E. J. Glave offers a similar description of the Europeans’ practice of sounding the steamer’s whistle to frighten off African tribesmen:
We had a harmony whistle on board which alarmed them a great deal…. The poor natives of Nkolé, superstitious, as all savages are, thought it was some angry spirit who was kept by me to terrify people, and who gave vent to his feelings in this way. The natives on the beach beat a hasty retreat at this unusual sound, and those who were in canoes lost all presence of mind.
(In Savage Africa, 1892)
Bentley also records a similar incident during a journey on the Kwangu, a tributary of the Congo, when four Africans in canoes tried to intercept the steamship:
They demanded blackmail, and lay across our bows. The two whistles of the Peace shrieked their loudest … There was an instant collapse in the canoe; guns were dropped and paddles were seized and plied to their utmost.
A hulk is a ship that has been withdrawn from seafaring duty but can still perform a useful function, for example as a hospital or naval barracks. Wooden ships were often hulked when the hull structure became too old and weak to withstand the stresses of sailing; in the days of sail, many hulls served longer periods as hulks than they did as functional ships.
In Britain, hulks were often used as prison ships, particularly during the Georgian era when they provided a temporary solution to prison overcrowding. Hulks commonly held convicts awaiting transportation to penal colonies.
Two or more anchors were deployed on a floating hulk to prevent it shifting position with current or tide.
This is something of an urban myth. Neither hair nor fingernails continue to grow after death, despite appearing to do so. This phenomenon is actually the result of the surrounding tissue drying out and shrinking away from the nail folds and hair shafts, making hair and fingernails look longer.
Conrad may be making a sarcastic allusion to the Association Internationale pour l’Exploration et la Civilization en Afrique (International Association for the Exploration and Civilizing of Africa), the front company used by Leopold to gain his foothold in the Congo. The Belgian monarch employed the Association as a smokescreen, disguising his colonial venture as a philanthropic mission dedicated to civilizing Africans.
In the first full exposé of Leopold's Congo Free State, George Washington Williams described how Henry Morton Stanley and his assistants had used a variety of tricks, such as fooling Africans into thinking that whites had supernatural powers, to get Congo chiefs to sign their land over to Leopold. For example:
A number of electric batteries had been purchased in London, and when attached to the arm under the coat, communicated with a band of ribbon which passed over the palm of the white brother’s hand, and when he gave the black brother a cordial grasp of the hand the black brother was greatly surprised to find his white brother so strong, that he nearly knocked him off his feet… When the native inquired about the disparity of strength between himself and his white brother, he was told that the white man could pull up trees and perform the most prodigious feats of strength.
Another trick was to use a magnifying glass to light a cigar, after which ‘the white man explained his intimate relation to the sun, and declared that if he were to request him to burn up his black brother’s village it would be done.’
Echoes of the language used by Kurtz (and proof that Conrad did not need to look far to find models for his character) can be found in a letter sent by a Congo Free State district commissioner named Jules Jacques to one of his subordinates after learning that villagers had been severing vines to extract the rubber, so killing them, instead of merely tapping the vines as they had been instructed:
M. le Ched de Poste. Decidedly these people of [Inongo] are a bad lot. They have just been and cut some rubber vines ... We must fight them until their absolute submission has been obtained, or their complete extermination ... Inform the natives that if they cut another single vine, I will exterminate them to the last man.
The Sahara (from the Arabic Aṣ-Ṣaḥrā´ al-Kubrā, meaning the Great Desert) is the world's largest desert (not including the ice deserts of Antarctica and the Arctic). Stretching over 9.4 million square kilometres (3.6 million square miles) from the Red Sea to the outskirts of the Atlantic Ocean, it covers most of Northern Africa.
Kurtz's station is loosely based on Stanley Falls, founded in 1883 by Stanley as the Congo Free State's first trading post in the area. After subsequent Belgian colonisation of the area, it grew into the settlement of Stanleyville (present day Kisangani), which remains the major centre of the northern Congo.
In contrast to the fictional station, Stanley Falls was already a permanent settlement by 1890, with offices, warehouses, workers’ quarters, vegetable plantations, a jail and a hospital.
He may have originated from the Hellequin figure of French passion plays, a black-faced emissary of the devil. Others suggest the name comes from Alichino, one of the devils in Hell mentioned in Dante's Inferno.
With its headquarters in the city of Tambov, the Tambov Governorate was at this time one of the largest governments of Central Russia. It served successively as an administrative unit of the Russian Empire, Russian Republic, and later the Russian SFSR.
This would be the Nieuwe Afrikaansche Handelsvennootschap (New African Trade Association), the Dutch trading-house which was once the largest trading company on the Congo coast and the second largest on the Congo River after the Société Anonyme Belge.
During the 1880s, the company had operated on Stanley Pool and the Upper Congo. However, its relations with the Congo Free State deteriorated rapidly after 1888, and the company was forced to move its headquarters from Banana to Cabinda and transfer many of its trading factories to French and Portuguese territory.
The Russian Cyrillic alphabet does bear a resemblance to cipher.
The decapitated heads displayed at Kurtz's station may have been inspired by an incident on the Stairs Expedition, part of Leopold's campaign to incorporate the kingdom of Katanga into the Congo Free State. Reaching the African king's compound at Bunkeya, Captain William Stairs records in his diary how the Europeans 'first recognized Msiri's headquarters by the skeletons fixed to stakes round one section of the village and by a terrible pyramid of human heads and amputated hands placed on a sort of pedestal table at the door of his dwelling,' and the sight of 'fresh human heads grimacing ... on the stakes in the village,' of which he 'counted one hundred of these frightful trophies.' When Msiri was killed by the expedition, the Europeans set the king’s own decapitated head upon a stake as a warning to potential rebels.
Another possible inspiration was the Belgian Force Publique officer Leon Rom. Kurtz's post is loosely based on Stanley Falls, where Rom was made station chief in 1895, five years after Conrad visited; Conrad may even have have met Rom while the latter was station chief at Leopoldville. A British explorer and journalist who passed through Stanley Falls in 1895 described the aftermath of a punitive military expedition against some African rebels: 'Many women and children were taken, and twenty-one heads were brought to the falls, and have been used by Captain Rom as a decoration round a flower-bed in front of his house!' This account first appeared in Century Magazine and was reproduced in The Saturday Review, a magazine Conrad admired and read faithfully.
Two other figures within the Congo Free State hierarchy may have served as partial models: Guillaume Van Kerckhoven, a Belgian Force Publique officer; and Léon Fiévez, commissioner of the Equator District. Van Kerckhoven informed the British consul Roger Casement that he paid his African soldiers ‘5 brass rods (2 ½ d.) per human head they brought him during the course of any military operations he conducted’ in order to ‘stimulate their prowess in the face of the enemy.’ Léon Fiévez, a much hated state official who terrorised a district 300 miles north of Stanley Pool, and whose excesses lead the Congolese to christen him 'the Devil of the Equator,' described his actions when surrounding villages failed to supply his troops with the fish and manioc he demanded:
I made war against them. One example was enough: a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian. I killed a hundred people ... but that allowed five hundred others to live.
At the time of Conrad's visit, Léon Fiévez had just taken command of the post of Basoko, a likely overnight stop for the Roi des Belges going both up and down the river.
Several other possible models have been suggested for Kurtz, including Leopold II, Henry Morton Stanley, Arthur Hoddister (a British ivory trader), Emin Pasha (whom Stanley attempted to relieve in Equatoria in 1887, and who was killed by Arabs in 1892), Edmund Barttelot (in charge of Stanley's rear guard during the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition), and Charles Henry Stokes (an Irish ivory trader summarily hanged by a Belgian officer in 1895). Kurtz has even been framed as an alter ego of Marlow, and by extension of Conrad himself.
However, just as ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,' it is unlikely Conrad based Kurtz on any single individual.
In reality, the hallmark of Leopold’s brutal regime was not so much severed heads as severed hands.
Failure to meet rubber collection quotas was often punishable by death; in order to prove they had killed someone rather than used their munitions for hunting, African Force Publique soldiers were required to provide a hand for each bullet used. In practice, soldiers sometimes 'cheated' by simply cutting off a hand and leaving the victim to live or die. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill. As a consequence, the rubber quotas were partly met in dismembered hands:
The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.
(Peter Forbath, The River Congo: The Discovery, Exploration and Exploitation of the World's Most Dramatic Rivers, 1977)
Kurz is German for short.
Klein, the name Conrad originally used for the character (see bookmark 'In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr Kurtz'), is German for small.
Jupiter (known in English as Jove, Marlow's favourite exclamation) was the Roman god of the sky and thunder, and protector of the Roman state and its laws. The equivalent of Zeus in the Greek pantheon, he was the Roman King of Gods (called dies pater: shining father), and was otherwise known as Caelestis (heavenly), Lucetius (of the light), Totans (thunderer), Fulgurator (of the lightning). As Jupiter Victor, he led the Roman army to victory. His attribute was the lightning or thunder bolt.
The witch doctor is a type of healer who uses traditional healing techniques rather than contemporary medicine, in a similar manner to a shaman or medicine man. The term witch doctor, a common translation from the Zulu inyanga, has been misconstrued to mean a healer who uses witchcraft, rather than its original meaning of one who diagnoses and cures maladies caused by witches. African witch doctors were emphatically not in themselves witches.