Persuasion by Racism: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and Canadian Ghettos

Note: I wrote this essay while finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. Before you read this essay, become familiar with the YouTube video “Science of Persuasion.” Science of Persuasion includes six elements: Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Liking, and Consensus. Reciprocity occurs when people are obliged to give back what they have received first; Scarcity is when people want what they are told they may have less of; Authority refers to the fact that people follow credible experts and resources; Consistency refers to requesting small initial commitments that might lead to bigger ones; Liking principle indicates that we like similar people, those who pay us complements, and those who work with us towards mutual goals; Consensus occurs when people look at the actions and behaviour of others to determine their own. 

Racism that takes places inside Canada, such as creation of Ghettos, is based on these principles. Coloured people who are clustered inside Ghettos cannot reciprocate due to poverty and less connections; White people are scarce and thus considered “superior” and “more intelligent”; its easier to find White authorities owing to their White privilege and thus easy to assume that colored people are “dumber” in nature; colored people like working with each other and thus may appear “close” towards the Whites because they pay each other more complements or understand each other’s issues more; networks and process of integration break easily in the ghettos because the Consistency principle indicates that small initial commitments to help out would dissappear when someone else’s better party invite leads to stronger and more consistent commitment levels; and, needs of coloured people are neglected as a lot of employers consense to hiring and retaining White people more than colored people

Since coloured people are left struggling with lower wages and seclusion from the White majority, there are less educated coloured representatives found in authoritative positions. Thus, they appear less productive and are more prone to being defamed, blackmailed, and abused. 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad has been classified as a “thoroughgoing racist novel” by critics such as Achebe (3). A close analysis of the novel proves that even though it is a racist novel, there are certain instances of non-racial behavior depicted in it. The dehumanization of the Africans, their classification as “others”, endowment of rudimentary speech, justification of European’s lack of communication with the natives, and setting of Africa and its natives in the background all serve as evidence in establishing this novel as racist literature directed at the Africans. However, at the end of the novel, there are certain non-racist events that lead one to conclude that the author believes that if the Europeans had tried to understand Africans, they would have realized that just like themselves they are only human. Even though the text exhibits racist attitude towards the Belgians, it also emphasizes that they are responsible for carrying out violent acts against natives under imperialistic rule. This novel is racist in the sense that it approves of Imperialism even though it condemns torture of natives.

Oxford English Dictionary defines dehumanization as deprivation of human qualities. Throughout this novel, the native Africans are dehumanized. African natives are likened to beasts, savages, ants, and instruments. “A slight clinking behind me…rhythmically clinking (para. 35, sec.I, 2).” In this paragraph, the author describes how the native Africans “appear” to him. He doesn’t narrate their emotions or their feelings at all. The natives are merely considered as “parts of machinery” by the Europeans. In accordance with Achebe’s conclusions, Jan Mohammad also describes dehumanization as an act of racism (1). Jan Mohammad provides a deeper explanation as to why such a literary technique was employed by the author. He defines the novella as an “imaginary” text. The “imaginary” is a developmental stage where the child (6-18 months old) identifies himself with his image. The child situates rivalry and aggressivity within the distance that lies between himself and his reflection. According to Jan Mohammad, the native African functions as an image/reflection of the imperialist (4). Conrad tends to project all the despised attributes of the European imperialists onto the “Other” (4). Thus when Marlow calls the natives criminals and savages, he is in fact projecting the guilt, which he felt because of European attitude towards the natives, onto the natives. By referring to them as savage, he is regarding the brutal enslavement of the natives as a very savage act. This serves as evidence that Conrad doesn’t approve of the method of the Belgian imperial government. However, the fact that the author actually projects these negative opinions about Europeans onto African natives depicts racism. It seems that Conrad considers the natives inferior enough to subject them to dehumanization via” projection of opinion”.

Dehumanization can also be explained in terms of the “Manichean allegory” that refers to the conversion of “racial differences” into “moral and metaphysical differences” (4). “They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells…over the sea (para. 35, sec. I,2).” Thus the author assumes that the natives are criminals because he thinks that they should obey the imperialists since they are morally and intellectually inferior to them. This assumption of the inferiority of the African race and then its translation into the immorality of their character depicts racism. “And between whiles I had to look…hind legs (para. 9, sec. II,2).” This again is an example of the Manichean allegory and is also considered racist content. The native is called an “improved specimen” and is compared to a dog. The protagonist is shown to take care of the fireman as if he is a little child with a lower intellect level (6). It is thus obvious that the author considers the natives intellectually inferior to the Whites. He thinks that educating them will improve them so that they can be used as pawns by the White imperialists.

The African natives are granted rudimentary speech. When they do speak, their speech only shows their inferiority and savagery (5). “Catch ‘im…Eat ‘im (para. 15, sec.I).” Thus the natives on the ship only speak to emphasize their savage nature. When the cannibal natives choose not to eat the pilgrims and Marlow while on board despite the fact that they outnumbered them, Marlow gets really puzzled. His contemplation upon this act of theirs leads him to conclude that these natives know no restraint. “Restraint! I would as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield (para.15, sec.II, 2).” It is obvious that Marlow regards these individuals as lacking in morality and goodness. This is a racist assumption. Furthermore, the author calls African language as a form of babbling. “A violent babble of uncouth…planks (para. 44, sec I, 2).” Thus the author attempts to absolve Europeans for not trying to understand Africans by implying that their language is beyond human comprehension (6). In addition, their savage nature is mentioned to establish them as “Other” and this behavior is regarded as justification for European’s withdrawal from communicating with African natives other than for economic purpose. This separation of races on basis of cultural differences is considered racism.

As the novel progresses, Marlow’s racist attitude is replaced by a non-racist one (8). When one of the crew members, the helmsman dies, Marlow remembers and misses him. He affirms his feelings towards the helmsman by saying: “I am not prepared to affirm…getting to him (para.29, sec I, 2).”  The fact that Marlow values helmsman’s life more than his search indicates his affection for the native. Ridley notes a similarity between Helmsman and Kurtz. Both succumbed to the evil methods of the foreign cultures, by performing rituals and by shooting natives with a rifle respectively. Thus, both were detribalized; i.e., they were not considered a part of their own culture anymore. Conrad condemns both of them to death (7). The killing of the helsman does not count towards racism at all. It serves as an allusion to the fact that a human being morally degrades as he associates with the evil within. At the very end of the story, Marlow saves the natives from getting shot by the Europeans who were abroad the ship that was returning home from Congo. This unselfish act again depicts Marlow’s newly developed care and affection for the natives, which is seen only in the later parts of his journey. Overall, the protagonist’s attitude towards the Africans changes as the story progresses. As he spends more time in Congo, more easily he recognizes the natives as humans.

In this novella, Africa and its people are set in the background and are only brought in the foreground (allowed to participate in the story by speaking) to exhibit their savagery or evil. (6)  “A nigger was being beaten…went out and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again (para. 35, sec.I,2). The native remains in the background and never speaks out against his mistreatment. Thus, Conrad doesn’t consider the natives important enough to make them active participants in the story; i.e., he doesn’t allow them to mold and change it. This is another evidence of racism.

The author thinks that British are better imperialists than Belgians. Hence, he adopts a racist tone towards the Belgians. “There was a vast amount of red…yellow (para.22, sec.I, 2).” Here the author is pointing out the efficiency of the British imperialist empire. In contrast, he establishes Belgians as an inefficient imperialist government. “A heavy…work going on (para. 34, sec.I,2).” This theme “futility of work” is associated with the inefficiency of the Belgians. Conrad thinks that the Belgians are not doing any worthwhile work in civilizing the Africans. Analysis of the text leads one to conclude that the author is against the violence committed by the Belgian government in Africa. However, he does support Imperialism.“She had a distaste for the work…apple-pie order (para. 40, sec. I,2).” Thus, the author approves of the fact that the chief accountant taught the native lady how to do his laundry even though she didn’t want to learn this craft. In the 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution was highly supported by the scientific community and the Western societies. This theory supports the notion that White race is superior to other races. This is how belief in Darwinism led to the implementation of imperialism (5). Author supports imperialism because he believes in Darwinism. However, he despises violence to which the Africans were subjected by the Belgian government. He projects his hatred of the violent acts committed by the imperialist Belgian government onto average Belgian citizens. “I found myself…their insignificant and silly dreams (para.86, sec.III,2).” He regards their ambitions as silly and considers them all as greedy individuals who hasten to earn money. He even considers their food unwholesome. This is again evidence of racism against Belgians.

In conclusion, Heart of Darkness depicts racism towards Africans only in the beginning and not at the end of the novel. Protagonist’s views are changed as he spends more time in Africa and reflects upon the cruelty of the Belgians.


  1. Bender, T.K. (2000)  Imagological considerations in Conrad’s vision of Africa. CLIO 29 (4): 441-447.
  2. Conrad, J. (1996) Heart of Darkness. Project Gutenberg. URL []. Access Date:2003-11-25
  3. Firchow, P.E. (1937).  Envisioning Africa-Racim and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. University Press of Kentucky: U.S.A.
  4. Kaplan, C.M (1997). Colonizers, Cannibals, and the Horror of Good Intentions in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Studies in Short Fiction 34 (3):323-332
  5. Nicol, A. Representation of race and gender in Heart of Darkness. URL[] Access Date: 2003-11-25
  6. Okafor, C.A. (2003).  Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe:Two Antipodal Portraits of Africa.  Journal of Black Studies 19(1): 17-28.
  7. Ridley, F.H. (2003).  The Ultimate meaning of “Heart of Darkness”. Nineteenth century fiction. 18(1):43-53
  8. Racism in the Heart of Darkness URL [] Access date: 2003-11-25

Copyright © by Arzoo Zaheer. All Rights Reserved.

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