Marlow says, “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or who have slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
Is Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, a criticism of colonialism?
Heart of Darkness is a semi-autobiographical novella in which Joseph Conrad certainly makes observations about the evils of colonialism. The movement of white European men into primarily the dark jungles of Africa was quite acceptable to most at the time of his writing, and Conrad (through Marlow) begins his narrative by reminding his listeners (and readers) that the Romans were doing the very same thing nearly two centuries before.
He does not diminish the physical horrors of colonialism; in fact, he points it out often as the boat journeys up the Congo. He calls the incursion and exploitation by the white intruders upon the natives as a "merry dance of death and trade," and he is clear about his horror of the never-ending hunger for ivory which is the ultimate treasure in these greedy quests in Africa.
While he does criticize colonialism in this work, however, he is more clearly condemning the nature of man which compels him to commit such acts. In other words, Conrad is making the argument that colonialism is horrific, but what is worse is what is inside man which causes it. He successfully demonstrates that colonialism is simply a consequence of man's voracious hunger for power, insatiable greed for possessions (land, people, and goods), and endless capacity for evil. It is so now, and it has been so since early civilizations (remember those Romans he mentioned). Colonialism is just the by-product of what is worst in man.
Ironically, Kurtz is the character who seems to realize this truth. Marlow says, “But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” When he examines his own greedy, corrupted, and exploiting soul, Kurtz goes mad. His last words, "Horror! Horror!" are not describing colonialism but the nature of man.