How do Defoe and Conrad explore the consequences of British Colonialism in Robinson Crusoe and Heart of Darkness?
Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, once wrote that Joseph Conrad had a “unique propensity for ambiguity”. Examining Heart of Darkness, it’s not difficult to understand why he might think so. Upon first glance, both main texts discussed in this essay appear to be dated and racist accounts of colonial expansion, rife with xenophobia and bigotry. However, looking closer, examining the narrative voices and the nuances of the writing, it becomes clear that the situation is not that simplistic. While there are certainly moments when the descriptions cross the line of modern acceptability (and rightly so), the overarching moral message of Heart of Darkness seems to be one of condemnation of “the evil of imperial exploitation”. Robinson Crusoe, a novel published almost two centuries earlier, still has its nuances, but seems more resolutely in favour of colonisation. The comparison of these two texts not only allows us to draw a line between satire and racism, but also understand the changing face of British colonialism, and the implications for those involved.
The first aspect I want to deal with is the use of literacy and language as a metaphor for the superiority of western culture. The inability of natives to employ the English language fluently acts as an indicator of savagery and cultural barbarism in both texts. This is conflated with ineptitude or primitivity, rather than being considered as a barrier of translation. This becomes immediately clear upon the introduction of Friday in Robinson Crusoe:
“In a little time I began to speak to him; and teach him to speak to me; and first, I let him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life; I called him so for the memory of the time. I likewise taught him to say Master; and then let him know that was to be my name; I likewise taught him to say Yes and No and to know the meaning of them”.
Crusoe’s approach is clear: to gain dominance over Friday and to try and alter his identity. He specifically uses language as a weapon of colonisation, renaming Friday and teaching him the basics of the English language. “I let him know his name should be Friday” does not give Friday any choice in the matter, it is imperative and dictatorial. Crusoe later in the novel teaches his parrot to call him “Robin Crusoe” but insists that Friday calls him “Master”. In doing this he also immediately displays his prerogative of gentrification: his first interaction with Friday is one which serves to strip him of his identity and make him more westernised. This comes with the inherent implication that his indigenous identity was not suitable or proper.
The name Friday is, in itself, a commemoration of Crusoe’s bravery and heroism in rescuing him. Not only is this action self-gratifying but it also creates a dynamic of debt and servitude: Crusoe saved Friday’s life, and his name is a reminder of the obligation of repayment he has towards his “Master”. In conversing in English, Crusoe also has the power to decide what to teach Friday and what to exclude. To this end, it could be argued that Crusoe has complete control over Friday’s ability to self-express. We see him abuse this almost immediately: he teaches Friday the word “Master” before even “Yes” and “No”, clearly indicating the priorities in Crusoe’s mind. The rhetoric this creates is that a deficiency in English is conducive to savagery, and that spoken English is the only acceptable paradigm: a clearly xenophobic perspective. This is closely paralleled in Marlow’s treatment of the shipmen in Heart of Darkness. Upon realising their inability to converse in English, Marlow “made a speech in English with gestures, not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me”. He then goes further using the steam whistle so that that the crew will respond to him: “The retreat, I maintained—and I was right—was caused by the screeching of the steam whistle. Upon this they forgot Kurtz, and began to howl at me with indignant protests”. The gesticulating method of communication reinforces Conrad’s notions of the intellectual simplicity of the natives. Conrad then goes further, characterising the native language as inhuman and “like the responses of some satanic litany”.
Chinua Achebe makes valuable points in relation to this subject in his essay 'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness''. He argues that the rare cases where the savages employ English rather than their usual “short, grunting phrases” is actually a way of furthering the homogenisation and perverse western conversion which is visible in Friday in Robinson Crusoe; that their innate desire to be “civilised” is strong enough to override their linguistic barriers. This being said, Marlow never uses language as a tool for oppression. While his descriptions may characterise the indigenous tongue as inferior or uncivilised, he makes no attempt to actively change the behaviours and mannerisms of the Congolese, in fact, he himself makes the effort to communicate with them through his “gestures”, rather than taking Crusoe’s route of an insistence on the English language. Marlow seems to have more respect and empathy than Crusoe, describing the language as “amazing words”, acknowledging the “remote kinship” and “humanity” of the savages. This distinction is an important one as it highlights the primary difference between the two protagonists: while Crusoe actively colonises his island, Marlow is more of a traveller in a colonised land. The role of the coloniser in Heart of Darkness is assumed by Kurtz: he is an ivory trader who came to the Congo in search of profit, whereas Marlow is a sailor on a rescue mission.
Things Fall Apart shows an interesting angle on linguistic differences. Written from the perspective of a native, as a response to Heart of Darkness, Achebe uses language creatively to bridge cultural differences. While both main texts refer to the African language simply through “[grunts]” or other nondescript terms, Achebe explores the Igbo language to the extent that English readers understand Igbo terms by the end of the novel. While it is predominantly written in English, it contains Igbo words such as “egwugwu” and “chi”, which, by context, we come to understand as meaning masks and spiritsoul. The clash of languages within the text itself not only serves as an analogy for the clash of cultures, but also frames the native languages in a different light. As western readers, understanding the nuances of African tribal dialects are not things we ordinarily preoccupy ourselves doing, this certainly being the case for both Marlow and Crusoe. Rather than being characterised by savagery or primitivity, Achebe frames the language in a way that is understandable and decipherable by a western audience. This strengthens our connection with Onkonkwo and the other tribespeople, but also helps to mend the lasting traces of xenophobia and bigotry which still exist in this context as a result of novels such as Heart of Darkness and Robinson Crusoe. Achebe works towards the same goal in other aspects of the novel: he presents figures like Marlow and Conrad from an indigenous perspective, allowing a judgement of moral action not previously possible. Achebe claims that Heart of Darkness “depersonalizes a portion of the human race”, and Things Fall Apart seems to be his attempt to undo this damage.
Another clear chasm in cultural discourse is in that of religious imagery and practices in the texts. Both Heart of Darkness and Robinson Crusoe are centred around characters on a near-pilgrimage (even if Crusoe’s is an unintentional one), and religious conversion in a pre-eminent theme, especially in Robinson Crusoe. Again, it is through the example of Friday that this is made clear: ““All things say O to him.” I asked him if the people who die in his country went away anywhere? He said, “Yes; they all went to Benamuckee””. Crusoe asks Friday about his religious beliefs, and upon Friday revealing his paganism, and his faith in “Benamuckee”, Crusoe immediately “[begins] to instruct him in the knowledge of the true God”. While there is the obvious point of religious subjugation, there is also the interest in the irony of this. Given the subjectivity of belief, and the true unknowability of God, Crusoe here is making an implication impossible to quantify: that one “God” can be “[truer]” than another. This is also reflective of western attitudes of superiority: not only is the western language and the way of life seen to be superior, but that western theistic entities are superior to those of other religions. This is particularly ironic given that in 1719 the reformation was still relatively recent, and there were numerous irregularities within Catholic and Protestant doctrine: The idea of one “true” God doesn’t even exist in European culture.
This religious narrative is one which is explored less in Heart of Darkness, but which still holds some significance. Rather than the Christian God being introduced to a faraway land, it seems that the landscape in the Congo is so dire that even divine forces cannot penetrate it. The phrase “God-forsaken wilderness” appears early on in the novel and has the clear intention of solidifying the Congo as a place of desolation and ruin right from the start. Conrad’s portrayal of Kurtz also makes this point implicitly: “for he judged it necessary to inform me he feared neither God nor devil, let alone any mere man”. Kurtz is the microcosm of the effect of the Congo on western culture, and his loss of fear for God implies the godless nature of Africa. Instead, the landscape itself is given a theistic identity: “the other shoe went flying unto the devil-god of that river” and “He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land” both imply that the land is imbued with some malevolent force. This indicates not only that the Congo is “God-forsaken” but is actually characteristic of Lucifer.