How are the natives presented in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness is a serious indictment of the consequences, both physical and moral, of European colonialism, with the "natives" depicted as the pathetic, beaten-down victims that many became under the yoke of foreign imperialism. Conrad's writing, unsurprisingly, reflects both the time in which it was written (it was published in 1899) and the culture from which the author sprang. The English had long since colonized much of the known non-European world and what they hadn't colonized other European nations had, especially France. In any event, Conrad's treatment of the indigenous population of the region into which his protagonist, Marlow, descends is nothing short of brutal. Note, for instance, the following passages from early in Heart of Darkness:

"Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs. No doubt he was; but he had been a couple of years already out there engaged in the noble cause, you know, and he probably felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way. Therefore he whacked the old nigger mercilessly . . ."

"I strolled up. . .The flame had leaped high, driven everybody back, lighted up everything— and collapsed. The shed was already a heap of embers glowing fiercely. A nigger was being beaten near by."

"Black figures strolled about listlessly, pouring water on the glow, whence proceeded a sound of hissing; steam ascended in the moonlight, the beaten nigger groaned somewhere. ‘What a row the brute makes!’ said the indefatigable man with the moustaches, appearing near us. 'Serve him right. Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way. This will prevent all conflagrations for the future.'"

These passages all reflect the subservient role imposed upon the indigenous populations of Africa by European colonial administrators. Every depiction of native African people in Conrad's novel reflects the dehumanizing treatment to which they were subjected by the more "enlightened" outsiders. Entire populations were systematically enslaved by European colonizers with little or no recognition of any form of common humanity between ethnicities. Conrad made no attempt at minimizing the harshness of the conditions for native and outsider alike, but there is never any question as to the identities of the violators of human dignity and to the victims. His depiction of the physically and mentally exhausted natives is graphic and effective. That the mission at the heart of the story -- the search for Kurtz -- will reveal the toll these practices have taken on at least one individual is the point of the exercise. Nobody comes out of this story looking very good save the main protagonist.

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