As time progresses, different issues become important to us. These issues, like the times, change often. Today, we are concerned with issues like gender equality and LGBTQ+ affairs. However, in the twentieth century, a major issue was imperialism. Not surprisingly, during this time writers expressed their ideas on imperialism. One such author is Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness. The story is a man named Marlow’s retelling of his experience going to Africa to colonize and sharing his thoughts on imperialism, colonists, and natives. One topic Marlow touches on throughout the story is savagery.
Marlow establishes his view of indigenous people in new lands early in the story as he wonders about what the Romans thought as they expanded their empire, saying, “Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages—precious little for a civilised man to eat” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 76). To Marlow, all the Romans saw were nature and “savages,” not nature and humans living in the area before them. From this, we know Marlow thinks indigenous people are not human, not like the “civilised” colonists, but are savages—barbaric and uncivilized. He also establishes his view of colonists—as civilized and superior—in this quote. Throughout the rest of the story, Marlow refers to the natives as “wild men,” “criminals,” and “savages” rather than people (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 76 and 83). This view of natives is extremely dehumanizing and degrading. Another way Marlow dehumanizes the Africans is by never referring to them as individuals. Rather, he groups them together, saying, “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 99). Refusing to acknowledge the natives as individual people and only referring to them as one mass of all the natives together takes away their individuality and humanity. Marlow talks about the natives “howl[ing] and leap[ing], and sp[inning], and ma[king] horrid faces,” actions that make them “not inhuman” in Marlow’s words, but savages (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 99). Marlow decides the Africans are savage because they have different customs than he and his fellow colonists do. Also, although he claims they are not inhuman, the degrading references and treatment of the Africans effectively strips them of their humanity, whether Marlow directly acknowledges it or not.
Another instance Marlow shows his view of natives is when he talks about first landing at the station to wait for his journey to Kurtz. As he makes his way to the station, he encounters some Africans, chained together, approaching him. So, instead of continuing on his way, he decides to “let that chain-gang get out of sight before [he] climb[s] the hill” out of fear of them attacking him (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 84). His diction—“chain-gang”—paired with his fear of attack again shows his view of natives being savage. The men are chained together, making an attack significantly more difficult. In addition, they are being forced to work for the colonists and would face punishment for attacking a white man. “Chain-gang” also villainizes the men, even though they have not done anything to Marlow. He also talks about how the natives are “simple” people who can be scared off by blowing a steam whistle, which he uses to support his ideals, failing to recognize that they may be scared of the whistle because they are unaccustomed to the sound (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 112).
While Marlow and his colleagues may believe the African natives are “savage,” I would argue that the colonists themselves are the real savages. They invade these natives’ home, force them to work to the point of fatal exhaustion, and press new ideas, beliefs, and customs on them—all while taking their humanity and calling them savages. The colonists have an “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” tasked with pulling African customs from the natives and replacing them (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 110). I am sure the colonists would have caused an uproar had this occurred in their native countries. Moreover, the colonists take a punishment and no pity approach to making the natives work for them, shown through the beating of an African and the exclamation, “Transgression—punishment—bang! Pitiless, pitiless” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 91). The accountant also says that “one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death” after being interrupted by a native’s groaning in pain as he tries to enter information into the books (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 86). So, on top of the forced cultural assimilation and pitiless punishment, the colonists get annoyed with the natives for making any sound that disrupts them, even if the sounds come from pain inflicted by them and are very human sounds. They also chained natives together, allowed only enough cloth to cover their genitals, and starved them to the point of malnourishment—another way to steal their humanity and humiliate them. I believe true savagery is dehumanizing others, forcing new ideas and death on others, and feeling superior to others because of your own view of your being “civilized” and their being “uncivilized.” Who are we to decide who is worthy of humanity, whose ideas are correct, or who is more civilized and worthy of independence and life? I believe in Heart of Darkness, the colonists are the true savages as they force “attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair” on the natives and pull their humanity from their grasp (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 84).
Greenblatt et. al., (Eds). (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.