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Heart of Darkness

by Joseph Conrad
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Why is the ivory so important in Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness?

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In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is at the Inner Station; the only way they know that he is still alive (because he has stopped corresponding) is because he continues to be enormously successful in shipping irovy out of the heart of the jungle for the Company to sell.

The Company makes a great deal of money because of the ivory it exports from Africa. For a long time, there was a high demand for it around the world: piano keys used to be made from ivory.

A prevalent feeling among Europeans of the 1890s was that the African peoples required introduction to European culture and technology in order to become more evolved. The responsibility for that introduction, known as the ‘‘white man's burden,’’ gave rise to a fervor to bring Christianity and commerce to Africa. What the Europeans took out of Africa in return were huge quantities of ivory. During the 1890s, at the time Heart of Darkness takes place, ivory was in enormous demand in Europe, where it was used to make jewelry, piano keys, and billiard balls, among other items.

Although the white government and society presented a facade of concern for the African people, financial gain was at the root of much of the interaction with the continent; it was much more about what the white businessman could take from Africa than what it would bring to the native population.

In 1892, King Leopold of Belgium, who had taken over the vast [Belgian] Congo territory proclaimed that this land—more specifically, its natural resources (such as ivory)—belonged to him, and people could take what they wanted no longer dealing with African traders. In the face of this change, Belgian traders moved deeper into the heart of Africa to find more ivory.

One of the furthermost stations, located at Stanley Falls, was the likely inspiration for Kurtz's Inner Station.

Today the area Conrad wrote about is free from Belgian rule, and is known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Throughout history ivory has been used in many different cultures for a wide range of religious, secular and utilitarian objects, for jewelry...and even, when burnt, as a pigment...Its popularity has been due to its attractive colour, its smooth, translucent appearance and the ease with which it can be carved and coloured. Also, for many cultures the exotic origin of ivory has made it a prestigious material with symbolic and magical associations.

For long periods of time ivory was used also for many things: for artists' carvings and for making ladies' fans and other adornments. Its texture, ability to be fashioned artistically, and its ability to withstand the ravages of time made it extremely sought after. When elephants became endangered because of the ivory trade, the taking of ivory was banned, though it is still illegally taken and traded on the black market.


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