Since human civilization was in its incipient stages, human beings have been brutalizing and wronging each other for their own interests. Wars have been fought over marriages, men have killed their neighbors over property disputes, and entire peoples have been subjected to monstrous atrocities for a madman's obsession. For anyone who studies the history of our species, these instances of mankind's inhumanity can be disheartening, and many have lost faith in humankind as a consequence.
Hardly a century ago, mankind's unquenchable penchant for brutality was demonstrated once more in the African Congo. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, European powers made mad bids, literally and figuratively, for African land and the rich natural resources to be plundered within those territories. In 1885, desperate to get a foot in the door in the scramble for African colonial territory, King Leopold of Belgium personally purchased a vast expanse of land surrounding the Congo River Basin on the Western coast of the continent. Leopold was attracted to the largely unexplored region because he was eager, desperate even, to augment the Belgian economy with foreign trade materials and to compete with the huge empires of Europe. Leopold's desperation and rapidly diminishing fortune drove him to squeeze every last dime he could from the Congo, with a complete disregard for the well being of the native peoples whose land he now laid claim to.
Despite Leopold's efforts to keep the brutalities of his Congo reign out of the public eye, a handful of individuals bore witness to the horrors of Leopold's Congo Free State. One of these individuals who found themselves thrust into the turbulence and strife of the Congo was one Joseph Conrad. Conrad, a young Polish man who had served in the British merchant navy, had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to travel to the Congo and oversee the goings-on of their trade interests. Conrad, then an aspiring writer, took with him both a copy of the manuscript of his first novel and an author's penchant for observing, recording, and ultimately internalizing what he witnessed in the Congo.
Despite having been contracted for upwards of a year, Conrad returned to Europe after only six months in the Congo, due to debilitating physical and emotional illness. His physical health was a consequence of having come down with both malaria and dysentery; his emotional illness stemmed from the atrocities that transpired before his eyes in the Congo. Conrad never fully recovered from either malady.
Adam Hochschild writes in "King Leopold's Ghost" that, "Until he [Conrad] spent his six months in Africa...he had had ‘not a thought in his head'." After eight years of brooding over the horrors he witnessed in the Congo, Joseph Conrad penned "Heart Of Darkness." The novel, though technically a work of fiction, is a near-exact account of what Conrad saw in the Congo, and can be read almost as a memoir of his experiences. At one point in "Heart Of Darkness," Marlow, Conrad's alter-ego, looks out at what he assumes at first to be decorations surrounding one character's home, only to discover -- to his horror -- that the objects are "black, dried, sunken with closed eyelids -- a head...with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth." This incident is straight out of Conrad's own Congo experience.
As their Congo journeys progress, both Conrad and Marlow gradually become disillusioned and disgusted with what has been done to their fellow man. Early on in "Heart Of Darkness," Marlow sees a group of overworked, emaciated Congolese and remarks, "Black shapes crouched... in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair... They were not enemies, they were not criminals... nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation... brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts..." This image remains seared into the conscience of Marlow just as it did Conrad.
Conrad also witnessed how the white men in power lived; while the native peoples were subjected to tortures and hardships simply in the interest of cheap labor, the white men who condoned and carried out these brutalities lived comfortably, with no real repercussions for their actions. In fact, not only were there no consequences for their actions, but it worked out that the more cruel and inhumane a Congo official was, the higher their profit, and the more they were rewarded for their actions. Seeing this disparity and lack of justice nearly drives Marlow insane, just as it did Conrad. Conrad's experiences in the Congo left him emotionally damaged and utterly disillusioned with humanity, and he would remain so for the rest of his life.
Having already known of later atrocities in modern history, I can't say that the experiences presented in "King Leopold's Ghost" and "Heart Of Darkness" come as a complete surprise to me. That said, the scale and extreme nature of the brutality of Leopold's Congo was nonetheless shocking and deeply disturbing to me as a human being.
While it may not have driven me to become completely disillusioned with my fellow man as it did Conrad, I merely read about it more than a century after-the-fact, and Conrad witnessed it firsthand; had I been an eyewitness to a holocaust of that scale, my faith in humanity might have been completely shattered. As it is, the events that transpired in the Congo are enough to make anyone doubt the inherent good of man.
The author is a junior at Berkshire Arts and Technology Public Charter School and winner of the 2013 Write the Word essay competition.