Page 26. " guarding the door of Darkness "
Aeneas, the Sybil and Charon (c. 1700)
Public DomainAeneas, the Sybil and Charon (c. 1700) - Credit: Giuseppe Maria Crespi

An allusion to the Cumaean Sibyl, the priestess who presided over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae.

In Roman mythology, an entrance to the Underworld was said to be located at Avernus, a crater lake near Cumae. In Virgil's Aeneid, the Sibyl guards 'the door of gloomy Dis' – the door of the Underworld into which Aeneas is to descend.

Page 26. " knitting black wool as for a warm pall "
The Old Master (1883)
Public DomainThe Old Master (1883) - Credit: James Hayllar

A pall (from the Latin pallium, meaning cloak) is a cloth which covers a casket or coffin at funerals.

In a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham dated 20 December 1897, about a year before he began writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad had imagined the universe in the form of a merciless knitting machine: ‘It knits us in and it knits us out. It has knitted time, space, pain, death, corruption, despair and all the illusions – and nothing matters.'

Page 26. " Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant "

Morituri te salutant ('those about to die salute you') is widely believed to have been the standard Roman gladiatorial salute to the emperor upon entering the arena. In fact, the phrase (in full 'Ave, Imperator/Caesar, morituri te salutant', meaning 'Hail, Emperor/Caesar, those about to die salute you') is quoted only in Suetonius's De Vita Caesarum. It was heard during an event in 52AD on Lake Fucinus by naumachiarii (prisoners of war or convicts fated to die during mock naval encounters) in the presence of the emperor Claudius. Since the phrase is not recorded elsewhere in Roman histories, it is questionable whether it was ever a customary salute.


Ave Caesar Morituri te Salutant (1859)
Public DomainAve Caesar Morituri te Salutant (1859) - Credit: Jean-Léon Gérôme
Naumachia (1894)
Public DomainNaumachia (1894) - Credit: Ulpiano Checa
Page 26. " quoth Plato to his disciples "
Illustrated bust of Plato (1875)
Public DomainIllustrated bust of Plato (1875) - Credit: Ernest Wallis

Plato was a classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, he was responsible for laying the foundations of Western philosophy and science.

Page 27. " a threadbare coat like a gaberdine "
Illustration of man dressed in a gaberdine
Public DomainIllustration of man dressed in a gaberdine - Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman

A gaberdine (or gabardine) is a long, loose gown or cloak with wide sleeves. It was typically worn by men (especially Jews) in the later Middle Ages and into the 16th century.

Page 27. " I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there "
A head-measuring tool designed for anthropological research in the early 1910s
Public DomainA head-measuring tool designed for anthropological research in the early 1910s - Credit: A. J. N. Tremearne

Craniology, the study of variations in size, shape and proportion of the skull, was a popular though controversial branch of medicine in the late 19th century. It is a subsection of anthropometry, a branch of anthropology concerned with comparative measurements of the human body and body parts. It was believed that individual mental faculties were contained in neat compartments in the cerebral cortex, and the extent of these faculties was reflected in the configuration of the skull. The measurement of cranial features was used to classify people by race, criminal temperament, intelligence, etc. Alongside similar pseudoscience like phrenology, craniology became influential during the Victorian age in justifying racism, colonisation and dominance of ‘inferior people', especially Africans.

Dr Izydor Kopernicki, a leading Polish anthropologist, asked Conrad in 1881 to assist his craniological studies by collecting skulls during his travels and sending them to a museum in Kraków.

Page 28. " There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time "
Caricature of King Leopold II of Belgium following the backlash (c. 1905)
Public DomainCaricature of King Leopold II of Belgium following the backlash against his rule of the Congo (c. 1905) - Credit: Mark Twain

Conrad may have been thinking of the speech with which King Leopold II of Belgium opened his geographical conference on Central Africa in September 1876: 'To open to civilization the only part of the globe where it has yet to penetrate, to pierce the darkness which envelopes whole populations, it is, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.'

Leopold's real motives for founding the Congo Free State, however, were far from altruistic: financial gain, regardless of the human cost, was the king's sole ambition. Leopold's attention had been drawn to Central Africa by a report in The Times (11 January 1876) headed 'African Exploration', which described the interior of Africa as 'a magnificent and healthy country of unspeakable richness' that would 'repay any enterprising capitalist that might take the matter in hand.'

In contrast to the cynical Marlow, Conrad's letters prior to his departure for the Congo suggest he too had been taken in. The first denunciation of the regime’s brutality was not written until Conrad was there, and it was not published until shortly after he had returned to Europe. By then, of course, Conrad had already witnessed some of it first hand.

Page 28. " the labourer is worthy of his hire "
Portrait of H. M. Stanley from his book The Congo and the Founding of its Free State; A Story of Work and Exploration (1885)
Public DomainPortrait of H. M. Stanley from his book The Congo and the Founding of its Free State: A Story of Work and Exploration (1885) - Credit: H. M. Stanley

And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire.

Luke 10:7 (King James Bible)


Stanley had also used this phrase in The Congo and the Founding of its Free State when he wrote that in advanced nations ‘every honest labourer is worthy of his hire’ and that ‘our principal aim is to open the interior [of the Congo] by weaning the tribes below and above from that savage and suspicious state which they are now in.’ That Marlow’s aunt also talks of ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’ suggests Conrad was drawing directly on Stanley.



Page 28. " It's queer how out of touch with truth women are "
The devoted wife - John Alexander, chief clerk to Bow Street Police Court, with his wife Mary Elizabeth (c. 1875)
Public DomainThe devoted Victorian wife - John Alexander, chief clerk to Bow Street Police Court, with his wife Mary Elizabeth (c. 1875) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just as Heart of Darkness has been accused of racism, it has also been accused of sexism; criticised both for its demeaning, stereotypical representation of women and for its exclusion of the female reader. Once again, Marlow is reflecting the values of the era in which the novel was written.

The 19th century was the era of separate spheres for the genders: the public sphere for men and the private sphere of family and domesticity for women. As typified by Tennyson's poem 'The Princess' (1847), which described a woman's duty to stay by the hearth with their needles whilst men wielded their swords, and by Patmore's poem 'The Angel in the House' (1854), a wife's proper role was to love, honour and obey her husband. However, though her position in the family hierarchy was always secondary to her spouse, a woman’s role was far from unimportant: a wife's duty to support her husband and raise her children were considered crucial cornerstones of Victorian social stability. It was believed that participation in the male-dominated public sphere would contaminate the moral purity of women and the sanctuary of the home. As Marlow later claims: 'We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse'.

Feminist criticism of the novel which equates Marlow’s views with those of the author usually ignores the fact that Conrad was a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and in 1910 signed an open letter to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, advocating votes for women. He would reverse the male/female dichotomy in his later novel Chance, when Marlow claims that women know the whole truth but mercifully conceal it from men, who live in a ‘fool’s paradise’.


Further reading:

Peter Hyland, ‘The Little Woman in the Heart of Darkness’ (1988)

Johanna M. Smith, ‘ “Too Beautiful Altogether”: Patriarchal Ideology in Heart of Darkness’ (1989)

Nina Pelikan Straus, ‘The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ (1987)

Page 29. " about to set off for the centre of the earth "
Jules Verne
Public DomainJules Verne - Credit: Gaspard-Félix Tournachon
An ilustration from Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)
Public DomainAn illustration from Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) - Credit: Édouard Riou

An allusion to Jules Verne's novel A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), the story of European scientific explorers and their discovery of a prehistoric world at the centre of the Earth.

Echoes of Verne's novel can be found in Marlow's description of his journey: 'like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings'; 'wanderers on prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.'

Both novels feature a journey via river, and both mention an ichthyosaurus.

Page 29. " I left in a French steamer, and she called in every blamed port they have out there "

Conrad travelled from Bordeaux in 1890 upon the steamship Ville de Maceio, which made its first stop at Tenerife. It subsequently called at Dakar, Conakry, Freetown, Grand Bassam on the Ivory Coast, Grand Popo in Dahomey, Libreville and, finally, Banana, before moving up Banana Creek to Boma.

Page 30. " Gran' Bassam "
Ivory Coast map
Public DomainIvory Coast map - Credit: Édouard Charton

Gran’ Bassam (Grand-Bassam) is a city in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), east of Abidjan. It was the French colonial capital from 1893 until 1896, when the administration was transferred to Bingerville. The city remained a key seaport until the growth of Abidjan from the 1930s.




French tribunal building, Grand-Bassam (c. 1890)
Public DomainFrench tribunal building, Grand-Bassam (c. 1890) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Page 30. " Little Popo "

Little Popo is the former name of Aného, a town in southeastern Togo. It became the capital of the German colony of Togoland in 1880, but quickly declined in importance after the capital was transferred to Lomé in 1897.


Map of German Togoland (1885)
Public DomainMap of German Togoland (1885) - Credit: Scottish Geographical Magazine
Aného (c, 1918)
Public DomainAného (c. 1918) - Credit: Albert F. Calvert
Page 30. " a man-of-war anchored off the coast "
A Dutch man-of-war firing a salute in The Cannon Shot (c. 1680)
Public DomainA Dutch man-of-war firing a salute in The Cannon Shot (c. 1680) - Credit: Willem van de Velde the Younger
English, American, German, and French 'man of war' ships at the Battle of Viña del Mar (1891)
Public DomainEnglish, American, German, and French 'man of war' ships at the Battle of Viña del Mar (1891) - Credit: C. W. Wyllie
The French gunboat Comète (c. 1884-1909)
Public DomainThe French gunboat Comète (c. 1884-1909) - Credit: Jean Randier

Originally the man-of-war was a sail-propelled, heavily-armed warship which first emerged during the 16th century. By the mid-17th century, the man-of-war had developed into the ship of the line, dominating the seas for the next 200 years before it was superseded by the ironclad warship during the latter half of the 19th century.

In common usage, the term man-of-war continued to refer generally to any large warship belonging to the navy of a recognised government.

During the conflict with Dahomey (see following bookmark), the French primarily employed gunboats, a type of military vessel designed specifically for the bombardment of coastal targets; though it was a French cruiser, the Seigneley, Conrad claimed to have witnessed shelling a native camp hidden in the jungle near Grand-Popo. This would have been part of the French blockade of the Kingdom of Dahomey that began on 4 April 1890.

Page 30. " the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts "
Kingdom of Dahomy and its environs (1793)
Public DomainKingdom of Dahomy and its environs (1793) - Credit: R. Norris

Between 1890 and 1894 the French attempted to conquer the West African Kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin.

This conflict, which encompassed two wars (the First Franco-Dahomean War and the Second Franco-Dahomean War), officially ended on 15 January 1894 with King Béhanzin's defeat to the Third French Republic army at the Battle of Abomey. Dahomey was incorporated into France's growing colonial territory in West Africa.



Combat de Dogba (1895)
Public DomainBattle of Dogba (1895) - Credit: Alexandre d'Albéca
Combat de la Topaze (1895)
Public DomainThe French gunboat La Topaze at battle (1895) - Credit: Alexandre d'Albéca
Page 31. " the merry dance of death "

The dance of death (or Danse Macabre) was a late-medieval allegory used to illustrate the inevitability of death and the way it eventually unites all, regardless of one’s station in life. Typically, Death was depicted as a skeleton, leading a row of dancing figures from various walks of life to the grave.


Section of Notke's Danse Macabre (late 13th to early 14th century)
Public Domain Detail of Notke's Danse Macabre (late 13th to early 14th century) - Credit: Bernt Notke
Page 31. " the contorted mangroves "

Mangroves are trees or shrubs that grow in tropical and subtropical coastal areas. They are characterised by dense thickets of tangled roots which grow above ground. Mangrove forests cover most of the coastal regions of Africa, over 3.2 million hectares in all (about 19% of global coverage). On the west coast, they stretch from Mauritania down to Angola.


Mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) along the Congo River
Creative Commons AttributionMangroves along the Congo River (1905) - Credit: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank
Page 31. " the seat of the government "

The seat of the government of the Congo Free State was at this time the port town of Boma, which lies on the Congo River around 100 km from Muanda, where the river meets the Atlantic Ocean. Boma served as the capital of the Congo Free State and Belgian Congo from 1886 until 1926, when the capital was moved to Leopoldville (since renamed Kinshasa).


Boma (c. 1890)
Public DomainBoma (c. 1890) - Credit: Elisée Reclus

Google Map



In the original manuscript Conrad had offered a much fuller description of Boma:

We went up some twenty miles and anchored off the seat of the government. I had heard enough in Europe about its advanced state of civilization: the papers, nay the very paper vendors in the sepulchral city were boasting about the steam tramway and the hotel – especially the hotel. I beheld the wonder. It was like a symbol at the gate. It stood alone, a grey high cube of iron with two tiers of galleries outside towering above one of those ruinous-looking foreshores you come upon at home in out-of-the-way places where refuse is thrown out. To make the resemblance complete it wanted only a drooping post bearing a board with the legend: rubbish shot here, and the symbol would have had the clearness of the naked truth …

The passage was excised presumably because Conrad did not want to include any suggestion of economic or structural development in the colony that could be used as mitigation for the various crimes of the colonial enterprise.

Page 31. " Her captain was a Swede "

There was a Swedish captain, Axel Tjulin, on the lower Congo between June and December 1890.

In A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State (1905), Marcus R. P. Dorman notes that ‘nearly all the officers of the river steamers … [were] Scandinavian.

Page 32. " A continuous noise of the rapids above "

These rapids are the Yellala Falls, a series of waterfalls and cataracts on the Congo River just upstream from Matadi, and the lowest of a long series of rapids, known as the Livingstone Falls, that render the river unnavigable for over 300 km. Before the completion of the Matadi-Leopoldville railway, the 230-mile journey to the next navigable point on the river at Stanley Pool (now known as Pool Malebo) had to be undertaken by foot.


The Yellala Falls (c. 1892)
Public DomainThe Yellala Falls (c. 1892) - Credit: Elisée Reclus
View of Yellala Falls from the left bank (1880)
Public DomainView of Yellala Falls from the left bank (1880) - Credit: H. M. Stanley
Page 32. " your Company's station "

This is Matadi, the port town founded by Henry Morton Stanley in 1879. Situated on the left bank of the Congo River, 148 km from the mouth and about 8 km below the rapids that make the river impassable for a long stretch, it remains the chief sea port of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Matadi (c. 1906)
Public DomainMatadi (c. 1906) - Credit: A. Kloos

Google Map


Page 32. " They were building a railway "
Building a bridge for the Cataracts Railroad (1897)
Public Domain'Building a bridge for the Cataracts Railroad' (1897) - Credit: Henry Wellington Wack

When Conrad first arrived at Matadi on 13 June 1890, work was just beginning on the construction of the railway line that would connect the port town to Leopoldville and Stanley Pool. The railway was needed since the Livingstone Falls rendered the river unnavigable for 300 km, meaning cargo had to be transported by human bearers. This was not only inefficient but often fatal.

Work on the railway bed at Matadi began around two months before Conrad's arrival, with the first rails and sleepers shipped there aboard the Ville de Maceio on the same voyage that Conrad took. Due to be completed by 1894, the railway was not actually finished until 1898.

Page 33. " each had an iron collar on his neck, and all were connected together with a chain "

Leopold’s Congo Free State was effectively a fully-fledged slave state. As part of the concessionary land treaties Stanley made on his behalf with the various African chieftains, a clause required native inhabitants of the Congo ‘to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause to be carried out in any part of these territories…’ It is a sign of Leopold’s cynicism that when questioned about the existence of slavery in his colony (one of the stated aims of which had been to put an end to the Arab slave trade in Africa), he justified it as work carried out in lieu of taxes, claiming it was even of benefit to Africans; to an American reporter, Leopold declared, ‘In dealing with a race composed of cannibals for thousands of years it is necessary to use methods which will best shake their idleness and make them realize the sanctity of work.'


'Prisoners' in chains at Matadi (c. 1906)
Public Domain'Prisoners' in chains at Matadi (c. 1906) - Credit: Richard Harding Davis
Congolese slaves on a Belgian rubber plantation
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCongolese slaves on a Belgian rubber plantation - Credit:
Page 33. " one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work "
Regiment of Commissioner-General Halfeyt, Stanleyville (c. 1905)
Public Domain'Regiment of Commissioner-General Halfeyt, Stanleyville' (c. 1905) - Credit: Henry Wellington Wack
frican Force publique soldiers at Shinkakasa Fort, Boma (c. 1900)
Public DomainForce Publique soldiers, Boma (c. 1900) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Children of the Settlement Drilling at New Antwerp (1896)
Public Domain'Children of the Settlement Drilling at New Antwerp' (1896) - Credit: Henry Wellington Wack

Having made use of African mercenaries ever since sending Stanley to stake out his claim between 1879 and 1884, Leopold formally organised them into his state army, the Force Publique, in 1888. Over the next dozen years it grew to more than 19,000 officers and men, the largest army in Africa. In 1901, out of the 12,786 soldiers, commanded by some 350 European officers, nearly 12,500 were foreigners, mainly mercenaries from Zanzibar and the British West African colonies. After this date most recruits were drawn from the Upper Congo district; they included children taken from missionary camps, former slaves and conscripts exacted as tax from local communities. Many others were forcibly conscripted during armed raids on villages, which often targeted children who were then sent to special ‘camps of military instruction'. Even those who volunteered usually did so because, as one soldier explained to a European visitor, he preferred ‘to be with the hunters rather than with the hunted'.


Further reading:, La Force Publique or De Openbare Weermacht in the Belgian Congo

Page 34. " the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do "

An example of the Congo Free State’s penchant for cloaking labour exploitation within euphemism and philanthropic rhetoric can be found in the following official statement:

'The natives must be induced to throw off their natural indolence and improve their condition. A law therefore, which imposes upon them light and regular work is the only means of giving them the incentive to work; while it is an economic law, it is also a humanitarian law.'

–  The Congo: A Report of the Mission of Enquiry Appointed by the Free State Government, 1905

Page 34. " the gloomy circle of some Inferno "
Ilustration from Dante's Inferno
Public DomainIllustration from Dante's Inferno - Credit: Gustave Doré
Dante Alighieri
Public DomainDante Alighieri - Credit: Agnolo Bronzino

This is a reference to the Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th century epic poem, the Divine Comedy.

Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil through the nine circles of Hell, located deep within the bowels of the Earth.

Page 35. " this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die "
The first
Public DomainThe first train arriving at Leopoldville in 1898 - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Cataracts Railway near Matadi (c. 1900)
Public Domain'The Cataracts Railway near Matadi' (c. 1900) - Credit: Marcus R. P. Dorman

In Le Chemin de fer du Congo (1907), Louis Goffin mentions the high mortality rate among African workers during the construction of the railway, and how they often withdrew into the bush to die. By the time the railway was completed in 1898 it had cost an estimated 1,932 lives (1,800 Africans and 132 Europeans).  Renovation work between 1923 and 1931, using convicts and forced workers, would result in a further 7,000 deaths.

The Compagnie du Chemin de fer du Congo (Congo Railway Company) had boasted that ‘friends of humanity will find that the Congo railway is the means par excellence of allowing civilization to penetrate rapidly and surely into the unknown depths of Africa.’ Conrad’s ‘grove of death’ shows the railway for what it was: an instrument for hastening the mechanism of oppression. Alongside the building of roads and the development of steamship routes, the railway made possible the easy transportation of rubber, ivory and troops; it facilitated rapid, efficient exploitation of the Congo’s vast, previously intractable region.

Page 36. " a light alpaca jacket "
Alpacas grazing in Peru (c. 1920s-30s)
Public DomainAlpacas grazing in Peru (c. 1920s-30s) - Credit: Library of Congress

A jacket made from the fleece of the alpaca, a species of domesticated camelid indigenous to South America.

Page 37. " a precious trickle of ivory "
Porters carrying ivory in the Belgian Congo (c. 1910)
Public DomainPorters carrying ivory in the Belgian Congo (c. 1910) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1890, when Conrad made his visit to the Congo, ivory was still the colony’s most prized commodity, accounting for over half the value of exports from the Congo Free State between 1889 and 1895. Congolese elephant hunters were generally paid in small amounts of cloth, beads and other cheap goods, or the brass-wire and rods (known as mitakos) decreed to be the territory's main currency.

At the peak of the ivory trade, towards the close of the 19th century, an estimated 800 to 1,000 tonnes of African ivory was sent to Europe alone, where it was used to make everything from billiard balls, chess pieces and dominoes to combs, fans and piano keys.

Page 37. " In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr Kurtz "

When Conrad reached Stanley Falls aboard the Roi de Belges in September 1890, the vessel picked up a French agent of the company, Georges Antoine Klein, who died of dysentery during the voyage downstream. In the manuscript of Heart of Darkness, Conrad began by writing ‘Monsieur Klein’; this was changed to ‘Mr Klein’ and finally to ‘Mr Kurtz’.

Despite this, it is doubtful that Klein provided anything more than a basic model for Kurtz. He was a fairly innocuous, minor agent who had taken up his post at Stanley Falls only a month or so before Conrad arrived in the Congo.

Page 37. " a trading post, a very important one, in the true ivory-country "
'First Consignment of Ivory from above Stanley Fall'
Public Domain'First Consignment of Ivory from above Stanley Falls' - Credit: Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston

In the early years of the state, ivory was the principal traded commodity, and this was reflected in the colony's administrative apparatus, composed of some fifty stations or posts strung out along the Congo River. A typical post consisted of little more than living quarters, a warehouse and a flagpole, manned by only one or two Europeans. From these stations, which functioned simultaneously as military bases and ivory collection points, Congo state officials and their African auxiliaries swept through the country on ivory raids, shooting elephants, buying tusks from villagers for next to nothing, or simply confiscating them.

One of the most important posts (and the likely model for Kurtz’s station) was Stanley Falls, which lay 1000 miles upstream from Leopoldville, at the upper limit of navigation on the main stretch of the Congo.

Page 38. " Next day I left that station at last, with a caravan of sixty men, for a two-hundred-mile tramp "
'A Congo Jungle-Path' (c. 1879-80)
Public Domain'A Congo Jungle-Path' (c. 1879-80) - Credit: W. Holman Bentley
'A Bridge on the Caravan Route to Stanley Pool' (c. 1900)
Public Domain'A Bridge on the Caravan Route to Stanley Pool' (c. 1900) - Credit: W. Holman Bentley

After spending two weeks in Matadi, Conrad and a caravan of thirty-two men began their 230-mile journey by land to Kinshasa.  They followed an established trail, which became the route of the railway, through the Pataballa Mountains to Congo de Lamba. On July 8 they arrived in Manyanga, where they stopped to rest for two weeks. By July 27 they had taken a detour to visit the Mission of Sutili, before continuing to Luasi and then on to Kinfumu. Conrad reached Nselemba on August 1, and presumably Kinshasa, fifteen miles away, on August 2.

In Conrad's Western World (1971), Norman Sherry suggests Conrad took much longer than he should have done on the journey from Matadi to Kinshasa: the journey could be done in seventeen days; Conrad completed it in thirty-five days.

The journey is recounted in Conrad's Congo Diary.


Google Map
Page 39. " The population had cleared out a long time ago "
Baringa, a Congolese farming village being levelled to make way for a rubber tree plantation
Public DomainBaringa, a Congolese farming village being levelled to make way for a rubber tree plantation - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In his book Pioneering on the Congo (1900), the Baptist missionary Rev. W. Holman Bentley reveals that this was quite a common phenomenon: 'Sometimes they would find the birds flown - the village empty'.

The reason given was a fear of Arab slave-raids. In reality, it was more often the case that Congolese villagers had fled to avoid being conscripted as porters, and later as rubber collectors, by the Belgian regime.

The razing of villages was another common sight in the Congo Free State. When wild rubber supplies ran low, the regime ordered more rubber trees planted. It was often cheaper to use an existing clearing, like that of a village, than to cut down the forest.

Page 39. " the road between Deal and Gravesend "
Deal (c. 1890-1900)
Public DomainDeal (c. 1890-1900) - Credit: Detroit Publishing Co.

Deal is a town in Kent, England. It is situated on the English Channel, eight miles north-east of Dover and about forty-four miles from Gravesend.

Named a 'limb port' of the Cinque Ports in 1278, Deal was for a time the busiest port in England. By the Victorian era it had become a popular seaside resort.

Page 39. " the stamp and shuffle of sixty pair of bare feet behind me, each pair under a 60-lb. load "
Caravan route through the Congo bush (1894)
Public Domain'Caravan route through the Congo bush' (1894) - Credit: Jacques de Crussol duc d' Uzès

Since the climate and terrain were unsuited to draft animals, there was a great demand in the early days of the Congo Free State for porters. Any official who ventured away from the river system and into the bush needed long columns of porters to carry everything from machine-gun ammunition to food and numerous everyday provisions. Local porters were most needed at points where the river system was blocked by rapids, particularly (until the railroad was built) for the three-week trek between Matadi and Stanley Pool. These tens of thousands of porters were usually conscripted, often receiving little more than the food necessary to keep them going as payment. Even children were put to work, with one observer noting 7-9 year-olds carrying loads of twenty-two pounds each.

A Congo state official describes in his memoirs the ‘file of poor devils, chained by the neck’ who carried his trunks and boxes to a dock, as well as those porters needed for an overland trip:

There were about a hundred of them, trembling and fearful before the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out … seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds… No matter, they were all up to the job.

Page 39. " Now and then a carrier dead in harness "

Edmond Picard, a Belgian senator, offers the following description of a caravan of porters he saw on the same route around the Livingstone Falls in 1896:

Unceasingly we meet these porters … black, miserable, with only a horribly filthy loin-cloth for clothing, frizzy and bare head supporting the load – box, bale, ivory tusk … barrel; most of them sickly, drooping under a burden increased by tiredness and insufficient food – a handful of rice and some stinking dried fish; pitiful walking caryatids, beasts of burden with thin monkey legs, with drawn features, eyes fixed and round from preoccupation with keeping their balance and from the daze of exhaustion. They come and go like this by the thousands … requisitioned by the State armed with its powerful militia, handed over by chiefs whose slaves they are and who make off with their salaries, trotting with bent knees, belly forward, an arm raised to steady the load, the other leaning on a long walking-stick, dusty and sweaty, insects spreading out across the mountains and valleys their many files and their task of Sisyphus, dying along the road or, the journey over, heading off to die from overwork in their villages.

Page 39. " the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint "
Congolese tribesmen with talking drums (1892)
Public DomainCongolese tribesmen with talking drums (1892) - Credit: Édouard Riou
Zappo-Zapp Musicians from Luluabourg, Congo Free State (c. 1900)
Public DomainZappo-Zapp Musicians from Luluabourg, Congo Free State (c. 1900) - Credit: Henry Wellington Wack

Drums have been used as a form of communication in Africa for over a thousand years. When European expeditions first began to explore the jungles of Africa, they were surprised to find that knowledge of their coming had been carried through the forests a step in advance of their arrival by drum telegraphy.

As well as carrying news from one village to another, the drum plays an important role in the daily social and religious life of African tribal communities. African drums are used at ceremonies to pay homage to the Creator and the ancestors, in courtship rituals, to announce marriages and births, to accompany religious rites and initiation rituals, to herald political and social events, to signal emergency gatherings, and to announce the onset of war or victories in battle.






Conrad’s diary entry for 4 July records: 'At night when the moon rose heard shouts and drumming in distant villages.' W. Holman Bentley had also recorded the sound of African drumming as he made his first journey to Kinshasa in 1881:  ‘We had heard drums before, but until now had not thought much of them. From this time they became an intolerable nuisance. As we passed along, one town would beat a warning to the next.

Page 39. " an armed escort of lank Zanzibaris "
Map of Zanzibar and German East Africa (c. 1890)
Public DomainMap of Zanzibar and German East Africa (c. 1890) - Credit: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon
Dr Joseph Moloney, medical officer to the Stairs Expedition, with two of the expedition's Zanzibari escorts (1892)
Public DomainDr Joseph Moloney, medical officer to the Stairs Expedition, with two of the expedition's Zanzibari escorts (1892) - Credit: A. C. Gomes

Zanzibaris are from Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa. Once part of the sultanate of Zanzibar and a British protectorate, the island is now part of Tanzania.

Zanzibaris were used extensively as mercenaries throughout Africa. They were often employed by the Congo Free State as soldiers and policemen, primarily because they were thought to demonstrate more discipline than other African tribes.

Page 39. " the body of a middle-aged negro, with a bullet-hole in the forehead "

Conrad's Congo Diary entry for 3 July reads: 'Met an off[ic]er of the State inspecting. A few minutes afterwards saw at a camp[in]g place the dead body of a Backongo*. Shot?'

The following day, Conrad reports ‘another dead body lying by the path in an attitude of meditative repose’, and on the 29th a ‘skeleton tied-up to a post’. The diary also records how, on 1 August, he had to administer first aid to a boy of about thirteen years old with a gunshot wound in the head.


* The Backongo are a Bantu-speaking people descended from the Kongo people who gave the river its name. Many Backongos inhabited the area around Matadi.

Page 39. " I had a white companion "

During his own overland journey from Matadi to Kinshasa, Conrad was accompanied by Prosper-Félix-Joseph Harou, a Belgian 'sous-officier' (uncommissioned or minor officer) of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo. Harou had arrived from Europe on the same ship as Conrad. Like Marlow's companion, he became stricken with fever and had to be carried in a hammock.

Harou's older brother, Victor, had accompanied Stanley on his 1879-82 Congo expedition, and had helped establish the settlement of Vivi, the first important post on the Congo River.

Page 40. " To make money, of course "
Europeans at Stanleyville (c. 1902)
Public DomainEuropeans at Stanleyville (c. 1902) - Credit: Henry Wellington Wack

For a European agent it was not difficult to make money in the Congo Free State's ivory trade, thanks to a generous commission structure (see bookmark 'The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post') and a system built on the active exploitation of the African natives. In addition, station chiefs could levy whatever taxes they chose in labour, ivory or anything else.

In King Leopold's Ghost (1998), Adam Hoschschild notes that such get-rich-quick opportunities, combined with the promise of unchecked power, held a powerful lure:

Many who came out to work in the Congo were like the mercenaries who joined the French Foreign Legion or the fortune hunters who flocked to the two great gold rushes of the day, in South Africa and the Klondike. With its opportunities for both combat and riches, to Europeans the Congo was a gold rush and the Foreign Legion combined.

Page 40. " I came in sight of the big river again, and hobbled into the Central Station "

The Central Station is based on Kinshasa, the post established in 1883 by Stanley five miles upriver from Leopoldville. Over time the two settlements grew and merged into the city that was to become the capital of the Belgian Congo in 1923  – called Leopoldville by the Belgians and Kinshasa today.


Kinshasa Station (c. 1885)
Public DomainKinshasa Station (c. 1885) - Credit: H. M. Stanley

Google Map


Page 40. " my steamer was at the bottom of the river "
The steamer Roi de Belges (1889)
Public DomainThe steamer Roi des Belges (1889) - Credit: Alexandre Delcommune

Before Conrad reached Kinshasa in early August 1890, he learned that the Florida, which he had expected to command, had run aground leaving Stanley Pool. The steamer had been salvaged and brought back to Kinshasa by 23 July. Conrad has worked this detail into the novel as part of what Cedric Watts calls a ‘covert plot’ (see following bookmark).

Conrad was given a post on another steamer, the Roi des Belges (captained by a 24-year-old Dane named Ludvig Rasmus Koch), so he could learn the river before taking command of a steamer of his own. Aboard the Roi des Belges, Koch became sick, and Conrad took temporary command of the steamer on the return journey from Stanley Falls. This would be the only time Conrad captained a Congo steamboat, despite his later claim.


The steamer Florida (c. 1905)
Public DomainThe steamer Florida (c. 1905) - Credit: Marcus. R. P. Dorman
Page 41. " I did not see the real significance of that wreck at once "

In 'Conrad’s Covert Plots and Transtextual Narratives' (1982), Cedric Watts suggests that scenes at the Central Station indicate a ‘covert plot’. Restoring contact with Kurtz is the official reason for Marlow’s journey, but a close (re)reading of the scenes at the Central Station suggests that Marlow is caught up in a local plot designed to delay the relief of the invalid Kurtz until it is too late, so that others may lay claim to the ivory Kurtz has collected and the threat Kurtz may pose to the career prospects of other company men is lifted.

Since even Marlow expresses uncertainty about the nature of the incident, it is understandable that most readers, certainly on a first reading, miss this aspect of the novel.

Page 41. " My first interview with the manager was curious "

The manager is based on Camille Delcommune, the Société Anonyme Belge's Assistant Director and manager of the station at Kinshasa when Conrad arrived there at the beginning of August 1890.

Conrad seems to have taken an almost immediate dislike to Delcommune, describing him as ‘a common ivory dealer with base instincts’ in a letter dated 26 September 1890, and claiming there was little chance of gaining his own captainship while the Belgian was in charge. Jean-Aubry, Conrad’s friend and biographer, writes: ‘It is not for us to say how far the moral portrait was an accurate description of the man who was Camille Delcommune. All I can say is that Conrad … despised this man heartily.’

Page 42. " Jack ashore "
'Jack Tar Abroad' (1916)
Public Domain'Jack Tar Abroad' (1916) - Credit: Punch

British seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy were commonly referred to by the nickname Jack Tar, particularly during the period of the British Empire. The term Jack ashore came to refer to British sailors on shore leave, usually carrying connotations of drunken debauchery.

Page 42. " he ordered an immense round table to be made "
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
Public DomainKing Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A reference to the Round Table of Arthurian legend, around which King Arthur and his Knights congregated. As its name suggests, it has no head, implying all who sit at it have equal status.

Conrad subverts the traditional chivalric interpretation by suggesting the manager believed: 'Where he sat was the first place - the rest were nowhere.'

Page 44. " They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims "
John Bunyan
Public DomainJohn Bunyan - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from Henry Altemus edition of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1890)
Public DomainIllustration from Henry Altemus edition of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1890) - Credit: Dalziel Brothers

Marlow is drawing on imagery from John Bunyan's 17th century Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress to highlight the materialism of the European colonists in the Congo.


Page 44. " A nigger was being beaten near by "
The chicotte in use (c. 1900)
Public DomainThe chicotte in use (c. 1900) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Corporal punishment in the Congo Free State was administered with the chicotte, a whip made of sun-dried hippopotamus hide. Usually the chicotte was applied to the bare buttocks of victims (including women and children), leaving permanent scars.

In ‘Le Congo Français’ (1909), Félicien Challaye records an account given by a Belgian officer of the techniques employed in a typical chicotte lashing:

One can hardly believe how difficult it is to administer the chicotte properly. One should spread out the blows so that each shall give a fresh pang. Then we have a law which forbids us to give more than twenty-five blows in one day, and to stop when the blood flows. One should, therefore, give twenty-four of the blows vigorously, but without risking to stop; then at the twenty-fifth, with a dexterous twist, one should make the blood spurt.

As Arthur Conan Doyle notes in The Crime of the Congo (1909), the twenty-five lash limit was rarely adhered to, particularly in the Upper Congo region. Punishments of 100 blows or more were not uncommon, often with fatal consequences.

Page 45. " a forked little beard and a hooked nose "
Depiction of the Devil in Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol
Public DomainDepiction of the Devil in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1915) - Credit: Arthur Rackham
Tradition depiction of the devil from the U.S. magazine The Judge (1885)
Public DomainTraditional depiction of the Devil from the U.S. magazine The Judge (1885) - Credit: Grant E. Hamilton

A forked beard and a hooked nose are characteristics traditionally associated with the Devil.

Page 45. " a collection of spears, assegais "
Illustration showing Zulu warrior preparing to throw his assegai at the Battle of Isandlwana (1900)
Public Domain Zulu warrior preparing to throw his assegai at the Battle of Isandlwana (1900) - Credit: C. E. Fripp

An assegai is a slender spear, usually made of hardwood and pointed with iron.

The name was originally used only by the Berbers. The Portuguese later extended the term to mean the light javelins of African tribespeople generally.  For the British, it was most commonly applied to the spears of South African tribes.

Page 45. " It seems he could not make bricks without something. I don't know what - straw maybe "
The Egyptians Afflicted the Israelites with Burdens (1860)
Public DomainThe Egyptians Afflicted the Israelites with Burdens (1860) - Credit: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

A play on the common adage 'To make bricks without straw', meaning to be made to carry out a task without the necessary materials.

The phrase is an allusion to the punishment ordered by Pharaoh during the Israelites' servitude in Egypt:

Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people ... Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves

Exodus 5: 6-7

It is not quite apt: the Israelites were not actually expected to make bricks without straw (an impossible task since straw was essential as a binding element); they were required to collect it, instead of having it brought to them, while at the same time keeping up the same rate of brick-production.

Page 45. " An act of special creation "
God creating the animals and Adam and Eve on the Sixth Day (1860)
Public DomainGod creating the animals and Adam and Eve on the Sixth Day (1860) - Credit: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

In Creationism, special creation is a theological doctrine which states that every species was individually created by God in the form in which it exists today and is incapable of undergoing any change. Adhering to a literal interpretation of the account of creation in the Book of Genesis, special creation was the generally accepted theory of life’s origins from the 16th century until the middle of the 19th century, when it was supplanted by Darwinism.

Page 46. " a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages "
Rubber and ivory at the state depot, Mobeko, Upper Congo (c. 1908)
Public DomainRubber and ivory at the state depot, Mobeko, Upper Congo (c. 1908) - Credit: Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston

King Leopold introduced a lucrative commission structure in 1890 to entice Europeans to staff his far-flung network of Congo river posts. Agents in the field received a cut of the ivory's market price, structured on a sliding scale: for ivory purchased in Africa at eight francs per kilo, an agent received 6% of the vastly higher European market price, climbing to 10% for ivory bought at four francs per kilo. This gave the European agents a powerful incentive to force Africans  – at gunpoint if necessary – to accept extremely low prices. In any case, Congolese elephant hunters were forbidden from selling or delivering ivory to anyone other than an agent of Leopold.

Page 46. " allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter "

A play on the 16th century proverb 'One man may steal a horse, while another may not look over a hedge', meaning people may take different degrees of liberty depending on our opinion of them.

Page 46. " a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch "
Justice (1556)
Public DomainJustice (1556) - Credit: Maarten van Heemskerck
The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886)
Public DomainThe Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) - Credit: Edward Moran

Kurtz's enigmatic painting appears to be a conflation of traditional allegorical depictions of Justice and Liberty. Astraea, goddess of justice, is often depicted blindfolded (to signify the impartiality of justice), while Liberty is shown bearing a lighted torch.

The novel's unnamed narrator had earlier described British traders and empire builders as 'bearing the sword, and often the torch ... bearers of a spark from the sacred fire', while Marlow had referred to the Romans in Britain as 'men going at it blind'. A discarded manuscript passage had also envisioned Kurtz as a 'man possessed with moral ideas holding a torch in the heart of darkness'.

Page 48. " Mephistopheles "
Illustration of Mephistopheles and Faust from Goethe's Faust (1925)
Public DomainIllustration of Mephistopheles and Faust from Goethe's Faust (1925) - Credit: Harry Clarke

Mephistopheles is a demon familiar and emissary of the devil who originally appeared in the anonymously written Historia von D. Johann Fausten (1587), the first of several stories based on the legend of a scholar named Faust who sells his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly goods. The legend was later immortalised in Christopher Marlowe's The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1604) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (1832).


Édouard de Reszke as Mephistopheles in Gounod's opera Faust (c. 1880s)
Public DomainÉdouard de Reszke as Mephistopheles in Gounod's opera Faust (c. 1880s) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Page 50. " We live, as we dream - alone "
Francis Herbert Bradley
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeFrancis Herbert Bradley - Credit: dodoni

This statement, very much a reflection of Conrad’s own pessimistic outlook (he once claimed ‘another man’s truth is a dismal lie to me’), touches upon one of the major turn-of-the-century concerns: the breakdown of moral certainty, and a solipsism which prevents the individual from breaking out of his or her closed circle. Conrad believed each of us is locked into our own individual perceptions, and despaired in his letters that even language was incapable of helping us reach out to others.

The idea that ‘we live, as we dream – alone’ was to become a major preoccupation of early modernism, a period in which people felt, to quote the philosopher F. H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1916), that ‘my experience is a closed circle; a circle closed from the outside. … In brief … the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.