Representations of Africa in Nineteenth-Century Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Representations of Africa in Nineteenth-Century Literature


Representations of Africa in Nineteenth-Century Literature

The following entry provides critical commentary on the depiction of Africa and its people in nineteenth-century works by Western and African writers.

The dominant image of Africa projected by European writers in the nineteenth century was that of a place of savagery and chaos. Africa was known as the “Dark Continent,” a land deprived of the light of Western civilization, education, culture, religion, industry, and progress. The African landscape was like nothing encountered in Europe, and early explorers emphasized the differences between the cities or countryside they knew at home and the tropical jungle, arid open spaces, and indigenous flora and fauna of Africa. The people of Africa were characterized by Westerners as lacking in morality and intelligence, being perpetually childlike, demonic, and practicing outlandish, barbaric customs. Because of the overwhelmingly negative reports and portrayals of Africa and Africans, by late in the century most Westerners regarded colonization of the African land their moral duty; it was the “White man's burden,” in Rudyard Kipling's phrase, to dominate Africans until they could be sufficiently civilized to take their place in the world. By 1900, almost ninety percent of Africa was under European control, and the myth of the “Dark Continent” and the image of the deprived, depraved African native had taken hold of the Western consciousness.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europeans were largely ignorant of Africa, although Portugal had been engaged since the mid-fifteenth century in the trade of African slaves. Britain's slave trade began a hundred years later, and by the eighteenth century was flourishing, but because the slave business was handled internally by African and Arab merchants, few Europeans actually traveled to Africa. By the end of the eighteenth century, the abolitionist movement in Britain began to have an impact on British attitudes. Some of the first representations of Africa and Africans in European writing were composed by Europeans—mainly abolitionists who expressed their outrage at the injustices of slavery—who had never traveled to Africa. However, while these writers, including the Romantic poets William Blake, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sought to point out the atrocities suffered by Africans at the hands of Westerners, they also presented them patronizingly as childlike and innocent and as “noble savages.”

After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain began patrolling the African coasts in order to intercept slave ships from other countries. This, coupled with the discovery of quinine to ease the symptoms of malaria, heralded an age of Western exploration in Africa. Those who traveled to Africa generally did so for commercial gain, although many also sought scientific and geographical knowledge or to convert the natives to Christianity. Early reports from travelers, such as the Englishman Thomas Foxwell Buxton, depicted Africans as ignorant, superstitious, and barbaric, and practices such as cannibalism and ritual sacrifice were highlighted and sensationalized. Later accounts by the famous explorers of the second half of the nineteenth century—including Sir Richard Burton, Samuel White Baker, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley—became more sophisticated, and included more nuanced details of African customs and ways of life. Nevertheless, the portrayals continued to be negative and patronizing. African art was assessed as “primitive” and inferior compared to European “high” art; African political organizations were regarded as mere “tribal” associations; and African medicine men were “witch doctors.” Africa and its traditions were repeatedly measured against Western cultural standards and found wanting. But the reading public at home was mesmerized by romantic accounts of travelers who endured great hardships in the dark and mysterious continent. Indeed, in most explorers' accounts, Africa is simply the backdrop to the heroism or Christian fortitude of the European explorer, and Africans are depicted as weak and pitiable creatures. The most celebrated explorer of the Victorian era was the English missionary Sir David Livingstone who in 1857 published his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Livingstone was regarded as a national hero at home, a saint-like figure who took it upon himself to bring Christianity into the darkest corners of the earth. But although Livingstone viewed Africans with more sympathy than most of his countrymen, he held that Europeans were superior to Africans, and he assumed it was his mission to civilize and educate Africans in Western ways.

By the end of the nineteenth century, European travel to Africa had become more commonplace, and even a number of women journeyed there. The Englishwoman Mary Kingsley, one of the first female explorers, made pioneering trips to West and Central Africa and wrote about her experiences in her travel narratives. In addition to travel writings describing the strange customs and people, in the second half of the century there also appeared a great many novels—most of them romances and adventures—set against the “dark” African landscape. Probably the best known of these is H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885), an adventure book for boys that relates a journey into the heart of the continent by a group in search of the legendary wealth said to be concealed in the mines of the novel's title. Other works of fiction set against the backdrop of Africa included Olive Schreiner's novels The Story of an African Farm (1883), about a woman living on an isolated ostrich farm in South Africa, and Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), a critique of Cecil John Rhodes's colonialism. Certainly the most famous of all nineteenth-century works of fiction set in Africa is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a novella that was first serialized in 1899 and later published in its entirety in 1902. The book recounts the journey of the sailor Marlow to the heart of the Belgian Congo in search of the mysterious, brilliant agent Kurtz, who he discovers has “gone native,” setting himself up as a god to the Africans, becoming more savage than they are, taking part in bizarre rites, and using violence to obtain ivory. For decades the novella was regarded as a harsh condemnation of imperialism, the first work of fiction to attack the Western attitudes that had been used to justify conquest and colonization. But in “An Image of Africa” (see Further Reading), an influential lecture delivered in 1975, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe called into question this interpretation. Achebe pointed out what he saw as the essential racism of Conrad's attitude, as the author presents Africans as less than human, childlike, lacking in free will, and unable to act. Achebe also noted that this was the standard approach to Africa in Western fiction. This dehumanized portrayal of Africans was typical of the Western idea of Africa, according to Achebe, and he argued that Westerners continue to view Africans in this light.

Following Achebe, a number of literary critics began considering the racism and dehumanization in works by Westerners in Africa. Although some studies had appeared in the 1960s and 1970s exploring the attitudes of colonial writers, after the mid-1970s critics became more attuned to the negative manner in which Africans and their culture were portrayed. Since then, scholars have examined literary works about Africa to understand the evolution of the myths of the “Dark Continent” and the African “Other” as well as to explore what can be learned about Europeans and their culture that prompted them to forge these negative images. Many of these critics claim that Europeans' depiction of Africa was actually a representation of their deepest fears and the unconscious aspects of themselves that they refused to acknowledge. The representation of Africa as a dark, mysterious, dangerous place full of savagery and brutality was, critics have argued, actually a representation of the European psyche. Critics have also shown how the deeply racist views about Africans in literary works affected the European public, shaped imperialist attitudes, and made colonization possible. Feminist critics in particular have emphasized how the African landscape is repeatedly feminized and sexualized. Some feminist scholars have claimed that female European travelers who wrote about Africa were more sympathetic in their depictions, but others have contended that women writers' imperialist attitudes are just as entrenched as those of their male counterparts. Most of the English-language criticism on the representation of Africa has tended to concentrate on British works, although some critics have written about how continental Europeans and Americans viewed Africa in the nineteenth century. Few Africans in the nineteenth century had the opportunity to offer their own portrayals of their countries and people, but one notable exception is Edward Wilmot Blyden, a West Indian writer who settled in Liberia and who wrote about Africa's political future and African culture and character. Several critics, notably V. Y. Mudimbe, have written about Blyden, delineating, among other things, how Blyden's views contrast with nineteenth-century Western attitudes. While literary critics now acknowledge that the bulk of nineteenth-century literary works about Africa were racist and hardly representative of the real Africa, they also claim that the Western image of Africa in the twenty-first century is based on those nineteenth-century ideas. They lament that Hollywood movies, the Western news media, and literary works by Westerners continue to represent Africa as a backward place whose people need Western intervention to save themselves. According to these critics, Africans' accomplishments, complexity, and humanity are rarely portrayed. These critics claim that the myths of the “Dark Continent” and the Africans as “Other” remain as strong as they ever were in many regards, making Africa vulnerable to the changing face of Western imperialism.

Representative Works

Samuel White Baker
The Albert N'Yanza: The Great Basin of the Nile (travel narrative) 1866
Cast up by the Sea (novel) 1868

R. M. Ballantyne
Black Ivory: A Tale of Adventure among the Slaves of East Africa (novel) 1873

William Blake
“Little Black Boy” (poem) 1789

Edward Wilmot Blyden
“A Vindication of the African Race” (essay) 1857
“Hope For Africa” (essay) 1862
The Negro in Ancient History (nonfiction) 1869
Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (nonfiction) 1888
Africa and Africans (nonfiction) 1903
Selected Letters of Edward Wilmot Blyden [edited by Hollis...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Criticism: Overview

SOURCE: Brantlinger, Patrick. “The Genealogy of the Myth of the ‘Dark Continent.’” In Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, pp. 173-97. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Brantlinger traces the evolution of the myth of Africa as the Dark Continent in writings by British and American explorers, sociologists, anthropologists, missionaries, journalists, abolitionists, novelists, and poets in the nineteenth century.]

We are thrown back in imagination to the infancy of the world.

—David Livingstone

In Heart of Darkness, Marlow...

(The entire section is 11812 words.)

Criticism: Northeast And Central Africa

Victor Kiernan (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Kiernan, Victor. “Africa.” In The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age, pp. 203-54. London: Serif, 1995.

[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1969, Kiernan discusses the views of noted nineteenth-century explorers who traveled to East Africa, including Sir Richard Burton, E. S. Grogan, David Livingstone, and John Speke, showing how these travelers imposed class and race divisions upon Africans; considered them to be childlike, savage, and lazy; and saw them as deserving of and needing Europeans to govern them.]


One of Burton's journeys, in...

(The entire section is 3741 words.)

Stephen Donovan (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Donovan, Stephen. “In Darkest England and the Way Out: Imagining Empire, Imagining Britain.” Moderna Språk 93, no. 1 (1999): 12-23.

[In the following essay, Donovan discusses the English reception of Henry Morton Stanley's In Darkest Africa in 1890; examines the exposé of poverty in Britain that it inspired, William Thomas Stead's In Darkest England; and argues that the imperialist ideology was a result of the experiences, conflicts, and contradictions of capitalist Britain.]

… it is worth pausing to ask why small incidents in such an out of the way place as the trackless depths of a primeval forest should remind...

(The entire section is 5426 words.)

Criticism: South Africa

Clifton C. Crais (essay date winter 1991)

SOURCE: Crais, Clifton C. “The Vacant Land: The Mythology of British Expansion in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.” Journal of Social History 25, no. 2 (winter 1991): 255-68.

[In the following excerpt, Crais explores the genealogy of the dominant political and historical myth posited by Whites in South Africa that the land they settled was empty and that Blacks had no prior claim to the spaces that were colonized, a myth that forged also the negative image of the African as Other.]

The historiography of South Africa over the past four decades is impressive for its lack of attention to the study of the changing image of the black in the white eye and the creation and...

(The entire section is 5602 words.)

Bruce Mazlish (essay date October 1993)

SOURCE: Mazlish, Bruce. “A Triptych: Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Rider Haggard's She, and Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race.Comparative Studies in Society and History: An International Quarterly 35, no. 4 (October 1993): 726-44.

[In the following essay, Mazlish examines the influence of H. Rider Haggard's novel She on Sigmund Freud and the influence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel The Coming Race on Haggard before discussing how the three men understood ideas about race, gender, and imperialism in order to show how Africa was commonly used in nineteenth-century discourse as a symbol of the repressed consciousness.]


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Lindy Stiebel (essay date April 2000)

SOURCE: Stiebel, Lindy. “‘As Europe is to Africa, So is Man to Woman’: Gendering Landscape in Rider Haggard's Nada the Lily.Current Writing 12, no. 1 (April 2000): 63-74.

[In the following essay, Stiebel argues that in his fiction H. Rider Haggard sexualizes and feminizes the African landscape.]

The geographies of adventures … enable writers and readers to remove themselves from the messy realities and textured experiences of here and now, enabling them to imagine alternatives, other possible worlds, departures from the status quo.

(Phillips 1997:168)

One of Rider...

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Criticism: West Africa

Chinua Achebe (essay date winter 1977)

SOURCE: Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” In Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987, pp. 1-13. London: Heinemann International, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in the winter issue of the Massachusetts Review in 1977, Achebe asserts that Joseph Conrad was a racist and that his novel Heart of Darkness celebrates the dehumanization of Africans. Achebe also notes that white critics have not commented on this type of racism, which, he asserts, was and is the dominant perception of Africa in the Western imagination.]

In the fall of 1974 I was walking one day from the English...

(The entire section is 5908 words.)

V. Y. Mudimbe (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Mudimbe, V. Y. “E. W. Blyden's Legacy and Questions.” In The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, pp. 98-134. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Mudimbe considers the claim that the West Indian writer and thinker Edward Wilmot Blyden, who settled in West Africa in 1851, was the precursor of Négritude, and analyzes Blyden's ideas on colonization, Western ideology, European attitudes toward Blacks, Islam, Pan-Africanism, and the condition and character of Africans.]


Toute ma vie, politiquement, je me...

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Salome C. Nnoromele (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Nnoromele, Salome C. “Gender, Race, and Colonial Discourse in the Travel Writings of Mary Kingsley.” Victorian Newsletter 90 (fall 1996): 1-6.

[In the following essay, Nnoromele examines the travel writings of Mary Kingsley to counter the claim made by white feminist scholars that white female travelers in the nineteenth century responded to colonized Others with reciprocity, did not objectify them, treated them with empathy, and lacked many of the imperialist attitudes of their male contemporaries.]

Susan L. Blake in an essay on Mary Hall asks: “In the relation of European travelers to empire, what difference does gender make?” Encoded in the question...

(The entire section is 5410 words.)

Laura E. Ciolkowski (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Ciolkowski, Laura E. “Traveler's Tales: Empire, Victorian Travel, and the Spectacle of English Womanhood in Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa.Victorian Literature and Culture 26, no. 2 (1998): 337-66.

[In the following excerpt, Ciolkowski argues that far from undercutting bourgeois womanhood and presenting a story of female liberation, Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa establishes the author's gendered identity.]


Fettered as women are in highly civilized countries by restraints, obligations, and responsibilities, which are too often arbitrary and artificial … it is natural enough...

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Cheryl McEwan (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: McEwan, Cheryl. “Paradise or Pandemonium?” In Gender, Geography and Empire: Victorian Women Travellers in West Africa, pp. 65-90. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000.

[In the following essay, McEwan analyzes the response of British female travel writers to the West African landscape, arguing that while their descriptions of the physical environment were complex and varied, they generally saw the natural environment as ordered and not chaotic and resisted the urge to establish control over the land they depicted.]

A wonderful stillness pervades these West African creeks. Except for the gentle ripple of the water among the mangroves, hardly a...

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Further Reading


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa.” In The Chancellor's Lecture Series 1974-1975, pp. 31-43. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1976.

Pioneering lecture, delivered in 1975, in which Achebe discusses the racism in Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness and introduces the topic of racist portrayals of Africans in works by Western writers to literary and scholarly discourse.

Ammons, Elizabeth. “Uncle Tom's Cabin, Empire, and Africa.” In Approaches to Teaching Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, edited by Elizabeth Ammons and Susan Belasco, pp. 68-76. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2000....

(The entire section is 1601 words.)