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The effects of imperialism have been subject of debate. However it has been generally agreed that imperialism had more negative than positive effects for the countries which the European imperialist lorded over. Major imperialism occurred in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Imperialism refers to a situation when a country takes control of a smaller nation for political social and economic reasons (Duignan and Gann, 69) Heart of darkness was one of the very first literally text to provide critical view of European imperial activities. Conrad decision to set the book in the Belgian colony made it easier for the British readers, also imperialist, to avoid seeing themselves reflected in the book. The book does reinforce the fact that imperialism was an insult to the subjects as well as hypocritical
Just like much of modernist literature produced in the early years of twentieth century, Conrad’s heart of darkness is much about confusion, alienation and intense doubt as it is on imperialism. However imperialism is the main theme, and with the help of symbolism brings this out perfectly. Darkness is essentially used to refer the continent of Africa in general and Congo in particular, and it backwardness at the point in time, while light (p3), is used to refer to western civilization that they imperialist purported to bring to Africa. By late 1890s most of African continent metaphorically referred to as “world’s dark places” had been put under European control (Conrad, 6). Women occupy Traditional roles as arbiter of morality and domesticity (69). However they are hardly present in the story; the concepts of home and civilization merely exist as insincere ideals, meaningless to men for whom survival is in constant doubt.
Kurtz who goes into Africa with the idea of civilizing and improving the Africans ends up raiding villages and letting himself be held in awe like a god(). Hence the idealistic benefits western civilization would have had on Africa were hypocritical. Conrad explores how the transformation takes place and in the process questions the role Europe played in the exploitation of Africa.
Initially the European claimed that their mission was to civilize the African whose culture they found appalling as well economic empowerment through engagement in trade. This was not to be, instead. Imperialist engaged in economic exploitation of African continent and overhauled the political and social structure of the African people. It is clear that the imperialistic activities were detrimental to Africa. Conrad finds inefficiency and wastefulness at the Belgian company in Congo contrary to the initial claim of economic development that the Europeans had claimed they endeavored to bring into the African continent. He found out that they were interested economic exploitation of Africa by obtaining raw material for their home industries by force if need be.
The company was the Belgian Rubber Company which king Leopard II of Belgian had formed for enabling exploitation of rubber in the Congo region. In 1884 the partitioning of African among the imperial power was completed at Berlin conference in 1884, which Conrad refers sarcastically in the heart of darkness as “the international Society for the suppression of Savage customs”. Leopard declared Congo Free State his property in 1892, legally allowing Belgians to take whatever amount of rubber they wished without having to engage in trade with the locals. This resulted to tension between the locals and the Belgians and the fights which ensued left many Congolese dead, given their inferior weapons.
The European was stretched thin trying to administer and protect massive far-flung empires. For example Congo was under Belgian empire while East Africa and Anglophone west Africa was under British Empire. Cracks begun to appear in the imperialist system: riots, war as well as the abandonment of commercial enterprises in a wholesale fashion as a result of the indigenous people quest for self determination.
The imperialist did not have any intention of developing Africa but furthering their economic interests by exploiting it. The claim that the imperialist improved infrastructure is misplaced since they were not doing it for the interest of the African but to ease exploitation of the raw materials. The construction of Kenya Ugandan railways was meant to ease the transportation of raw materials from the east African region.
Colonization was a major tool of imperialism. Its greatest misdeed was that it stripped African the responsibility in conducting their our own affairs and convinced them that their civilization was nothing less than savagery as a result giving them complexes that led to their being branded as irresponsible and lacking self confidence. The negative effects of colonization and imperialism could not be expressed better that from the African themselves. They stated that they deplored the economic exploitation by the imperialist as it reduced Africa to abject poverty, in the midst of plenty. Moreover heir fundamental rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, of movement, freedom of worship and freedom to live a full and abundant life were denied them imperialist overt activities.
Imperialism led to landlessness. People were displaced from high yielding areas and the land was taken under European plantation and which they used forced labors from the Africans. African was consigned in settler’s settlement where they lived in deplorable conditions as squatters. An African proverbs best portrays the effect imperialism had on the land issue by stating that when the white man came to Africa, the African had the land while the white had the bible. Soon after the Africa was left with the bible and the European took over the land (Duigan, 89).
Colonial masters destroyed the harmonious existence of the African society, by creation of tribes where they did not exist. They were aware that it was easier to exploit a divided group than a united one. Preferential treatment of one tribe over the other created tribal tension that at times led conflict. The 1994 civil war in Rwanda was fought between Tutsis and Hutu tribes that had been created by the French. Tribal animosity is rampant to this day (Boahen, 750-782). Civil wars in most of the aftrican countries are largely out of ethnic animosity and whose root causes can be found in Africa’s colonial legacy.
On the positive side of imperialism, it is noted that the western government introduced improved health care and better sanitation method, curbing premature death that resulted from lack of treatment from preventable diseases like malaria and measles. The colonial government introduced new crops, new tools and farming methods which increased food production. The changes meant reduced death to smaller colonies and overall improved states of living.
In conclusion, It is hard to decipher whether the disturbance from outside have been beneficial or detrimental given Conrad’s somewhat implicit portrayal of imperialism in his book. Proponents of imperialism say that the effects of imperialism were positive, but evidence shows that it led to the effects that were detrimental, than they were positive. Imperialism changed the world and made it a more difficult world to live in. The portrayal of African as backward and ignorant amounted to discrimination and racism. Imposition of eastern values was also tantamount to accepting superiority of European civilization. The effects are still felt to this day.
Joseph Conrad. Heart of darkness. Courier Dover Publication, 1990
Peter Duignan and L.H Gann. Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960. CUP, Archive.
A. Abu Boahen.Africa under colonial domination 1880-1935. University of California Press, 1985.
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