Slavery and Imperialism in Heart of Darkness: by Reinhard and Fabrizio Historical information

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Slavery and Imperialism in Heart of Darkness:
by Reinhard and Fabrizio

Historical information

The relationships between European nations and the other "not civilized" countries changed when, in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, in Europe there was a very important development of the industrial capitalism. Before then, the colonial expansion policy was a way to find new jobs for the European people and especially to defend and control the colonies for the resources they had, for example, they were the place of the raw material extraction.


After the development of the industrial capitalism, near the exploitation of the raw material, stand out two needs: the need to create a market where to put the products of the national industries, and, very important, the need to protect the security of the financial and industrial investments in the "not civilized" or "semi-civilized" countries like China, Egypt and Turkey, also by the military al political presence. 

The passage from the first to the second stage of colonialism was not immediate but occurred through the long intermediate stage of the geographic explorations, especially in Africa.

The development of colonialism in Africa, in fact, was a consequence of the explorations. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Africa was not well known, especially in the inlands, but at the end of that century Africa's map was really different, and the protagonists of this change were Great Britain , Germany and France, the most important colonial powers of that time. This policy involved wherever the exaltation of the national feeling of power and of "white skin" superiority. Their imperialistic policy was, on some occasions, justified as a mission to civilize these countries, where an inferior human species lived. In 1882, Great Britain had the complete control of Egypt, and the British presence was a military presence. In the same period, Great Britain took the control of Somalia, Nigeria, Guinea's gulf and the Red Sea coasts. France, thanks to a political treaty (Berlin-1878), occupied Tunisia and, then, Congo and Madagascar. In the period between 1882-1885, Germany occupied Cameroon, Togo, and south-west areas.

In 1885 it was the German Bismarck to take the initiative to convene an international conference, because he worried about the consequences that an exaggerated colonial expansion could have on the European balance. In Berlin were defined the areas of interest of the individual European states, this fact avoided interferences and conflicts for some years.

In the last decade of the same century Great Britain and France had again common expansionistic targets: France wanted to join together the conquered lands of west Africa with the Red Sea's coasts through a west-east line. Great Britain wanted to join Egypt with the the Cape of Good Hope through a north-south line. In the south of the Sudan there was the inevitable crash between the two conquest lines. The conflict between the two European powers seemed inevitable, but both were convinced that a war between them could be only a German advantage, in fact Germany was in constant economic and military growth and already present in the African continent. The French withdraw from the immediate conflict, let to the English the control of the high Nile, and so they obtained a better relationship with Great Britain.

Also in Asia the protagonists, from the colonial expansionism's point of view, were France and England. The latter occupied Burma, because it was afraid of the French plan to conquer India.

The writer Hobsbwam wrote on the book "Empire's age" that this colonization of the late 1800, was a sort of race to find cheap raw material. The rich nations were afraid that the others could be more powerful, and the possessions abroad were a symbol of their power. 


Marlow very often tells us about the life in the Congo, the scenery, the people and their behavior. So we also hear about the slaves' appalling fate. As we know from history, slave traders attacked the natives' villages, caught the defenseless people and sold them to companies, who used them for various labors.

Following, Marlow tells us about his impressions of the building of a railway:

"A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path … each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking."1

Obviously, the whites are very afraid of the blacks, so they think they have to keep their power in chains. That makes Marlow think of a tug of war, where he has seen prisoners, also tied up. He remarks "these men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies".2

The black slaves are not treated as human beings, they were just tools of a big system of maximization of profits.

The white conquerors had no restraints when they were exploiting a country and its people. Later, the revenge would be the total deleting of its resources, and the hen laying golden eggs is killed.

So Kurtz is the death of the company's Congo business: "…the manager said afterwards that Mr. Kurtz's methods had ruined the district."3 

For a short time, he has brought the most ivory, but then, all elephants are rooted out. 

The idea of imperialism



On the one hand the word "imperialism" means the period of colonization of African and Asian countries by European states, the USA and Japan in the 19th century, on the other hand it means an idea that was disseminated since the beginning of the modern times around the 16th century: The people of the mighty European countries thought to be the first race of the world. 

With new inventions, like new ships, printing, weapons, Europe was superior to the other continents. Driven by the church's idea of mission, the need for resources and greed for gold, first the Spanish and the Portuguese, later all important countries started to take over and exploit less developed countries. 

The thought of being the superior race played an important role. Many scenes and dialogues in Heart of Darkness show this arrogance.

The relation between whites and blacks turns into a relation between dominators and dominated. Every attempt to change this situation is seen as a treason and gives the right to revenge: "…these heads were the heads of rebels."4

Kurtz had not any restraints in retribution of his domination. To save order and his power, he showed the penalty for everyone who fought against him, he exhibited the decapitated rebels' heads.

An important fact is that Kurtz didn't have many white bodyguards, but blacks who were fully enslaved to him. This splitting of the native people was his most important weapon against all revolutions.

By Reinhard and Fabrizio

Historical facts were taken in the book "History" by E. Musi and L.M. Migliorini


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