In the 1800s, Africa was considered a “dark continent” because its interior geography was unknown to Europeans and because it was considered uncivilized.
The Christian missionary and explorer David Livingstone is credited with shedding light on the continent by exploring regions Europeans had not previously visited. One of his motivations was to open up the continent to trade as a means of bringing an end to the slave trade.
But it was not Livingstone who popularized the idea of Africa as a dark continent. Rather, that was Henry Morton Stanley, the journalist sent to Africa to find Livingstone, the man who reportedly greeted Livingstone with the phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Stanley was himself an explorer, adventurer, and author of some note, publishing several books. Through the Dark Continent (1878) described his journey of exploration which confirmed that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile River and that the nearby Lualaba River (discovered by Livingstone) was actually the Congo River flowing west into the Atlantic Ocean. In Darkest Africa (1890) described the second of two trips up the Congo River that Stanley undertook at the request of King Leopold II of Belgium. Stanley established trading posts along the river and laid the groundwork for the colony of the Belgian Congo.
Playing off the idea of Africa as a dark continent,William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890). While many Europeans considered that it was “the white man’s burden” to bring civilization and economic prosperity to areas such as Africa, Booth argued that England had its own areas of darkness. He wanted to rescue the unemployed urban poor from city workshops by sending them to farm colonies and then to overseas colonies. His scheme provided the foundation for the Salvation Army’s extensive social services, which continue to this day.
Another significant book was published shortly after the other three. Heart of Darkness (1899), is a novella by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad. The story is narrated by a character named Charles Marlowe while sitting on a ship anchored in the Thames River in London. Marlowe begins his tale with the words, “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” He was referring to the time when the ancient Romans brought civilization to barbaric England at the far reaches of the civilized world. The story shifts from the Thames River to the Congo River, where civilized Europeans were said to be similarly bringing civilization to the Belgian Congo. Marlowe describes how he had earlier piloted a steamboat up the Congo River in search of a European trader name Kurtz, who had written a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The report eloquently summed up the European mission of bringing civilization and enlightenment to the dark continent.
Heart of Darkness is a masterful novel, full of stark images, biblical allusions, and ironic observations. Without ever stating it, the book marvelously demonstrates that the darkness does not reside in some supposed uncivilized outpost but in the human heart, not least of all in the hearts of supposedly civilized men. It presents an unflattering and realistic portrait of colonialism, an unpopular thing to do at the time. Conrad knew what he was talking about because he himself was a sailor who had travelled on distant seas and had piloted a steamboat up the Congo River.
Conrad’s novella has a special significance for me. It was on the curriculum one year when I was in high school, and I decided to read the book the summer before to get ready for the fall. I finished the book and said, “What an odd book. Nothing happened. Why would someone write a story like that?” Essentially, Marlowe went up the river and came back without anything significant being achieved. So, I went back and re-read the book. It was on my second reading that I realized that the events (or lack of them) didn’t really matter. The insights into human life below the storyline were profound. That book showed me what was possible in a novel, that a novel could convey deep meaning. It was the book that got me hooked on novels and inspired me to try writing fiction myself. It set a high bar for fiction that I have striven to emulate. I doubt that I have achieved it, but I have continued to try.