere but an early grave: his parents’ struggle against tsarist Russia. Casement had misread his man.

Casement had also potentially misread his book. To the extent that Heart of Darkness was a precise description of what was going on in Congo, it presented the Congo that Conrad had visited in 1890, not the Congo of 1898. In 1890 there was no government monopoly. There was no tax collection. There was no Force Publique. There was no rubber. There were no severed hands. (“During my sojourn in the interior, keeping my eyes and ears well open too, I’ve never heard of the alleged custom of cutting off hands amongst the natives,” he told Casement. “I am convinced that no such custom ever existed along the whole course of the main river to which my experience is limited.”) Casement and others believed there was a way to clean up Congo and do civilizing right. But Conrad had detected “the horror” even in the Congo Free State of 1890 partly because, for him, the problem wasn’t a hypocritical betrayal of civilization—it was the European notion of civilization as a good in itself.

In rejecting Casement’s appeal, Conrad also reasserted the imaginative compass of his work. Heart of Darkness was more than a protest pamphlet. Marlow’s listener on the Nellie warned the reader against literalism when he pointed out that, to Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside like a haze.” Conrad had used the details of his own journey as stepping-stones into what he called the “foggishness of H of D.” He skirted proper names for almost everything in the book (the river, the state, even Africa itself), veiled his meaning in imprecise adjectives—“inscrutable,” “inconceivable,” “impenetrable,” “impalpable”—and twisted the narrative line of a river journey into a spiral no one voice could contain. Marlow was constantly seeing things but only later managing to figure out what they meant. “The horror” was deliberately enigmatic, and could be as plausibly interpreted as a condemnation of “civilization” as it could be a reckoning with the primal, universal capacity for “savagery.” The meaning of Heart of Darkness had to be sought not only in the specific realities of Congo and Conrad’s journey there, but in the experiences and thoughts that surrounded its making.


Adapted from The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global WorldUsed with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2017 by Maya Jasanoff.

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