The Price of Ivory

I didn’t realize that Europe and England were exploiting Africa nearly to the extent described in The Heart of Darkness as late as 1900, though if this article is accurate, Conrad may actually have been sugarcoating the treatment of Africans. Conrad makes it clear from the very beginning of the novel, long before we meet Kurtz, that the natives are literally being worked to death by their European employers.

Conrad begins subtly with a bookkeeper complaining,

‘The groans of this sick person,’ he said, ‘distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.’

and later,

“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying finished and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

Despite all the hypocritical talk about lifting the natives up, it’s clear whites are in Africa purely to make money:

I had a white companion, too, not a bad chap, but rather too fleshy and with the exasperating habit of fainting on the hot hillsides, miles away from the least bit of shade and water. Annoying, you know, to hold your own coat like a parasol over a man’s head while he is coming to. I couldn’t help asking him once what he meant by coming there at all. ‘To make money, of course. What do you think?’ he said, scornfully.

Ivory makes an interesting symbol for this greed since it provides a natural contrast to the darkness of the wilderness:

The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

I particularly liked, “You would think they were praying to it,” and phrases “like a whiff from some corpse” and “like evil or truth.” Makes you wonder how “evil” and “truth” are similar, doesn’t it? Though one suspects you don’t have to look much further than Kurtz to see similarities.

Kurtz had supposedly be sent to trade with the natives for ivory, but when he runs out of trade goods he turns to more effective means of getting it:

… mostly his expeditions had been for ivory. ‘But he had no goods to trade with by that time,’ I objected. ‘There’s a good lot of cartridges left even yet,’ he answered, looking away. ‘To speak plainly, he raided the country,’ I said. He nodded. ‘Not alone, surely!’ He muttered something about the villages round that lake. ‘Kurtz got the tribe to follow him, did he?’ I suggested. He fidgeted a little. ‘They adored him,’ he said. The tone of these words was so extraordinary that I looked at him searchingly. It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions. ‘What can you expect?’ he burst out; ‘he came to them with thunder and lightning, you know–and they had never seen anything like it–and very terrible. He could be very terrible.

It seems pretty clear that this is Kurt’s “strange commingling of desire and hate” referred to at the end of yesterday’s entry. Kurtz’s desire for wealth, combined with his hatred of the natives has created a true “savage.” This paragon of European culture has been so transformed by his greed that he even feels justified in stealing from his own people


You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man. No, no, no! Now–just to give you an idea–I don’t mind telling you, he wanted to shoot me, too, one day–but I don’t judge him.’ ‘Shoot you!’ I cried ‘What for?’ ‘Well, I had a small lot of ivory the chief of that village near my house gave me. You see I used to shoot game for them. Well, he wanted it, and wouldn’t hear reason. He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased. And it was true, too.

Conrad must have believed that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even in death Kurtz is synonymous with “old ivory:”

It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze. I saw him open his mouth wide–it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him. A deep voice reached me faintly. He must have been shouting. He fell back suddenly. The stretcher shook as the bearers staggered forward again, and almost at the same time I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again as the breath is drawn in a long aspiration.

“Some of the pilgrims behind the stretcher carried his arms–two shot-guns, a heavy rifle, and a light revolver-carbine–the thunderbolts of that pitiful Jupiter.

I find myself haunted by that final image: “I saw him open his mouth wide–it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.” Even in death his greed seems unquenchable.

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