The novel’s opening sentence sees Conrad already including autobiographical detail in a work which he described as a ‘record of experience… pushed a little (and only a very little) beyond the actual facts of the case’. During the summer of 1891, after his return from the Congo (see Setting), Conrad visited his friend G. F. W. Hope in Stanford, Essex, and made two trips in Hope’s yawl, the Nellie, along the Thames Estuary.
The sea-reach of the Thames is that part of the Thames Estuary where the river (see Setting) meets the waters of the North Sea. Its western boundary is generally defined as being near Canvey Island on the Essex shore, with its eastern boundary running from North Foreland in Kent to Harwich in Essex.
The Thames sailing barge was a common sight at this time, with over 2,000 registered on the river at the turn of the 20th century. They were particularly popular in the Thames Estuary, where their flat-bottom hulls allowed the vessels to navigate the shallow waters, narrow creeks and waterways.
The typical rusty-red colour of their flax sails was a product of the compound used to waterproof them (traditionally made from red ochre, cod oil, and sea water).
In his Author’s Note for The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad offers a more ambivalent description of ‘the biggest, and the greatest town, on earth’, describing London as:
a monstrous town more populous than some continents and in its man-made might as if indifferent to heaven’s frowns and smiles; a cruel devourer of the world’s light. There was room enough there to place any story, depth there for any passion, variety there for any setting, darkness enough to bury five million of lives.
The other three are based on a group of Conrad's friends: G. F. W. Hope (a company director); W. B. Keen (an accountant); and T. L. Mears (a lawyer). They had previously appeared in Conrad's autobiographical short story, 'Youth' (1898), again as the audience for one of Marlow’s tales.
This refers to the second paragraph of 'Youth':
We all began life in the merchant service. Between the five of us there was the strong bond of the sea, and also the fellowship of the craft ...
Heart of Darkness was originally serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine, from February to April 1899, under the title ‘The Heart of Darkness’. ‘Youth’ had appeared in the September 1898 issue. The two were subsequently published by Blackwood’s in book form, along with ‘The End of the Tether’, as Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories in 1902.
Domino pieces were historically carved from ivory or animal bone, with small round pips of inset ebony.
In his memoir, G. F. W. Hope mentions that he, Conrad, Keen and Mears used to play dominoes on board the Nellie.
Conrad's only recurring character, Charles Marlow, narrates several of the writer's best-known stories, including Lord Jim (1900), Chance (1913), and 'Youth'. Like Conrad a sailor for the British Empire during the late 19th and early 20th century, Marlow is widely considered to be Conrad's alter ego.
The name may have been inspired by the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. Some critics suggest references to the Faust legend in Heart of Darkness reveal the influence of Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604); the journey up the Congo River may also have similarities to another work by Marlowe, Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594).
Bernard J. Paris, Conrad's Charlie Marlow: A New Approach to "Heart of Darkness" and Lord Jim (2005)
Paul Wake, Conrad's Marlow: Narrative and Death in "Youth," "Heart of Darkness," Lord Jim, and Chance (2008)
The idol Conrad has in mind is a statue of the Buddha, for the posture Marlow adopts is that of Siddhārtha Gautama at the moment of his enlightenment.
In countless idols and paintings the Buddha is depicted with his arms dropped, specifically with one or more fingers of the right hand touching the earth – a gesture known in Buddhist tradition as the Bhumisparsha Mudrā (the earth-touching gesture). According to Buddhist legend, when the Buddha entered his most significant phase of meditation under the Bodhi Tree (the tree of enlightenment, represented here by the Nellie’s mizzen-mast), he was tempted by Mara, the god of darkness. At this point, the Buddha 'touched the ground with his hand, and the Earth itself spoke with a voice of thunder: 'I am his witness.' Conrad may well have heard the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment during his travels in the East.
The Essex marshes are found along the Essex coast, stretching from the River Thames in the south to the River Stour and Harwich in the north.
Sir Francis Drake was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, and politician of the Elizabethan era. He is best known for having been the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world (1577-1580) and for his role as second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. Before that, Drake had also been involved in the beginnings of the slave trade in West Africa. He died of dysentery in 1596 following an unsuccessful attack on San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The reference to Sir Francis Drake might have reminded some of Conrad’s first readers of a less than flattering article that had appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine six months earlier: David Hannay’s ‘The Case of Mr Doughty’ (June 1898), which characterised Drake as violent and self-seeking, and probably a murderer.
Sir John Franklin was a British Royal Navy officer, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and Arctic explorer. He served as governor of Tasmania for several years, before disappearing during an 1845 expedition to chart a navigable route through the Northwest Passage.
Conrad discusses Franklin in more detail in his late essay 'Geography and Some Explorers' (1924), describing him as ‘the dominating figure amongst the seamen explorers of the first half of the nineteenth century … whose fame rests not only on the extent of his discoveries, but on professional prestige and high personal character.’
The Golden Hind was the only ship to return from Sir Francis Drake's three-year circumnavigation of the world. When she docked in Plymouth on 26 September 1580, her holds were full of treasures from every corner of the world (much of it captured from Spanish galleons and colonies in the New World). Queen Elizabeth I awarded Drake a knighthood aboard the ship at Deptford on 4 April 1581, although the dubbing itself was performed by a French diplomat, Monsieur de Marchaumont. During the Victorian era, in a spirit of nationalism, the story was promoted that Elizabeth I had done the knighting.
The Golden Hind was subsequently maintained for public exhibition, remaining at Deptford for nearly 100 years before she rotted away and was finally broken up.
Erebus and Terror were the two ships commanded by Sir John Franklin on his ill-fated Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Both ships became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846, and Franklin and his entire crew of 129 men subsequently perished. It was later discovered that some of the men had resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to survive. In 'Geography and Some Explorers', Conrad alludes to this event as ‘the darkest drama perhaps played behind the curtain of Arctic mystery.’
Conrad’s examples are aptly chosen: Erebus, in Greek mythology, was a dark region under the earth through which the dead passed before entering Hades. With frequent allusions to the Aeneid and the Inferno, the idea of katabasis (a descent to the underworld) is an important theme in Heart of Darkness.
David C. Woodman, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony (1992)
Deptford, Greenwich and Erith were important docks on the River Thames.
Deptford is located on the south bank of the Thames, on the eastern edge of London. Greenwich is immediately east of Deptford. Erith is eight miles further east. All three docks were established by Henry VIII, but Deptford – site of the first Royal Dockyard – was undoubtedly of greatest importance: for much of the period during which Britain ruled the waves, her ships were built there.
Founded in 1565 by Sir Thomas Gresham as a centre of commerce for the city, the Exchange provided a forum for the transactions of London merchants and traders whose business dealings had previously been conducted in the street or in crowded shops and stores.
History of the Royal Exchange slideshow (Click on History section)
The East India Company was granted a Royal Charter by Elizabeth I in 1600 to trade with the East Indies. It ended up trading primarily with the Indian subcontinent and China. Successive British governments granted the Company special rights and privileges, including trade monopolies and exemptions, enabling it to become the world’s most powerful trading empire. At its height it controlled 50% of global trade, with the world’s largest merchant navy at its disposal. The Company functioned as an arm of the British Empire, founding the colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong, as well as effectively ruling India from 1757 to 1858. The British government gradually took steps to rein in the Company’s power, and it lost its trade monopoly in 1833 before being finally dissolved in 1874.
The 'dark interlopers' were independent traders who challenged the East Indian Company’s monopoly in Indian trade – ships that did not belong to companies chartered by the Crown and did not have a licence from such companies, yet which traded with the countries for which the East India Company asserted sole trading rights.
The Chapman lighthouse was a screw-pile lighthouse which stood off the coast of Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary from 1851 to 1957, warning sailors away from the area’s numerous mud flats. Designed by the engineer James Walker, the lighthouse was built on the water supported by seven legs (it may have looked like three legs from a distance as described in the novel) so that waves could pass underneath the construction without major resistance. It was eventually demolished after falling into a state of disrepair.
Janet Penn, The Rise and Fall of the Chapman Lighthouse
Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.
Psalm 74:20 (King James Bible)
The comparison between 'darkest Africa' and England had already been made by William Booth in his In Darkest England and The Way Out (1890), a response to Henry Morton Stanley’s In Darkest Africa (1890). Following Stanley’s portrayal of an Africa ‘where the rays of the sun never penetrate, where in the dark, dank air, filled with the steam of the heated morass, human beings dwarfed into pygmies and brutalised into cannibals live and die’, Booth asked:
As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England? Civilization, which can breed its own barbarians, does it not also breed its own pygmies? May we not find a parallel at our own doors, and discover within a stone’s throw of our cathedrals and palaces similar horrors to those which Stanley has found existing in the great Equatorial forest?
These two invasions were not conquests: the first managed only to establish a beachhead on the shore of Kent; the second was marginally more successful, installing a Rome-friendly king. But they did bring Britain into Rome's sphere of political influence. Diplomatic and trading links developed further over the next century, paving the way for the eventual Roman conquest of Britain, initiated by Claudius in AD 43.
A trireme was a type of galley warship, named for its three banks of oars on each side. Used by the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and Romans, it was the dominant warship in the Mediterranean from the 7th to the 4th centuries BC. Even after larger ships were introduced, the trireme remained an important workhorse of the Roman Navy.
A similar passage can be found in Conrad's memoir, The Mirror of the Sea (1906), describing the feelings of 'the commander of the first Roman galley' to sail up the Thames.
The Gauls were a Celtic people who inhabited the region of Gaul (roughly corresponding to modern-day France, parts of Belgium, western Germany and northern Italy) from the Iron Age through the Roman period.
Falernian wine was a famous wine from ancient Rome, distilled from grapes grown on the slopes of Mount Falernus on the border between Latium and Campania. Generally priced beyond the means of those outside the upper echelons of Roman society, it was primarily a drink of centurions, merchants, emperors and aristocrats. Its virtues were frequently extolled by Roman poets and scholars, including Catullus, Pliny, and Petronius. For Horace, in particular, Falernian wine symbolised the best that civilization had to offer.
William F. Engel, 'Conrad, Marlow and Falernian' (1977)
www.winesquire.com, Falernian: Wine of the Ancients
Ravenna was the chief Roman naval base in northern Italy, on the upper Adriatic. Its fleet, the classis Ravennas, was the second most senior fleet of the imperial Roman Navy after the classis Misenensis.
The term Buddha (meaning awakened one or the enlightened one) may refer to Siddhārtha Gautama, the Indian spiritual teacher upon whose teachings Buddhism was founded, or to anyone who has attained the same depth and quality of enlightenment.
The positioning of Marlow's hands corresponds to the Abhaya mudrā (mudrā of no-fear), a symbolic hand gesture used in Buddhism and Hinduism to represent variously protection, peace, benevolence, and the dispelling of fear. In Gandhāra art, it is seen in representations of preaching.
The lotus flower is one of the Ashtamangala (the Eight Auspicious Symbols) that permeate Buddhist art. Buddhas and bodhisattvas are often pictured sitting on a lotus or holding a lotus. The lotus can have several meanings, often referring to the inherently pure potential of the mind.
In the original manuscript, Conrad follows this sentence with a passage which makes the parallel with King Leopold II of Belgium and his Congo Free State (see Setting) much more explicit: 'but at any rate they had no pretty fictions about it. They had no international associations from motives of philanthropy with some third rate king for head ...'
Conrad was referring to Leopold’s Association Internationale pour l'Exploration et la Civilisation de l'Afrique (International Association for the Exploration and Civilizing of Africa), the smokescreen used by the Belgian monarch to acquire his long desired colony. Under the pretence of bringing the so-called three Cs to Africa (Christianity, Commerce, and Civilization), the Association disguised Leopold's colonial venture as a philanthropic mission dedicated to the civilizing of Africans.
These are the reflections of the navigation lights of vessels.
Sailing vessels were required to carry a green light on the starboard side and a red light on the port side; steamboats carried an additional white light on or in front of the foremast.
Like Marlow, Conrad as a child determined one day to visit the heart of Africa:
It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa at the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now: ‘When I grow up I shall go there.'
European exploration of Africa began with the ancient Greeks and Romans, who established settlements in North Africa. In the 15th century, Portugal probed along the Western Coast, and further European exploration (by the Dutch, Spanish, French and English) over the next three centuries generally stuck to the coast. The real exploration of the African interior would not get going until well into the 19th century.
At the time of the novel's publication in 1899, the North Pole had still to be reached; it is little wonder the glamour was off for Marlow as up to that point all attempts on it had ended in failure, sometimes in death.
Though the location of the North Pole had been identified as early as the 16th century, it was not until the 19th century that expeditions set out with the explicit intention of reaching it. One of the earliest attempts was led by the British Naval Officer William Edward Parry, who in 1827 reached latitude 82°45′ North. In April 1895 the Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen reached latitude 86°14′ North. On April 25, 1900, Umberto Cagni of the Italian Royal Navy reached latitude 86° 34’, beating Nansen's record by 35-40 km (22-25 miles).
The conquest of the North Pole was finally credited to US Navy engineer Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the Pole on April 6, 1909, accompanied by Matthew Henson and four Inuit men. However, Peary's claim remains controversial.
Conrad goes in to more detail in his essay ‘Geography and Some Explorers’, describing the explorers whose discoveries helped map the previously uncharted regions of the African interior. In Conrad’s lifetime, David Livingstone had inscribed in that 'blank space' Lake Ngami (1849), the Victoria Falls (1885), the central Zambesi valley (1853-6), Lake Nyasa (1859), and the river Lualaba (1871). The 1858-9 expedition of Burton and Speke added Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria to the map. In his essay, Conrad recalls the particular excitement as a boy of entering Tanganyika ‘on the blank of my old atlas’.
The 'mighty big river' is the Congo River (see Setting).
On 9 August 1877, the celebrated explorer Henry Morton Stanley became the first white man to trace the course of the Congo River to the sea, solving one of the last great mysteries of African exploration. Within two years the explorer would return to the Congo, this time in the employ of King Leopold II of Belgium, to lay the foundations for what would become the Congo Free State.
This was the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo (Belgian Limited Company for Trade on the Upper Congo), the Belgian trading company which employed Conrad during his time in the Congo. A subsidiary of Albert Thys' Compagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l'Industrie (CCCI), it was created in December 1888 when the CCCI merged with the Sanford Exploring Expedition. The Société Anonyme Belge was administered in Brussels but maintained a number of stations all over the Congo, especially along its major waterways.
A steamboat (or steamer) is a vessel in which the primary method of propulsion is steam power, typically driving propellers or paddlewheels. The term steamboat usually refers to smaller steam-powered boats working on lakes and rivers; larger, ocean-going vessels are called steamships.
Known by Congolese of the period as 'house that walks on water', or kutu kutu after their distinctive sound, Congo steamboats were either sidewheelers or sternwheelers. Usually they were long and narrow, with the shallow draft needed to clear the many sandbars on the main river and its tributaries. All had awnings against the tropical sun, sometimes with wire netting hung to protect the captain and helmsman from arrows.
Marlow's chauvinism reflects a more general Victorian attitude towards women and the workplace. Other than for the working classes, most forms of employment were considered unsuitable for women. Throughout the Victorian era, respectable women from middle-class families had few career opportunities. They could work as school teachers or governesses, or as nurses and midwives. Even in these roles they were generally subject to the authority of a male superior.
Conrad's eventual employment in the Congo was confirmed largely through the efforts of Marguerite Poradowska, the widow of Conrad's distant cousin, Aleksander Poradowski. Well connected in Brussels, she had pulled strings to secure Conrad's appointment.
Poradowska, herself a writer of French fiction, corresponded with Conrad during his transition from seaman to author, and the two frequently discussed each other's work. Conrad addressed her as Tante (Aunt) in his correspondence.
The real Fresleven was Johannes Freiesleben, a Danish captain who had commanded the Florida, the steamboat Conrad expected to take over.
Freiesleben was killed on 29 January 1890 at Tchumberi in a dispute over hens.
In Chinua Achebe's 'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' (1977), the Nigerian writer points to Conrad's 'inordinate love' of the word nigger as evidence that he had 'a problem with niggers.'
It would be untrue to claim that the word was considered any less offensive in Conrad's day than it is today. The entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (composed around the time Heart of Darkness was published) defines nigger as 'a negro (colloq. and usu. contemptuous).' Gilbert Murray, writing in 1900, declared the word obsolete except in South Africa, where it was 'still used very much in the old [pejorative] sense.'
Conrad would certainly have been aware of the derogatory sense of the word through his close friendship with R. B. Cunninghame Graham, whose 1897 essay 'Bloody Niggers' makes clear that for most British conservatives at the turn of the century nigger was a term of contempt applied generally to 'all those of almost any race whose skins are darker than our own, and whose ideas of faith, of matrimony, banking, and therapeutics differ from those held by the dwellers of the meridian of Primrose Hill.' However, 'in consideration of the 'nigger' races which God sent into the world for whites (and chiefly Englishmen) to rule, 'niggers' of Africa occupy first place.' Conrad had also remarked to Ford Madox Ford that the French showed less prejudice in their colonising activities because 'they had none of the spirit of Mr. Kipling's 'You Bloody-niggerisms' about them.'
Peter Edgerly Firchow suggests that the use of the word in the novel reflects the racist language of the Merchant Navy, where Conrad had first learned to speak colloquial English. 'As a nonnative speaker of English,' Firchow claims, 'Conrad may have been attempting to convey in this way what he perhaps thought was a "natively" English impression.'
Peter Edgerly Firchow, Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness (2000)
Frances B. Singh, 'The Colonialistic Bias of Heart of Darkness' (1978)
Cedric Watts, ' "A Bloody Racist": About Achebe's View of Conrad' (1983)
The English Channel (in French, La Manche) is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and connects the North Sea to the Atlantic.
The novel's 'sepulchral city' is based on Brussels (see Setting), the capital of Belgium.
The phrase 'whited sepulchre' comes from Matthew 23:27-28:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
The original typescript continued with a more detailed description: ‘Its quiet streets empty decorum of its boulevards, all these big houses so intensely respectable to look at and so extremely tight closed suggest the reserve of discreet turpitude.’
Conrad was interviewed at 13 rue de Bréderode, Brussels, for his job with the Société Anonyme Belge. Reflecting the company’s close ties with King Leopold, the building was situated immediately behind the Royal Palace, from where the Belgian monarch oversaw his vast business interests in the Congo Free State.
Conrad's 'uncanny and fateful' knitters of wool may allude to the Fates of Greek legend, Clotho and Lachesis, who spin the thread of each man's life that is to be cut by Atropos. Collectively known as the Moirae, they have their counterparts in the Parcae of Roman mythology and the Norns of Norse legend.
Late 19th and early 20th century maps of the world tended to use a colour code to indicate colonial possessions: red for British territories, blue for French, orange for Portuguese, green for Italian, purple for German and yellow for Belgian.
The 'East Coast... where the jolly pioneers of progress drink their jolly lager-beer' refers to the German colony of Deutsch-Ostafrika in East Africa, which included present-day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika (the mainland part of Tanzania). In Blackwood's Magazine (June 1898), Robert C. Witt's article 'An Experiment in Colonization' described a visit to the German colony in East Africa and how German beer 'flowed as it flows in the Hofbräu at Munich on a hot summer's day.'
This would be Colonel Albert Thys, president of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo. Thys was actively involved in the organisation of the first expeditions which would lead to the constitution of the Congo Free State, and in its structural and economic development. As well as the Société Anonyme Belge, he ran the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer du Congo (the Congo Railway Company), the Compagnie du Katanga (the Katanga Company), and the Banque d’Outremer (the Overseas Bank).
Conrad had two interviews with Thys (in November 1889 and in February 1890) with a view to captaining one of the company's river steamboats.