River Thames, England
Nightfall down the Thames (1880)
Public DomainNightfall down the Thames (1880) - Credit: John Atkinson Grimshaw

In effect, it could be said that Heart of Darkness is set entirely on the River Thames, being a tale within a tale recounted upon a yawl making its way down the English river.

The second longest river in the United Kingdom, the Thames links several towns and cities in southern England, but is best known for flowing through central London. By the 18th century, the Thames was already one of the world's busiest waterways, due to London's position at the centre of the vast, mercantile British Empire. The advent of the railways during the Victorian era reduced commercial activity on the river, but it was not until the growth of road transport and the decline of the Empire, in the years following 1914, that the economic prominence of the Thames was significantly reduced.



The Thames (1872)
Public DomainThe Thames (1872) - Credit: L'illustration Européenne
The Pool, London (c. 1891-1910)
Public DomainThe Pool, London (c. 1891-1910) - Credit: Charles Edward Dixon
Brussels, Belgium
Brussels (c. 1892)
Public DomainBrussels (c. 1892) - Credit: James W. and Daniel B. Shepp

Although never actually named, Conrad's 'sepulchral city' is clearly Brussels, the capital of Belgium.

The Congo Free State was administered directly from King Leopold II’s Royal Palace, or from the Brussels offices of subsidiary companies such as Albert ThysCompagnie du Congo pour le Commerce et l'Industrie.

Marlow's interview at the Company's headquarters mirrors Conrad's own experience with the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo. He was interviewed by the managing director, Albert Thys, at the Société’s main offices in the city’s Brederodestraat.





Porte de Namur, Brussels (c. 1900)
Public DomainPorte de Namur, Brussels (c. 1900) - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Gare du Nord et Place Rogier, Brussels (early 1900s)
Public DomainGare du Nord et Place Rogier, Brussels (early 1900s) - Credit: Henri Goerges
The Congo River
Congo River near Lubefu (1888)
Public DomainCongo River near Lubefu (1888) - Credit: Alexandre Delcommune

When Conrad's story first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899, readers would have instantly recognised its unnamed African river as the Congo River, the course of which had been traced by Henry Morton Stanley only twenty-two years before.

The deepest river in the world, the second largest by volume of water discharged, and the ninth longest with an overall length of 4,700 km (2,920 miles), the Congo River and its tributaries flow through the Congo rainforest, the second largest in the world.

Originally known as Nzere (the river that swallows all rivers), it is named after the ancient Kingdom of Kongo, which was located at its mouth. In turn, the river has given its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.



Congo River near Stanley Pool (c. 1888)
Public DomainCongo River near Stanley Pool (c. 1888) - Credit: Alexandre Delcommune
Congo River near Sankuru - 'Point terminus de la navigation' (1888)
Public DomainCongo River near Sankuru - 'Point terminus de la navigation' (1888) - Credit: Alexandre Decommune
The Congo Free State
Map of Congo Free State (1896)
Public DomainMap of Congo Free State (1896) - Credit: J. Lebègue & Cie
Flag of Congo Free State
Public DomainFlag of Congo Free State - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Coat of arms of Congo Free State
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCoat of arms of Congo Free State - Credit: Lemmens, Tom & MS05L

The novel’s shadowy African setting of ivory grabbing ‘pilgrims' was none other than the Congo Free State, where Conrad spent six months in 1890 as an employee of the Belgian trading company, the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo.

In existence between 1885 and 1908, the Congo Free State was the private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium, a vast area of Central Africa which included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). For three decades, the Belgian monarch ruled the area as his own personal fiefdom, accruing vast profits through the ruthless exploitation of the territory’s natural resources and its people. His reign lasted until 1908, when growing international outrage at the atrocities committed against indigenous people forced him to cede the colony to the Belgian state. It was renamed the Belgian Congo.

The Real Heart of Darkness: King Leopold II of Belgium and the Congo Free State


They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.


Joseph Conrad
Public DomainJoseph Conrad - Credit: George Charles Beresford

On 1 September 1890, Joseph Conrad arrived at Stanley Falls, at the very heart of Africa. It represented the realisation of a lifelong ambition:


 It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of 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.’

And of course I thought no more about it till after a quarter of a century or so an opportunity to go there … I did go there: there being the region of Stanley Falls which in ’68 was the blankest of blank spaces on the earth’s figured surface.


The Roi des Belges, the steamboat which took Conrad up the Congo River
Public DomainThe Roi des Belges, the steamboat which took Conrad up the Congo River - Credit: Alexandre Delcommune

He was in the employ of the Belgian trading company the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo, contracted (or so he believed) to captain a steamboat on the Congo River. In the end, Conrad never attained that command, and within a month of arriving at Stanley Falls he would break his contract and return to Europe, having served less than six months of the stipulated three year term. The bitter disappointment of Conrad’s Congo experience went far beyond his failure to secure command of his own steamboat, however. Like Marlow, he had discovered that Africa was ‘no longer a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously. It had become a place of darkness.’ Much of Africa remained unknown to Europeans in the 1860s and 1870s; but over just 20 years virtually the whole of that vast continent had been pillaged and appropriated by imperialist powers in the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’. As Conrad stood at Stanley Falls, he now reflected upon the ‘end of the idealised realities of a boy’s daydreams’ and ‘the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.’  He may also have considered his own minor role in that scramble; for he was there, ultimately, because of Leopold II, the Belgian king whose desire for an African colony had started the whole thing.

King Leopold II of Belgium
Public DomainKing Leopold II of Belgium - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

King Leopold II of Belgium had long dreamed of a colonial empire to increase the power and prestige of his kingdom. By 1875 he had set his sights on Central Africa. With 80% of the continent still under the control of indigenous rulers, Leopold decided that the area of the Congo Basin was the ideal place to establish a colony. However, neither the Belgian people nor the Belgian government shared the king’s ambition. If Leopold was to acquire his colony it would have to be in a private capacity. He knew that openly conquering territory was certain to upset Belgian public opinion and, more importantly, provoke the major powers of Europe. So he resorted to subterfuge to realise his goal: he would convince the world that his interest in the Congo was purely altruistic.

Picture OF Henry Morton Stanley from his book The Congo and the founding of its free state; a story of work and exploration (1885)
Public DomainHenry Morton Stanley - Credit: H. M. Stanley

In 1876, Leopold founded l'Association Internationale pour l’Exploration et la Civilization en Afrique (the International Assocation for the Exploration and Civilizing of Africa). As president, he was eager to persuade the world of the nobility of his purpose: ‘To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated… to pierce the shadows which envelope whole peoples, I dare to say, a crusade worthy of this century of progress.’ The celebrated explorer Henry Morton Stanley was appointed as Leopold’s chief agent, tasked with laying the foundations of the noble enterprise. Stanley launched steamer routes, signed treaties with tribal chieftains and founded trading posts. Each station had a garrison – ostensibly to protect Christian missions in the area and to lead an assault on Arab slavers, such as the notorious Tippu-Tip, who operated in the interior. 

Soon Leopold had convinced the world that his motives with regard to the Congo were entirely altruistic, and that he was merely a figurehead for an association committed to bringing the wonders of commerce, civilization and Christianity to darkest Africa. Praise for Leopold’s philanthropic mission came from all over the Western world. The Daily Telegraph informed its British readers that the Belgian monarch had ‘knit adventurers, traders and missionaries of many races into one band of men, under the most illustrious of modern travellers (H.M. Stanley) to carry into the interior of Africa new ideas of law, order, humanity, and protection of the natives.’ A European observer was moved to describe Leopold’s enterprise as ‘the greatest humanitarian work of this time,’ while an American writer declared Leopold’s great work ‘enough to make an American believe in Kings forever.'

The Berlin Conference (1884)
Public DomainThe Berlin Conference, where Leopold's Congo Free State was recognised and the framework for what would become the Scramble for Africa was established - Credit: History of the World
Map of Africa (c. 1890) showing Congo Free State (central yellow region)
Public DomainMap of Africa (c. 1890) showing Congo Free State (central yellow region) - Credit: Carl Joseph Meyer

In 1885, at the Berlin Conference, Leopold’s fledgling state received international recognition. The Congo was to be an area of international free trade, administered by the Association Internationale with Leopold as its figurehead. Now the king no longer needed the misleading humanitarian façade of the Association, and he allowed the committee to lapse leaving himself as chairman at the helm of his own personal colony. He was now the owner of the largest private estate in history, an area almost the size of India and 77 times larger than Belgium. On 29 May 1885, by royal decree, Leopold named his property l’État indépendant du Congo (the Congo Free State). It was not long before the reality behind this disingenuous name became apparent.

Collecting Rubber in Forest of Lusambo (Lualaba-Kassai) (c. 1905)
Public DomainCollecting Rubber in Forest of Lusambo (Lualaba-Kassai) (c. 1905) - Credit: Henry Wellington Wack

The Congo was rich in ivory and, of more importance to industrial Europe, forest upon forest of rubber trees. On the same day he named his state, Leopold issued another decree declaring all ‘vacant land’ in the Congo to be the king’s personal property. No definition of ‘vacant’ was established. Whole village communities were soon ordered to move, and the Congolese people lost their traditional hunting and arable lands, fishponds, religious areas and common land. Leopold set about the commercial exploitation of the now vacant lands, or granted concessions to companies, in many of which he had holdings. State administrators and company agents were instructed to levy taxation on the Congolese who worked the rubber forests; since there was no effective currency in circulation, the taxes were paid in labour. Leopold had realised early on that forced labour would be infinitely more profitable than paid labour. The treaties signed by the tribal chieftains not only entailed recognition of Leopold’s governing rights over their lands, they also included the promise ‘to assist by labour or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions’ the state deemed necessary. Leopold could rely on a vast supply of slave labour to exploit the resources of his newly acquired colony.

'The Agents of the Modern African Slave Trade: The
Public Domain'The Agents of the Modern African Slave Trade: The "Force Publique" of the Congo State' (1905) - Credit: E. D. Morel
Women hostages, held under guard in order to force their husbands into the rain forest to gather rubber (c. 1908)
Public DomainWomen hostages, held under guard in order to force their husbands into the rain forest to gather rubber (c. 1908) - Credit: Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston

To enforce this system, Leopold established an army for his new state, the Force Publique. Led by European officers, its ordinary soldiers were African, drawn from different parts of the continent. Strangers to the area they served, and without any sense of identification with local groups, they would become the middlemen in the regime’s barbaric trade. Hostage-taking was the preferred method for compelling villagers to collect rubber. An account from a state official in the Ubangi region details the ‘efficiency’ of the system:


Method of procedure was to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants of which invariably bolted on their arrival; the soldiers were then landed, and commenced looting, taking all the chicken, grain, etc., out of the houses; after thus they attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the district brought in the required number of kilogrammes of rubber. The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats a-piece, and so … from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected.


Often the women were repeatedly raped while their men went to collect rubber. In some villages, rubber squads forced men at gunpoint to rape their own mothers and sisters. If villagers failed to collect the required quotas, soldiers customarily wiped out whole villages to set an example. One state official told an American missionary in 1899 that each time a ‘forest-guard’ or Congolese soldier returned from duty he was required to account for all his cartridges, providing a severed right hand for every one used. The same official claimed that in six months on the Momboyo river 6,000 cartridges were used.

Nsala, of the district of Wala, looking at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, Boali, a victim of the Anglo-Belgian Rubber Company militia (c. 1900)
Public DomainA father looks at the severed hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, a victim of a rubber militia (c. 1900) - Credit: John & Alice Harris

Atrocity heaped upon atrocity as Congolese lives were sacrificed in their millions to Leopold’s greed. With most able-bodied men conscripted into the state army or forced to collect rubber deep in the forest, the villages had few people left to plant and harvest food, hunt or fish. Inevitably famine spread, the birth rate plummeted, and a weakened and demoralised people fell prey to disease. Male rubber gatherers often died from exhaustion, while the women hostages starved to death. Tens of thousands more died in unsuccessful uprisings against the regime. Meanwhile bucket loads of severed hands piled up as a consequence of the failure to meet unrealistic rubber quotas.

It was only a matter of time before the true nature of Leopold’s Congo Free State came to light. Accounts of colonial abuses had emerged from the Congo as early as 1890, but it was not until the first decade of the 20th century that the humanitarian veil was fully torn away. Leopold would face his most formidable opponents in two fearless campaigners against cruelty and exploitation: Edmund Dene Morel and Roger Casement.

Sir Roger David Casement
Public DomainSir Roger David Casement - Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Edmund Dene Morel
Public DomainEdmund Dene Morel - Credit: F. Seymour Cocks

Morel had served as a clerk for a major Liverpool shipping line, a subsidiary of which had the monopoly on all transport to and from the Congo Free State. While stationed at Antwerp, the Englishman began to wonder why the ships that brought vast loads of rubber from the Congo returned only with guns and ammunition.  Concluding that the answer must be slave labour, he quit his job and began a tireless campaign to expose Leopold’s regime. Morel persuaded the House of Commons to pass a resolution calling on the British government to conduct an inquiry into alleged violations of the Berlin Agreement. Roger Casement, then British consul in the Congo Free State capital of Boma, carried out a thorough investigation of the Congolese barbarities. In February 1904, Casement’s long, detailed eyewitness report was published, shocking world opinion with the enormity of Leopold’s crimes. At the same time, Morel founded the Congo Reform Association, which was to become the 20th century’s first international human rights movement. The British Parliament demanded a meeting of the 14 signatory powers to review the 1885 Berlin Agreement. The Belgian Parliament forced Leopold to set up an independent commission of inquiry; in 1905 it confirmed Casement's report.

In return for massive loans in 1890 and 1895, Leopold had granted the Belgian government the right to annex the Congo state in 1901. Belgium did not take up the option at that date, but in 1906, goaded by world opinion and their own unease, the Parliament voted to annex the Congo Free State. Leopold resisted the annexation until 1908; he had ruled the Congo for 24 years. He died one year after losing his African fiefdom. The reputation of a king once celebrated worldwide for his supposedly selfless philanthropy was shattered in Vachel Lindsay’s 1914 poem 'The Congo':


Mutilated children of the Congo Free State (c. 1905)
Public DomainMutilated children of the Congo Free State (c. 1905) - Credit: Mark Twain
Punch caricature of King Leopold II of Belgium as a snake entangling a Congolese rubber collector (1906)
Public DomainPunch caricature of Leopold as a snake entangling a Congolese rubber collector (1906) - Credit: Linley Sambourne

Listen to the yell of Leopold's ghost,

Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.

Hear how the demons chuckle and yell,

Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.


After the restoration of free trade in the rechristened Belgian Congo, and the outbreak of World War I, international attention soon drifted away. But the exploitation of the Congolese people did not end with Leopold’s death or the demise of the Congo Free State. Many of the administrators employed by the new regime were the same men who had worked under Leopold, and the use of forced labour and various other methods that had made the Congo Free State so profitable continued. It was only in 1923 that steps were taken to modify the system. The administrators, at last alive to the long-term unsustainability of a system that maimed and murdered its own workforce, ordered a census. It found that between 1890 and 1923, the Belgian colonial enterprise had cost an estimated 10 million Congolese lives, roughly half the population.



Further reading:

Adam Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost (1998)

Edmund Dene Morel, King Leopold's Rule in Africa (1904)

Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa (1992)

Norman Sherry, Conrad's Western World (1971)