Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is an intriguing and extremely disturbing portrayal of man's surrender to his carnal nature when all external trappings of "civilization" are removed. This novel excellently portrays the shameful ways in which the Europeans exploited the Africans: physically, socially, economically, and spiritually.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Europeans treated their African counterparts savagely. They were beaten, driven from their homes, and enslaved. Heart of Darkness is no exception. In the first section of the novel, Marlow is disgusted by the condition of the Africans at the First Station. His encounter with the chain gang sickens him to the point where he is forced to wait for them to pass. He even takes a separate path to avoid encountering them again.
While avoiding the chain gang, Marlow stumbles upon the object of their work-"a vast artificial hole...the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine." Apparently, to keep them occupied and thus "out of trouble," the natives are forced to do meaningless, pointless exercises. Marlow is shocked by this total subjugation of the Africans and the completely pointless work which they are forced to perform.
Prior to 1807, the Europeans directly enslaved the Africans. After 1807, Britain, and eventually most European countries, banned the slave trade. However, this did not stop the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, whose members Marlow described as "reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage," from using natives as forced labor for their benefit--the classic definition of slavery.
Europeans were also extremely distrustful of the natives. They were often accused of crimes because of the color of their skin. At the beginning of the novel, a French ship is firing blindly into the woods because "[apparently] the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts." Later in the novel, at the Central Station, a native is accused of causing the fire that engulfed the European's storage shed. He is beaten savagely; later he ran away from the station.
The Europeans, aside from physically exploiting the Africans, also exploited them economically. When the Europeans first came to Africa, they found a civilization that was extremely well-developed, albeit in a different way than traditional Western civilization. They discovered a continent that was rich in many things, particularly gold, silver, and ivory. Far from the external checks of civilization and motivated by their greed, they decided to exploit the riches they had "discovered." The Africans provided a ready labor force. So, the Europeans pressed them into labor by various means, ranging from brute force to manipulation of their religious beliefs. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Marlow encounters a chain gang that is forced to "[balance] small baskets full of earth on their heads." The earth they are carrying away is from the "vast artificial hole" that Marlow encountered earlier. The natives are being forced to perform pointless, futile, demeaning tasks so that they will be more submissive workers.
The most widespread method for subjugating the Africans was that of brute force. However, the Africans attempted to escape at every opportunity and the security measures required to contain them were very demanding. A more effective method was manipulation of the local religion. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz comes to the natives with the "thunder and lightening" of weapons; the natives almost immediately worship him as a god. Those that resist him are executed as "rebels" and their heads are placed on stakes around Kurtz's cabin as reminders to the remaining natives and to further the perception of his divinity.
Both methods shared some common results; they both socially exploited the natives. In most cases, the natives were forced to abandon their villages and "relocate" to the European settlements. Marlow is amazed by the unbelievable number of deserted villages he encounters during his trek to the Central Station. The natives were also forced to adopt Western styles of dressing. Prior to the advent of the Europeans, most African natives did not wear clothes. After the Europeans, they were forced to wear at the very least a loincloth and in many cases, they adopted other aspects of Western dress. In the grove of trees at the First Station, Marlow encounters a native wearing a "bit of white worsted" about his neck.
The Europeans also shamelessly exploited the spiritual nature of the natives. They were forced to leave their homeland and in some cases, travel extremely great distances to work in the European settlements until their death. Near the time of their death, when they were too sick to work, they were often denied their traditional death and burial rituals in favor of the more "civilized" European ritual of burying the dead. At the First Station, no thought is given to the Africans who are in the grove of trees, waiting to die.
The natives' spiritual beliefs were often ignored and exploited for earthly purposes. Kurtz preyed upon their belief of his divinity and forced them to violate the sacred elephant burial grounds to dig up the old ivory. He also used the heads of the natives he killed, those "heads on the stakes" with their faces turned toward the house, to show his complete and total dominance over their lives. After this, the natives could not but help view him with a supernatural aura. He also forced anyone approaching him to crawl on all fours and grovel at his feet. This, coupled with the fact that he did not allow very many people to see him, reinforced his god-like authority.
In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the Europeans shamelessly exploited the Africans. Conrad, who had been to Africa, makes no effort to gloss over the gross abuses of power of the Europeans and their inhumane treatment of the natives. Taken in this light, Heart of Darkness serves as an excellent novel of social protest.