The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman, exploiting the state for rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when it was annexed by the government of Belgium. Immensely profitable, the Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources.
The Libertarian capitalist model of property as a relationship between an individual and material goods, unmediated by wider social obligation, can only exist at a frontier. The Congo was the most brutal expression of capitalism.
Villages who failed to meet the rubber collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in cut hands, where each hand would prove a kill. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.Along with Mark Twain, Booker T Robinson, and Bertrand Russell, Conrad set up the Congo Reform Movement to try to bring the regime to an end. This was eventually successful.
I wasn't going to write so much about the political context, but I got carried away.
Heart of Darkness is beautifully written, in Conrad's third language - he learned English in his twenties - bloody astonishing. Rather than the political message I have pursued here, it has an existential message. Conrad was influenced by Schopenhauer, who thought that all will and desire lead to suffering. The darkness that Marlowe - the protagonist - finds in the Congo, is a darkness that the Europeans brought with them. It is not in the African people, who are supposedly the savages, but within the savage greed of the Europeans, who express their unfettered wills, and thus the darkness within themselves.
As a nineteenth century novel the attitude to the black people of the Congo is mistaken, too patronising. Surely the local culture was just as complex as white society, but not understood or seen by the whites, but I think Conrad believes it to be a much simpler more childlike culture. Overall however his criticism is of colonialism, doing his best within the constraints of his time (IMHO). I think it is possible to read the racist language and thinking of the protagonist as a realistic reflection of what he is within his time.
The strong descriptive thread in the story is the beauty of the largely unexploited virgin forest, which is also a miasma of infection as far as the Europeans are concerned. Almost everyone is living on borrowed time, before they die of Malaria or Yellow Fever or something.
And the final thing I want to mention, which I think was very influential, is the way he leaves the worst horrors unstated. Obviously this was a reflection of the mores of the time, but it makes the whole story much more powerful. I think his style was taken on board by horror writers of the 20th century. For example, this sounds just like Lovecraft:
'This must have been before -- let us say -- his nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which -- as far as I have reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times -- were offered up to him.
I don't know why I haven't read any Conrad before, but this is a very good book.