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Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness | Context


Belgian Colonization of the Congo

In the late 1800s Great Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, and other European countries began seizing parts of the African continent, creating artificial boundaries and colonies they claimed as part of their empires. In the 1870s King Leopold II (1835–1909) of Belgium led a group of investors to form a trading company to control trade along the Congo River. Leopold used trade agreements with indigenous groups as the pretext for claiming authority over much of central Africa. That assumption of power was codified in the Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884–1885, which recognized existence of the Congo Free State under his control. The present Democratic Republic of the Congo occupies the same area that was once the Congo Free State.

Leopold ran the colony as his personal property, separate from the Belgian government. His rule of the Congo was particularly harsh on the people and the environment, even by colonial standards. Belgians enslaved the indigenous people of the Congo and forced them to strip resources, especially ivory and rubber, from the land and wildlife, using torture, mutilation, and murder to enforce quotas. As a direct result of the Belgian barbarity, at least 10 million Congolese people died between 1880 and 1920, reducing the population by half. In 1908 the government of Belgium annexed the Congo, and some of the worst horrors allowed under Leopold's ownership started to diminish. The Congo won independence in 1960.

Conrad's character Marlow starts his journey into what is presumed to be the Congo Basin in the late 1800s, at the height of Leopold's rule.

The Ivory Trade in Central Africa

The trade in ivory and the concomitant abuse of native peoples and the environment provide the historical context for the narrative of colonialist greed that is central to Heart of Darkness. Until Leopold's seizure of the Congo Basin, the region had been mainly overlooked as a source of ivory, which is obtained by slaughtering elephants and removing their tusks. From 1888 to 1890 alone, 140 tons of ivory were exported from the Congo Free State.

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