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In short, the Europeans exploit the African landscape and its people in the pursuit of material wealth and progress. The Imperialists show little concern or respect for the people or the physical environment they encounter; they are only concerned (at least in the symbolic case of The Company) in acquiring and transporting ivory. The natives are treated as slaves to facilitate the transportation of ivory in the best of circumstances and are treated as nuisances and physical obstacles in most cases. The Congo River is polluted, the edges of the forests are destroyed, and the cultural practices and histories of the indigenous people are ignored if not squelched.
Consider that in Part 1 the French ship was "shelling the continent" with "no effect." Conrad is telling the reader that Africa is empty, even though we know that millions of people lived in Africa at that time.
Emptiness connotes the European "right" to take what it wants, i.e., ivory. (Remember: King Leopold II wanted The Congo especially for two resources: ivory and rubber).
Also consider how everything is describe in terms of ivory: the dominoes on The Nellie; why The Russian is threatened with death at the hands of Kurtz; how the value of Kurtz's mistress's jewelry is described in terms of ivory; how The Intended's complexion is described; the piano in The Intended's parlor has keys made from ivory.
The bottom line: Europeans, pure and simple, exploited The Congo.
There are several clear examples of European influence on the face of the Congo territory, found in the first section of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. At the Lower Station, Marlow is confronted with the "graveyard" of machines and parts rusting chaotically throughout the area. There seems to be no sense or reason to the materials strewn about, or why they are being given up to the elements.
I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the boulders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as a carcass of some animal. I came upon more cases of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty nails.
Then Marlow describes how the construction crews are demolishing the land on a nearby cliff with dynamite blasting, but there seems to be no logical purpose—they do not need to pass through a mountain or build a road. The blasting is a waste: it has no purpose.
A horn tooted to the right, and I saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook the ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all. No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way or anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work going on.
Finally, the physical mark of the Europeans is seen on the people of the Congo. They have been enslaved by the white Europeans—the employees of the Company—as they rob the land of its resources and the life from its people. It is as if the very souls of these enslaved human beings have been liberated from their bodies: they are like zombies.
A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their heads, and the clink kept time with their footsteps...I could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain...All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference...
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