Heart of Darkness: A Political & Historical Context by Pete Brooks
Heart of Darkness was written in 1899 at what retrospectively we can see was a transitional period in world history. What we understand now as global capitalism, and which had been anticipated by Marx and Engels half a century earlier, was beginning to be recognised by progressive intellectuals like Conrad who were appalled by European exploitation of their colonial territories. European colonisation in Africa, sometimes termed the scramble for Africa, was particularly brutal, reinforced as it was by racism, and while all the European colonial powers used violence and exploitation as a means of governance, the behaviour of Belgium and Germany was particularly appalling.
The part of Africa in which the novella is set is the Belgian Congo, which in reality was a virtual slave state run as a personal fiefdom by the Belgian King Leopold. Genocidal policies were widely implemented, and the arbitrary murder and mutilation of the local population routine.
Conrad was a deeply moral man and was concerned by what he had seen of colonialism in the South Seas and Africa. He was also part of a group of writers and intellectuals who saw that the demands of business were increasingly going to dictate global politics. His novel Nostromo looks at the impact of US sponsored capitalism in South America, and he and his friends were concerned at how ‘America First’ policies would impact on the old world.
Nevertheless Joseph Conrad did not consider himself to be politically motivated. His experiences as a young man in Poland had made him sceptical of political activism. He was by nature conservative, but was connected socially with more radical thinkers, in particular Roger Casement, who encouraged Conrad to expose the horrors of the colonial regimes in Africa and who was later hanged as one of the instigators of the Easter Rising, Ireland’s rebellion against British colonial rule.
For an excellent account of the colonial history of the Congo region see particularly, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild, Mariner Books, 1998. See also Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist, Granta Books, 2002