The hippopotamus is responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal. Male hippos actively defend their territories, which run along the banks of rivers and lakes. Females have also been known to get extremely aggressive if they sense anyone coming between them and their babies, which stay in the water while they feed on the shore.
Huntley & Palmers was a British biscuit manufacturer originally based in Reading, England. Founded in 1822, the company ran what was once the world’s largest biscuit factory and became one of the first global brands.
A key factor in their success was their ability to send their biscuits all over the world, preserved in their famous, elaborately decorated and now highly collectible biscuit tins. These instantly recognisable tins functioned as a powerful marketing tool, coming to symbolise the commercial power and reach of the British Empire. Huntley & Palmers biscuits accompanied Stanley on his journey across Central Africa as well as Captain Scott during his ill-fated South Pole expedition. They also found their way by royal appointment onto the tables of numerous European monarchs, including Queen Victoria of England and King Leopold II of Belgium.
This may appear a somewhat odd detail in the novel, but the sport of pigeon-racing had achieved considerable popularity in Belgium by the mid-19th century. The pigeon fanciers of Belgium were so taken with the hobby that they began to breed pigeons selected for fast flight and long endurance called Voyageurs. From Belgium the modern version of the sport, and the Voyageurs which the Flemish fanciers developed, spread to most parts of the world.
Similar in appearance to the dolphin or bluefin tuna, the ichthyosaurus inhabited what is now central Europe during the Early Jurassic period.
El Dorado was a legendary South American country of gold. It was one of a number of mythical regions of great riches (including Cíbola, Quivira, the City of the Caesars, and Otro Méjico); the search for these treasure-filled lands led to the rapid exploration and conquest of much of the Americas by Spanish conquistadors. In ‘Geography and Some Explorers’, Conrad described the discovery of the Americas as ‘the greatest outbreak of reckless cruelty and greed known to history’; he expressed little sympathy for exploration motivated by what he called the ‘acquisitive spirit, the idea of lucre in some form, the desire of trade or the desire of loot’:
I suppose it is not very charitable of me, but I must say that to this day I feel a malicious pleasure at the many disappointments of those pertinacious searchers for El Dorado who climbed mountains, pushed through forests, swam rivers, floundered in bogs, without giving a single thought to the science of geography. Not for them the serene joys of scientific research, but infinite toil, in hunger, thirst, sickness, battle; with broken heads, unseemly squabbles, and empty pockets in the end.
In a 1903 letter to Cunninghame-Green, Conrad saw that same ‘acquisitive spirit’ at work within the Belgian colonial enterprise, whose agents he described as ‘our modern conquistadores’:
Their achievement is monstrous enough in all conscience – but not as a great human force let loose, but rather like that of a gigantic and obscene beast. Leopold is their Pizarro, Thys their Cortez and their ‘lances’ are recruited amongst the souteneurs, sous-offs, maquereaux, fruit-secs [ponces, N.C.O.s, pimps, and losers] of all sorts on the pavements of Brussels and Antwerp.
Conrad's Eldorado Exploring Expedition was based on another group of gold-seekers, Alexandre Delcommune's Katanga expedition. This was one of a number of expeditions launched by Leopold with the aim of asserting sovereignty over Katanga, an area south of the Congo Free State rumoured to be rich in minerals and other natural resources (including copper and perhaps gold). Delcommune was instructed to persuade the kingdom's ruler, Msiri, to accept Leopold as king. His party reached Bunkeya in October 1891, but he failed in his diplomatic task and continued south to where the gold fields were thought to be.
Conrad would have encountered the party at Kinshasa, where the expedition arrived in three groups on 20/23 September and 5 October 1890, before leaving on 17 October.
Based on Alexandre Delcommune, the Belgian Force Publique officer who led the expedition to Katanga between 1890 and 1893. Previously he had undertaken extensive explorations of the country during the early period of the Congo Free State, and had explored many of the navigable waterways of the Congo Basin.
He was in fact the elder brother, not the uncle, of Camille Delcommune, manager of the Kinshasa station.
In ‘Frazer, Conrad and the “truth of primitive passion”’ (1990), Robert Hampson points to this line as one of a number that relate Kurtz to the type of man-god whom James Frazer called ‘weather king’. In The Golden Bough, Frazer notes that ‘Weather kings are common in Africa’ and cites the Banjars of West Africa as ascribing to their king ‘the power of causing rain or fine weather’. Another of his examples of a ‘rain-maker’ is ‘Namvulu Vumu, King of the Rain and Storm’, who lives ‘on a hill at Bomma (the mouth of the Congo)'.
W. Holman Bentley notes in Pioneering on the Congo: ‘These poor inland folk believe that we are gods, that we send the rain, and can withhold it at will'.
In 1895, an Irish ivory trader and lay-missionary named Charles Henry Stokes was accused of selling arms to Arabs and hanged on the spot by a Force Publique officer. It is likely that Stokes' execution was ordered on account of the competition his ivory trading posed to the monopoly Leopold was trying to establish in the eastern Congo.
Robert Asketill, The Hanging of Charles Henry Stokes
This Gallicism (from concevez-vous or conçois-tu, meaning Can you imagine?) is a reminder that the manager and his uncle would have been speaking French in the Congo Free State.
The death rate among European agents in the Congo was notoriously high. The territory was ridden with malaria, sleeping sickness and other tropical diseases. By 1895 fully a third of white Congo state agents died there; others died of the effects of disease after returning to Europe.
In contrast to Marlow’s slow movement upriver, Conrad made the thousand-mile journey upstream in less than a month.
The Congo River was not quite as isolated as the novel suggests, since by 1890 some eleven steamers were operating on a stretch of water roughly equivalent in length to the Mississippi River. However, Zdzisław Najder’s description does suggest something of the isolation Conrad may have felt:
About two hundred miles above Kinshasa the Congo becomes a huge elongated lake, interspersed with islands and shoals, with the other bank often invisible … In parts the Congo measures a few miles in width; in others it spreads over ten … several missions hundreds of miles apart … no more than six villages over a distance of more than five hundred miles.
(Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, 1983)
Marlow (or perhaps Conrad, as the same error is made in his 1897 short story 'An Outpost of Progress') is confusing the crocodile with the alligator, since the latter (indigenous only to America and China) is not found in Africa.
The Congo River is home to Crocodylus niloticus (the Nile or Common crocodile), as well as Crocodylus suchus (the desert, Northwest African, or West African crocodile), a species distantly related to (and often confused with) the Nile crocodile.
In addition to Conrad and the other European passengers, the Roi des Belges carried a crew of twenty-five Africans. Norman Sherry writes that the crews of Congo steamers were ‘from the upper Congo, mainly from Bangala’ and suggests that the Bangalas were ‘joyfully cannibalistic'.
Contemporary accounts would appear to confirm Sherry’s assertion. W. Holman Bentley, describing how the ‘whole wide country [of the upper Congo] seemed to be given up to cannibalism, from the Mobangi (a major tributary of the Congo) to Stanley Falls, for six hundred miles on both sides of the main river’, records how one Bangala chief, when asked if he ate human flesh, answered, ‘Ah! I wish that I could eat everybody on earth!’ He also describes meeting an elderly Bangala man who was reported to have killed and eaten seven of his wives. S. L. Hinde, who travelled on the Congo at this period, reports how, on a return journey from Stanley Falls, six of the steamer’s Bangala crew were kept in irons and ‘delivered up to justice … for having eaten two of their number during the voyage up to the falls.’ G. W. Williams, an African-American visitor, noted in 1890 that some of the Congo soldiers were ‘bloodthirsty cannibalistic Bangalas’ who fed on the bodies of slain children.
Other Congo tribes said to have practised cannibalism include the Batwas, the Basongos, and the Bambalas.
www.heretical.com, Here Be Cannibals: Cannibalism in the African Congo
Conrad has already planted in the reader’s mind the idea of European cannibalism with an earlier allusion to the Franklin Expedition, but there is an additional irony of which he may not have been aware. Adam Hochschild describes a widespread belief which developed during the time of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, as the people of West Africa tried to account for the inexplicable disappearance of thousand-upon-thousand of their fellow countrymen:
Just as Europeans would be long obsessed with African cannibalism, so Africans imagined Europeans practicing the same thing. The whites were thought to turn their captives’ flesh into salt meat, their brains into cheese, and their blood into the red wine Europeans drank... The death tolls on the packed slave ships that sailed west from the Congo coast rose higher still when some slaves refused to eat the food they were given, believing that they would be eating those who had sailed before them.
Centuries later a similar myth would emerge among the natives of the Congo Free State, after the regime began to sever hands as punishment for unfulfilled rubber quotas (See bookmark ‘There was nothing exactly profitable ...’): the cans of corned beef seen in the homes of the white men, it was rumoured, did not contain meat from animals; they contained chopped-up hands.
Hippopotamus meat provided a traditional source of food for many African peoples, and may even have played a crucial role in the development of early Homo sapiens.
The sale of hippo meat is illegal today as hippo populations have been severely depleted by hunting; their numbers have declined most dramatically in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In addition to Captain Koch and a Belgian mechanic named Goosens, Conrad was accompanied on board the Roi des Belges by Camille Delcommune (the manager) and three agents of the Company, Alphonse Keyaerts, Edouard-François-Léon Rollin and Vander Heyden.
At the local level, Leopold's rule over his colony was applied by white men in charge of districts and river stations throughout the vast territory. Some of them were not visited by steamboats for months at a time.
The Roi des Belges employed a crew of twenty-five Congolese wood-cutters tasked with replenishing the fuel for the steamer. Sometimes it was simply a case of gathering wood from previously supplied wood-posts, but often they were required to work through the night, felling and chopping trees. Once they had finished their work they would sleep on the riverbank while the Europeans slept on board.
Such cursory descriptions of the Congolese people in Conrad's novel may appear to support Chinua Achebe’s accusation of racism – of reducing Africa and its people merely to a ‘setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor’.
However, Conrad was not writing an ethnological study. The fact that Heart of Darkness first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine may have relevance: the only African group mentioned by name are the Zanzibaris since, at this time, Zanzibar was a British protectorate and therefore more likely to be familiar to the typical Blackwood's reader.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has over 250 recognised ethnic groups, of which the majority are Bantu; the four largest groups – Mongo, Luba, Kongo (all Bantu), and the Mangbetu-Azande – make up about 45% of the population.
The depiction of African society as primitive, even barbaric, was a recurrent theme during the 19th century European drive for possessions on the continent. Not only did this facilitate the justification of colonialism and imperialism (by asserting it Christianised the heathen, civilized the savages and brought everyone the miraculous benefits of free trade), it also gave rise to the view that white people had a moral obligation to rule over and encourage the cultural development of people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This school of thought soon became known as ‘The White Man’s Burden’ after the 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling.
Several critics have suggested this sentence may have been taken from the closing line of Guy de Maupassant's short story 'Le Chevelure' ('A Tress of Hair'): 'L'espirit de l'homme est capable de tout.'
Joseph Conrad, 'Guy de Maupassant' (1904)
Yves Hervouet, The French Face of Joseph Conrad (1990)
A similar sentiment is expressed in Thomas Carlyle’s 1834 work Sartor Resartus (a novel Marlow recalls reading as a young sailor in 'Youth'): ‘the solemnities and paraphernalia of civilised Life, which we make so much of, [are] nothing but so many Cloth-rags.’
Teeth filing or sharpening is a traditional rite of passage within many sub-Saharan African tribes. The procedure, which involves chipping and filing the teeth with a small chisel, is usually carried out when the child is about fifteen years old and able to bear the pain, since it is performed without anaesthetic. In some tribes, teeth filing is carried out just prior to marriage.
Scarification or cicatrisation (a special form of scarification which produces decorative patterns of raised scars) is a traditional African custom. For some tribes, such as the Tiv of Nigeria, scarification is practised primarily for aesthetic reasons, but for many others it has important religious and social significance. Scarification may be used to mark significant milestones in the lives of both men and women, such as puberty and marriage, or to transmit complex messages about identity, such as fixed social, political, and religious roles. Scarring on the abdomen of women denotes a willingness to be a mother, with the ability to tolerate the pain of scarring taken as an indication of emotional maturity and readiness to bear children. Primarily, though, scarification is used to indicate tribal affiliation, with particular marks identifying a person as belonging to a specific tribe or ethnic group.
www.ezakwantu.com, African Body Scarification
The placement of a piece of bone into the lip is a tradition in many African cultures that is still practised today. After a child is born, the mother will pierce its lip with a thorn and insert stalks of grass encouraging the hole to expand. Gradually the hole will become large enough to place pieces of bone or ivory (known as labrets) into the lip hole. Depending on the tribe, the labret may be worn in the upper or lower lip, and sometimes in both lips.
www.ezakwantu.com, African Lip Plugs
Conrad is probably conflating two books: J. T. Towson's navigation tables, and Nicholas Tinmouth's An Inquiry relative to various points of seamanship (1845).
Towson published two volumes of navigation tables (in 1848 and 1849), but he did not write a handbook on points of seamanship. The opening chapters of Tinmouth's book inquired 'earnestly into the breaking strain of ships' chains and tackle'; the book also contains the diagrams and tables of figures mentioned by Marlow. But Tinmouth was not a 'Master in his Majesty's Navy' – he was a Master-Attendant at Her Majesty's Dockyard at Woolwich.
In The Political Novels of Joseph Conrad, Eloise Knapp Hay also suggests A.H. Alston's Seamanship and Its Associated Duties (1860), which she describes as 'one of Conrad's favourite books', as a possible model.
J. A. Arnold, 'The Young Russian's Book in Conrad's Heart of Darkness'
Cipher is a code – a method of concealing the meaning of a text by the substitution or transposition of letters according to a key.
Marlow’s description of the African jungle draws on a characteristic feature of European fairytales: the enchanted forest. A later allusion to the Sleeping Beauty fairytale (see bookmark 'an enchanted princess') suggests Conrad had in mind Charles Perrault’s version of the story, ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ (‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’, sometimes translated as ‘The Beauty in the Sleeping Wood’), in which the sleeping princess’s castle is surrounded by an apparently impenetrable thicket of trees and briars, a forest said to be haunted by ghosts, sorcerers or a cannibalistic ogre.
When Heart of Darkness was originally published in book form in Youth, a Narrative, and Two Other Stories, the collection was preceded by an epigraph from the Brothers Grimm fairytale 'Rumpelstiltskin' (1812):
But the Dwarf answered: No; something human is dearer to me than the wealth of all the world.
The Winchester was a lever-action rifle manufactured by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Among the earliest repeating rifles, the Winchester was immortalised as ‘the gun that won the West’ after its role in the subjugation of the Native American peoples in the U.S.
The Bangalas lived about 900 miles from the mouth of the Congo.
These rods or rolls of brass and copper wire were known as mitakos, introduced in the Congo Free State as the primary form of currency for Leopold's new subjects:
The brass wire is cut into lengths called mitakos, this form of currency having been introduced by the late Sir H.M. Stanley. The length of the mitako, and so its value, varies in different parts of the country. At present there seems to be no limit to the amount of wire cut into mitakos, but as the natives use great quantities to make brass rings for the arms and legs of both sexes, it is difficult to say to what extent the currency is being debased… The natives pay no taxes in money or its equivalent, but instead are compelled to do this 40 hours' work per month for the State.
(Marcus R. P. Dorman, A Journal of a Tour of the Congo Free State)
The last detail is a telling one: the existence of meaningful currency might have undermined the forced labour upon which the state depended. Dorman also describes how African steamer crews would be paid in rolls of mitako, which became longer the higher they went up the river, an arrangement introduced by Stanley to encourage the Congolese crews to remain onboard until no longer needed.
This is kwanga, a type of fermented bread made from the flour of the manioc (or cassava) root, which is wrapped in banana leaves and boiled into a dough. It remains a traditional dish of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as of the neighbouring Republic of the Congo (where it is known as chikwangue).
Conrad’s experience in the Congo would not only haunt his imagination; it also seriously impaired his health. On the return voyage down the Congo River, the steamer’s crew racked with dysentery, Conrad went down with acute fever and was prematurely forced back to England. In London he remained in hospital for six weeks. He would suffer from the effects of rheumatism and intermittent attacks of malarial gout and fever for the rest of his life.
An allusion to the Sleeping Beauty fairytale.
A scow is a flat-bottomed boat with square ends. Although chiefly employed as barges in the transport of bulk freight, scows can also be used as punts, rowing boats, or sailing boats.
The Martini-Henry was a breech-loading single-shot lever-actuated rifle, combining an action developed by Friedrich von Martini with the rifled barrel designed by Alexander Henry. It was adopted by the British Army in 1871 as a replacement for the Snider-Enfield, with variants used throughout the British Empire for over thirty years.