October 23, 2017
Conrad, Marlow, Africa
On this day in 1890, thirty-two year-old Joseph Conrad took command of a small stern-wheeler, the Roi des Belges, for the trip down the Congo river from Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls) to Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). Conrad was in the employ of a Belgian trading company; his primary cargo on this occasion was not rubber or ivory but Georges Klein, the company agent at their Inner Station, now gravely ill and soon to die on the downriver journey. The stern-wheeler's regular captain was also ill, thus requiring Conrad to take temporary command -- his only captaincy in all his years at sea.
These experiences were the genesis of Heart of Darkness, published twelve years later. In actuality, the company's Inner Station was quite organized, and Klein was no Kurtz (though "Klein" was the name used in early drafts); nor was Conrad exposed to the full horror that Marlow witnessed and felt beckon:
A long decaying building on the summit was half buried in the high grass; the large holes in the peaked roof gaped black from afar; the jungle and the woods made a background. There was no enclosure or fence of any kind; but there had been one apparently, for near the house half-a-dozen slim posts remained in a row, roughly trimmed, and with their upper ends ornamented with round carved balls. The rails, or whatever there had been between, had disappeared. Of course the forest surrounded all that. The river-bank was clear, and on the water-side I saw a white man under a hat like a cart-wheel beckoning persistently with his whole arm. Examining the edge of the forest above and below, I was almost certain I could see movements -- human forms gliding here and there.
In his memoirs, Conrad recalls his early temptation towards Africa, filing it in the 'be careful what you wish for' category:
It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character: "When I grow up I shall go there." And of course I thought no more about it until, after a quarter of a century or so, an opportunity offered to go there, as if the sin of childish audacity was to be visited on my mature head.
He turns Marlow into a similar child, one who would pore over maps "and lose myself in the glories of exploration" imagined in South America or the North Pole:
Other places were scattered about the Equator.... There was one yet -- the biggest, most blank, so to speak-that I had a hankering after. True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery -- a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.
[note: the woodcut illustration is by Hans Alexander Muller]