Imperialism Between Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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In the victorian period, in which Queen Victoria was the ruler of the British Empire in the 19th century, the rise of Imperialism was one of the main features of Victoria’s Reign. Great Britain was the most powerful nation and was estimated to control a quarter of the earth’s landmass and population. Therefore, imperialism and colonization were common ideologies for the British individuals. The rise of this topic had a major influence on the culture and literature including colonial poems and novels, and was touched by famous writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. In order to explore the British view towards imperialism through literature, this paper is going to look through the works of Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and state the comparisons and contrasts between them.

The ideology of Imperialism originated as an intention of altruism and otherness, away from being a selfish aim, and later on to ‘take up the white man’s burden’ (Kipling 1) and “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.” (Conrad 26). These citation are respectively taken from from Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and they simply convey the meaning of the British imperialism.

A common theme in both of the works was Orientalism, a term by Edward Said which emerged when the European colonization started taking over the “underdeveloped” countries in the east, then they defined themselves as the superior race and had to civilize the Orientals, which they claimed that it was their duty, and had justified their colonization based on that. According to Said, Orientalism “is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”

In the Victorian Era, Kipling Rudyard had wrote his poem The White Man’s Burden in an attempt to convince the United States to take over the Philippines in order to start their own empire. The poem’s basic idea revolves around the concept of cultural imperialism, with the call for the superior powers to impose their civilizing behaviors on the “sullen people”, to assist the poor and help the sick. To Kipling, the white man’s “burden” is the obligation of Europeans to civilize the natives of the lesser developed nations. It is considered as a call to action to incite the white man for this civilizing mission using appeals to emotions. By this act, those “new caught, sullen people, half devil and half child” should be taught about civilization. He depicts the European colonizers as if they are doing a noble job and will obtain eternal glory. But in the actuality, the initial idea of bringing forth civilization and progress to those nations had eventually corrupted, and turned into other emotions such as greed and desire for more power and control, as Kipling say “To seek another’s profit/ And work another’s gain” (Kipling 15-16). Looking at the poem from the surface, the idea of he civilizing mission may appear true; however, look further into the heart, and many discrepancies emerge. This attempt underlines with an intention of taking advantage of resources, establishing hegemony and imperialist impulses.

“Kipling and most of their supporters were fully convinced they were aiming at “the happiness and prosperity of the people”, bringing them the rule of Law, security and peace, but downplaying the economic exploitation of those subject peoples. By describing the natives as wild, sullen, slothful, heathen, childish and diabolical the poem “The White Man’s Burden” conveys a clearly racist message and embodies the imperial frame of mind of the late 1890s.”

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Besides, he mentions how this duty is hard by using stirring language to show how much of sacrifice is given for the sake of the natives saying “Take up the White Man’s Burden, Send forth the best ye breed, Go bind your sons to exile, To serve your captives’ need” (1-4). Meaning that even the colonizers are affected by this process of civilization, by exposing their sons to death in a way of scarifies for the sake of civilizing the natives.

On the other hand, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness displays the real situation behind the European’s civilizing attempt of the natives in Congo river. He shows that by a character names Marlow, that went to join this mission, in the intention of helping those native to develop as he said “I had got a heavenly mission to civilize you” (Conrad 5), but he encounters the brutality and horrible acts against the African natives. His novella reveals the true image of European imperialism and its oppressive processes in the name of humanitarianism and philanthropy as a justification for their acts. In the novel, a sense of otherness can be felt while talking about Africa, and a Eurocentric view of other nations. The stance of imperialism is present in the novel, but Joseph Conrad’s position is hard to be certain of. I personally believe that Conrad was not against the “idea” of imperialism -which is to civilize lesser developed nations- but he opposed the selfish, wasteful and violent practice of Imperialism. In his text, Marlow makes a contrast between the Roman Imperialism and the British:

“What saves us {British} is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps {Romans} were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea.” (Conrad 6-7)

In this text, Conrad justifies the “efficient” British imperialism and condemns the brutal kind of imperialism, therefor, since he approved that there is a difference in the efficiency and development between the British and other nations, and there is a need to help, then he is clearly not opposing imperialism. Throughout his novel, he shows that by Marlow’s experience, Marlow feels changed and starts to go against the British imperialism practices. According to Marlow’s observation, he saw how cruel the treatment of the British men was towards the Africans, they were extremely weak and thin, shackled by chains: “[He] could see every rib, the joints of their limbs were like knots in a rope; each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain whose bights swung between them, rhythmically clinking” (Conrad 30). which contradicts with the initial idea of civilizing the Africans and helping them to progress.

Many critiques appeared on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Some of the critiques claimed that Conrad was racist, as in Chinua Achebe’s critique, “An Image of Africa”, according to him, Conrad was extremely racist by describing men as being black with long black arms or “insolent black head in the doorway” (Conrad 69). However, this use of description lies under literally impressionism which was a quality in Conrad’s fiction, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything”. In addition, by the time the novella was written, the concept of racism did not yet exist “The first time a word was used with these negative connotations was in 1907. It was the word racialism which is defined as the “belief in the superiority of a particular race leading to prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those in close proximity who may be felt as a threat to one’s cultural and racial integrity or economic well-being” (Firchow 234). The first use of the word racism was in 1936, over 10 years after Conrad’s death. In this case, Conrad can not be called racist, although he is an imperialist. This novel offers critiques of several manifestations of the cruelty of imperialism and colonization.

In conclusion, both Kipling and Conrad were in favor of imperialism, and found an obligation in civilizing primitive nations. Kipling was fully supportive of imperialism, convinced by the idea of aiming to bring peace and progress but downplaying the exploitation of the natives. Meanwhile, Conrad did not oppose imperialism as much as he opposed the oppressive acts practiced by the British justified by presenting it as a way to bring happiness and civilization while it all lies under a hypocritical system.

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