In "Heart of Darkness" how did Europreans justify expansionism? How would things have been different if Europeans hadn't arrived when or how they did?

1 Answer | Add Yours

rbeverett's profile pic

rbeverett | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

The Europeans in Heart of Darkness justified the rapid colonization of Africa by all major European countries in the nineteenth century primarily out of a sense of Christian morality and the Pauline missionary spirit of the same religion. In the novel, this sentiment can best be seen in Marlowe’s aunt, the same one who helped him get his job with the Company. Before leaving for Africa, Marlowe visits her, and she tells him that he is “an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.”  Of course, Marlowe, in hindsight, offers his assessment of ideas like these as he states, “there had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time.” Therefore, his aunt was not alone in thinking that the European nations were creating a presence in Africa out of a moral obligation to spread the European concept of civilization and Christianity to the native inhabitants of that continent.


Apparently, Kurtz himself at least pretended to view Europe’s involvement in Africa in the same manner before arriving there. After all, he was commissioned by the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to make “a report, for its future guidance.”  This fact is further evidenced by Kurtz’s fiancée’s apparent naiveté regarding Kurtz’s actions and motives that is revealed to the reader in her conversation with Marlowe.


The Victorian era in which the novel is set certainly allows for the situation to develop as it does. If the novel had been set in earlier centuries, no such moral justification for a European presence would have been necessary. One would only need to reference the centuries of slave trading to see that this fact is true. If one is interested in the history of European involvement in Africa, the following books are excellent historical reference tools: The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham, The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas, and King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.  

We’ve answered 317,457 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question