Colonialism in Heart of Darkness: Quotes & Examples

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about colonialism as it appears in Joseph Conrad's novel ''Heart of Darkness,'' including some specific examples and quotes illustrating how it plays a role in the novel.


In the late 1800s, there was a big push in Europe towards colonizing, or setting up outposts in less developed countries, especially in Africa. Colonization could compared to modern day corporations buying land in under-developed countries to establish their company overseas. This comparison works especially well when you consider the type of colonialism going on in Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness. Colonialism in the novel involves establishing permanent outposts and setting up rules and laws, but the main reason for it is to make money.

Economic Exploitation

The main reason colonialism occurs in Heart of Darkness is to economically exploit the land in the Congo. The colonists take the ivory and make money off the trade, but give back little or nothing of value to the natives that live there, and have little regard for the land that might be damaged in the process.

The ivory trade was the main reason for colonizing the Congo
Ivory Trade

While they are there, the colonists also set up outposts and establish their home government and laws. However, the ivory is the real reason for all of this, as Marlow notes: 'It was as unreal as everything else--as the philanthropic pretence of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work. The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages.' Ivory is the driving force behind Europe's colonization of the Congo.

Establishing Government

While the ivory trade was the reason for it, the fact remains that the colonists did set up their own government in the Congo. Europe established outposts, or small settlements, along the African coast, and set up places for collecting, among other things, tolls and taxes. We see this during Marlow's trip down the coast: 'We pounded along, stopped, landed soldiers; went on, landed custom-house clerks to levy toll in what looked like a God-forsaken wilderness, with a tin shed and a flag-pole lost in it; landed more soldiers--to take care of the custom-house clerks, presumably.' The colonies looked ridiculous set against the African wilderness, but this type of setup is common in colonization. It's a way for the colonizers to maintain their claim on the land.

Within their trading posts and their land, European laws ruled. These foreign laws applied to the natives, regardless of whether the natives understood them or not. Punishment for breaking these laws was also established, mostly in the form of hard labor. Marlow saw evidence of this when he was walking to the first trade station. He passed a chain-gang of natives, watched by a single white soldier. 'They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.' This quote helps show how unaware the natives were of the laws they were supposedly breaking, but the colonists enforced their laws regardless of this.

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