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Don’t vilify Conrad; he was a friend, sympathiser of blacks

Saturday April 1 2017

Fewer works of art have been as controversial

Fewer works of art have been as controversial and as widely commented on as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ILLUSTRATION| JOHN NYAGAH 

By Caroline Mwendwa

(In) their divided world... Between those human and the restless human... Their beliefs are dismissed as pagan on this side but bear the status of religion on the other... Their verbal communication is demeaned as vernacular chatter on this side but elevated as linguistic discourse on the other.

Mahmood Mamdani in Citizen and Subject


On some quiet night the tremor of far off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild and perhaps with as profound meaning as the bells in a Christian country.

Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness Pg 20.



Fewer works of art have been as controversial and as widely commented on as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. To many a critic, the mere title is positive proof that the author was up to no good. They forget that of the numerous instances in which this phrase is used in the tale, only once does it refer to the physical place he was standing on at the time.

Otherwise, on almost all occasions, this expression is used to show his disgust for the European project in the Congo Free State. The very use of the word “Free” must have been intended by a very cruel humorist.

Conrad, originally born Polish, would later become an Englishman with an awesome mastery of the English language into the bargain. His foray into Congo, ostensibly to fulfil a boyish dream of sailing into the very heart of Africa, left him sick, dispirited and immensely frustrated. In his own words, he “had the time to wish myself dead over and over again with perfect sincerity.”  

It is Barack Obama who gives the most condensed view of Heart of Darkness. In his memoir Dreams from My Father, he insists that the work is more concerned about the condition and doings of the white man than the black man.

“Everything is repellant to me here. Men and things but especially men… from the manager… down to the lowest mechanic,” wrote Conrad to his aunt. It is telling that in this same letter, a distraught and desperate Conrad who desires to go back home and be assisted to get a job has the temerity to refer to the would be boss as “that big or fat banker.”

I request this, if anybody can show me, by illustration, that Conrad writes about fellow Europeans in salutary fashion, I will be more than glad to look at that evidence. For some reason, Conrad had a proclivity for referring to people using choice epithets.

The problem with critics of Conrad, including Dr Godwin Siundu, is that they refuse to read Conrad. To them Conrad is the author portrayed by Achebe or the one referred to in lazy banter over a cup of tea. They feel that on Conrad they already know the truth and cannot afford to be confused by facts.

Those who comment lazily and from the armchair believe that he is a racist because Achebe said so. Indeed they do not even take the pains to read Achebe’s Amherst lecture to dignify it with a critique. While Achebe revised his bloody racist to a thorough going one, his admirers are still spellbound by the lecture in its raw and uncritiqued format.

There is a disturbing misapprehension among some critics that when commenting upon a body of work you don’t need evidence. They assume that vague allusions and strongly worded phrase mongering is all you need. They feel you only have to sound as if you really know what you are talking about. Dr Siundu’s article (Saturday Nation, March 18, 2017) belongs to this lot.

Anyone who is willing to sit down and read will start with the primary document; Conrad’s book. He will then carefully consider the criticisms. He will go on to see how these have been upheld or debunked by subsequent commentators. Only then should he get back to us with this own thinking. It is a tedious process. Who said scholarship is easy.

Indeed on Conrad, it is not fisticuffs as it were between African academics and their Western counterparts. It is not a racial war as Siundu seems to insinuate. It is even more shocking when you have not read those Western critics.

Nobody is set up for scorn and mockery more than Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz. How better could he have done than call him a common ivory dealer with base instincts!

On the sufferings of the natives; massacre and amputations, he wrote: “It will take many years of peace and rest for the population to recover, while the native’s belief in the white man’s truth, or justice, or decency, has gone forever.”

This letter to Edmund Morel, among other numerous correspondences, will show you who Conrad was. That is if the text itself does not suffice.

If Conrad liberally used words like savage and nigger, he was simply true to the parlance of his time. What then matters more is what he actually did and how he felt towards the lot of the blacks he came across.

The task we have is to push back those who would purvey ideological imperialism disguised as criticism. You do not hate a writer when his views are not in line with your morality. A work of art is more sophisticated than a sermon or a political speech.

The place of hard and usable evidence in literacy pursuit is secure and irreplaceable. It cannot be substituted for by hard swearing, fast talk and platitudes. 

Cedric Watts, the most accomplished reviewer of Achebe’s ‘bloody racist’ article, was right in wondering why Achebe would go all out after an ally of blacks. Blacks have enough enemies, Conrad is not one of them.


Caroline Mwendwa is a graduate of Literature and an editor with a local publishing company