Against Imperialism Chinua Achebe, Joseph Conrad and the Representation of Africa

As early as the 1600s, European nations competed with each other to see who could acquire the most of the world’s land. In their quest, Europeans travelled: mainly to Africa, Southeast Asia, and India; regions where they forced their own rules and exploited these regions for natural resources like ivory and gold, military advantage, and commercial routes. By the early twentieth century, in Africa, Europeans had not only reinforced but also imposed some of the most extreme and horrible conditions on the continent. They had invaded homelands, fuelled the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonized, and effectively upturned African societies in the process.

This series of events inspired two books, Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart. And both used suggestive language to explore imperialism—or the spread of a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force. Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad and inspired by his travels to Congo, follows the story of Charles Marlow on the Congo River after he gets a job working for a Belgian trade company. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is about the tragic story of Okonkwo, a powerful and wealthy man, his experience of the colonial encounter and the ill-advised decisions he makes that eventually lead to his death.

Although both are set in African societies, Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart represent wildly different views on the African cultures.  While champions of Heart for Darkness argue that the novel is a critique of the greed that led to failures of imperialism in Africa, one cannot help but notice the explicit racism in the way that the setting is described to the audience. Heart of Darkness succumbs to prevalent European prejudices about Africa and ultimately paints it in suffocating darkness. When compared with Things Fall Apart, the gross misrepresentation of African culture is undeniable. Things Fall Apart shines through as more realistic an image of the continent before colonization, denouncing popular notions of Africa as entrenched in darkness and in disarray before the arrival of Europeans.

Heart of Darkness, although not an autobiography, is inspired by Conrad’s interpretation of historical events. Conrad uses stylistic, scrutinizing, and suggestive language to explore as thorny an issue as imperialism. He presents multiple dichotomies, albeit problematic, that compare Africa to Europe, colonists and conquerors, Christianity and Heathenism, and civilization and ‘barbarism’. For example, in the first section of the book, Charles, the narrator, recounts the story of a captain that was killed in a scuffle with natives because of two black hens. By specifying that the hens were black in addition to the natives, Conrad posits blackness and whiteness next to each other, and in this instance, the desire for whiteness to position itself as superior to blackness results in the downfall of the captain. These dichotomies serve to compare two regions of the world that seems wildly apart.

And yet, Conrad does not shy away from the blatant villainous actions of the Europeans in Africa, as seen with the character Kurtz. Kurtz was a greedy manipulator that only sought to exploit Congo for its ivory.  Even upon Kurtz’s death, Conrad writes, ‘The wastes of his [Kurtz’s] weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression.’

According to authors, Berzenji, Latef S. N., and Marwan Abdi, Conrad uses Kurtz to expose the fragility of European civilization and to criticize European colonizers’ ruthless exploitation of Africa. The authors argue that Conrad provides real commentary on the hastiness and greed that drove the scramble for Africa and the inevitable failure of European countries to successfully colonize Africa. The demise of Kurtz is telling of the instability of European presence in Africa and the blind hunger for power that was at the forefront of imperialism.

And yet, even if the purpose behind Heart of Darkness was to condemn the European practices in Africa, Conrad’s language and tone only display Africans in an offensive light. According to author Clement Abiaziem Okafor, Heart of Darkness became one of the books that perpetuated the ugly image of Africa. This is evident in the way Conrad describes Africa, often using words like ‘gloomy’, ‘brooding’, and ‘flatness’ to describe the setting— a setting in desperate need of refinement. Okafor also writes that Conrad portrays Africa as a place where irrational behaviour is the norm, and where people often degenerate into ‘abominable savagery’, as seen with the Swede’s seemingly impulsive suicide at the beginning of the book and Kurtz’s descent into madness. This is also evident in the example of the captain who dies earlier in the novel over the two hens.

In Heart of Darkness, Conrad displays Congo as a place without a worthy civilization or culture. For Conrad, who provides no meaningful explanation or representation of their language, the speech of the natives is always yelling, babbling, or howling. Authors Berzenji, Latef S. N., and Marwan Abdi also write that Conrad’s refusal to afford the natives a language is evidence of his lack of understanding of their culture and his prejudiced view of them as savages who can’t even speak. This effectively silences the voices of Africans, (specifically the Congolese people), prevents them from protesting the cruel takeover of their land, and perpetuates their complacency in their exploitation. Conrad’s attempt to condemn the European imperialists is lost due to his biased and negative representation of Africa in the nineteenth century.

Things Fall Apart approaches imperialism in a different way. Achebe spends most of the novel developing the society and the characters; most of the story follows the life of Okonkwo, and the novel is rich with the cultural customs of the Igbo people. Achebe takes his time to set the scene and make the reader understand the complexity of Okonkwo’s village and surroundings. When the white missionaries are introduced, the absurdity of visitors disrupting the already established flow of an entire community is self-evident. The District Commissioner, who is sent to Umofia to ‘civilize’ them, claims:

We have brought a peaceful administration to you and your people so that you may be happy. If any man ill-treats you we shall come to your rescue. But we will not allow you to ill-treat others. We have a court of law where we judge cases and administer justice just as it is done in my own country under a great queen.

This statement both erases years of self-government within the village and positions the missionaries as white saviours. It demonstrates how imperialist powers often believed they were doing their colonized subjects a favour. Achebe approaches imperialism through religion and culture, and the colonizers’ conversion of the Igbo people to Christianity directly displays the artificial superiority that Europeans used to justify their cruel invasion of the African continent.

Things Fall Apart, although not explicitly written in response to Heart of Darkness, works to dismantle the claims made by Conrad about the disarrayed and savage state of Africa through the story of Okonkwo. Okafor also poses the argument that Achebe portrays Umuofia as a society that has already clearly defined the parameters of right and wrong conduct on both personal and community levels. For example, the banishment of Okonkwo to his mother’s village after killing a clansman shows that they had rules and enforced them. During a 1988 interview with Terry Gross on NPR, Achebe explained that he became a writer to change the way the world views Africa. This is evident in the way he presents Africans. Instead of representing Africans as beasts of burden whose sole purpose was physical work as Conrad did in Heart of Darkness, Achebe establishes the community as one that values hard work and determination.

Achebe does not demonize the strength of African men but instead celebrates and cultivates it as a deliberate and meaningful production of their society, as shown with the wrestling match in Things Fall Apart. The whole village comes together to watch young men compete with each other and the winner is celebrated as the champion of the village. Physical strength, often seen by Europeans as lack of intellect, becomes an indication of valuable characteristics in the African society including cleverness and ability to succeed and take care of ones’ family, the central unit in the society. One’s physical prowess was not exploited for the monetary gain of an elite group of people, but rather used for the advancement of the whole village, such as protection from a rival village. Achebe’s explicit focus is on crafting and representing the culture and customs of the people of Umuofia.

Achebe also emphasizes the importance of language to the Igbos with his use of proverbs that show that the art of conversation is highly regarded in Igbo culture. Non-western education is also an important element in Things Fall Apart. The elders of the community are tasked with passing down their knowledge and guiding the youth and those in a lower position through storytelling and direct interaction. Even Okonkwo, although strong-headed and fierce, had to heed the advice of his elders. In Heart of Darkness, Africans are seen as children who needed to be guided by the Europeans and supervised at all times. Things Fall Apart represents them as multidimensional people with leaders that governed the community and maintained the order. When the so-called missionaries came to Umuofia, they completely disregarded the system that had been established for years and failed to acknowledge the fact that those leaders have been guiding their communities for a very long time. Achebe successfully develops a more realistic setting in Africa that effectively condemns the presence of the imperialists.

It can be argued that Heart of Darkness criticizes the actions of the Europeans in Africa as Conrad addresses the evils performed by the Europeans by showing how their greed led them to their downfall, as in the case of Kurtz. However, Conrad’s text is ambiguous and his ideas were murky, contributing to an offensive image of Africa, and, ultimately, drowning his efforts to admonish the European presence in Africa. Heart of Darkness portrays Africans in an extremely bleak way that only reinforces the stereotypes of them as savages and uncivilized people.

Meanwhile, Things Fall Apart carefully constructs a society that makes it impossible to view the invasion by the Europeans as anything but absurd. Things Fall Apart, in turn, efficiently denounces claims that Africans are uncivilized people with no structure or moral values. The novel depicts the beautiful culture and customs of the Igbo people and makes it impossible to dismiss the practices of African people as barbaric or uncivilized. He allows his readers to step into the world of Okonkwo and how this world was disrupted by the arrival of the missionaries in an invasion that continued for decades and changed the very fabric of African societies in permanent ways. Things Fall Apart remains an important book even today because decolonization of Africa is an ongoing process; the novel gives us a glimpse at a more dignifying African world before and even during the colonial period⎈