Hornbill Unleashed

November 15, 2012

Revisiting the ‘Heart of Darkness’

Filed under: Alternatives — Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:03 AM
Tags: ,

Sim Kwang Yang

One of my favourite books is the novel written by Joseph Conrad, entitled ‘Heart of Darkness’. It is a short novella, documenting the death of an adventurer in the dark continent of Africa.

Joseph Conrad was actually a Polish national, but carved for himself a giant territory in the world of English literature. He wrote many books which were largely characterised by sea adventures. These were stories gleaned from his experiences and materials collected when he was a seaman.

‘Heart of Darkness’ tells the story of a merchant company agent by the name of Mr Kurtz, who died in the jungles of Africa. Working in the field for a company in the shipping business, Kurtz fell ill in the course of his duties, and died on the job.

The significance of Kurtz was that he worked in the ivory trade. He was responsible for transporting vast amounts of valuable ivory, robbed by rogue traders in Africa from the jungles in the tropics, to their political masters in Europe.

The life story of Mr Kurtz was necessarily the tale of the human greed of white civilisation, in stripping bare the treasures of Africa.

Conrad told this story without pathos. He was probably writing from experience, for he knew that robbing Africa of priceless resources has extended over the past few centuries to the present day.

He was a writer of fiction of the highest order. His stories were always full of human drama. And in that story of the demise of Mr Kurtz, he portrayed human greed at its worst.

Needless to say, the evil of the ivory trade in Africa persists until this day. Many elephants are still being slaughtered in that dark continent to satisfy the insatiable demands of human greed. In that sense, Conrad’s story was eternal, and still has tremendous relevance for us today.

Although Conrad was a European, he had the universal capacity and perception to understand the horror of greed in human affairs.

Conrad wrote this book at the end of 1899, at a time when the world was very different from today. His characters, including Mr Kurtz, were from that era. He was publishing his works with limited knowledge of African circumstances. Much of his description of Africa committed the sin of ethnocentrism, from the European’s point of view.

Ethnocentrism is an allegation hurled by Chinua Achebe at Conrad. Achebe has been recognised as one of the greatest black African writers. He is a contemporary figure, and his writing has been turned into literature textbooks in Malaysian schools.

So the question is: was Joseph Conrad guilty of ethnocentrism, since he described African subjects in his book as “the other”?

Conrad wrote the book in the latter part of the 19th century. He was perhaps inexperienced in learning about the diversity of African culture. It was therefore impossible for him to regard the African experience as anything but “the other”.

In that sense, he was no different from modern day white men, who have been isolated and alienated from African experiences. It would be impossible for us to expect him to have behaved in any other way.

But Achebe’s description of Conrad’s alienation from the African lifestyle is only to be expected. This is not Conrad’s fault by design. And to accuse him of racism against all Africans, based on this book alone, is unfair.

Nevertheless, Achebe’s accusation of racism on the part of Conrad is a sobering thought. It goes to show the topsy turvy, confusing world we live in.

We Malaysians can understand Achebe’s subjective feeling, but we must also look at the issue from the world’s historical perspective, without putting too much emphasis on our own ethnic belonging.

After all, the joy of reading literature lies in the ability to appreciate the beauty of our human condition, and that includes the racial contradictions of our time.

7 Comments »

  1. The Brits money hantus never stop do they. Their filthy rich was doing it then and still doing it now!

    Comment by Question More — November 16, 2012 @ 7:23 PM | Reply

  2. We’re all creatures of our times. Malaysians are lucky and many discover they’re creatures of several times in 6 decades.

    Doesn’t time tell?

    Comment by ignoble savage — November 15, 2012 @ 2:39 PM | Reply

  3. I would suggest you read World Within, by Tom Morrison. Morrison dedicated his life for the Kelabits, managed the Sarwak Museum into an international learning center, then managed the immediate successful archaeological excavations at the Niah Caves, promoted conservation, and of course all he got in return from Sarawak was a lifetime ban. Then you have the Story of Bruno Manser, who disappeared in the Batu Lawi area, another outsider who contributed more than ten years of his life for the Penan, and all he got in return was a bounty on his head which someone probably collected. Of course there is Raja Brooke, who really tried to help the Iban, but now remembered as a colonialist, and his fondness for the Iban forgotten. Thank you Sarawak, and you all deserve the cronyism and the corruption of Taib Mohd and Barisan Nasional.

    Comment by Huang Lin — November 15, 2012 @ 11:23 AM | Reply

    • YOU MEAN TOM HARRISON? – HE DIED IN A CAR CRASH AND WAS ACCUSED OF MISAPPROPRIATING FUNDS & SELLING SARAWAK ANTIQUES…

      THE FIRST RAJAH CREATED THE COUNTRY OF SARAWAK & OUR SARAWAK IDENTITY.

      THE SECOND RAJAH FORESAW WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THE DAYAKS.

      THE LAST RAJAH GAVE SARAWAK THE 9 CARDINAL PRINCIPLES BUT SOLD SARAWAK TO THE BRITISH IN 1946 AND THIS LED TO SARAWAK BEING COLONISED BY THE MALAYANS IN 1963.

      THE RAJAH MUDA OPPOSE THE SELL OUT OF SARAWAK BUT DID NOT GATHER ENOUGH FORCE TO RESIST THE BRITISH…

      THE WHITE HAIR RAJAH WAS GIVEN THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY TO PILLAGE SARAWAK BY HIS MALAYAN COLONIAL MASTER…

      Comment by Anon — November 15, 2012 @ 10:43 PM | Reply

  4. Sarawak has some rogue government Ministers starting from the very top.

    Comment by charles — November 15, 2012 @ 9:52 AM | Reply

  5. DIDN’T CONRAD ALSO WROTE A STORY WITH A SARAWAK THEME CALLED “LORD JIM”?

    Perhaps the colonial context of Lord Jim’s story has not changed much in reality as we in Sarawak are still subjected to the colonial abuse and plunder not by white men any more but brown colonial mastahs from Malaya and their local puppets?

    Comment by Anon — November 15, 2012 @ 8:28 AM | Reply

    • Yes, indeed. There’s also a possibility suggested by one scholar that Conrad took some inspiration for the character of Kurtz from both James Brooke and Charles Brooke. Conrad was a good friend of Ranee Margaret.

      Comment by Reader — November 15, 2012 @ 10:17 AM | Reply


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