Representations of Africa in Nineteenth-Century Literature Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.