In Homage to Those Who Died Silently

In Homage to Those Who Died Silently
By Zahra Gordon

 

Of the novels written about the tragedy that has become the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is the most prominent. The novel is engrained in the English literary canon as a magnificent feat in the field of writing; an example of Conrad’s bravery in taking what was considered an anti-colonial viewpoint. Conrad is widely quoted as describing  the economic ventures in the Congo as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration” (Walker xi). However, Conrad was, as they say, a man of his time. In an introduction to Heart of Darkness written by Franklin Walker, Conrad’s timeliness is made most evident; perhaps unknowingly so. Walker argues that rather than Marlow, the narrator, Mr. Kurtz is the protagonist of the novel. Walker writes: “From the time Marlow first hears of him from the Accountant to the occasion when he tells Kurtz’s fiancée that he died with her name on his lips, Kurtz remains the focal point of Heart of Darkness” (Walker xiii my italics). Walker makes his argument without even heading to the fact that the protagonist of a novel of this sort should be neither Marlow nor Mr. Kurtz. A novel speaking against the injustices of colonial exploitation and brutality where the perpetrators of these vile acts become heroes. A close look at the text will reveal that although Mr. Kurtz kept a gate adorned with the skeletons of Africans slaughtered in his pursuit of riches, the reader really "ought to have heard him recite poetry - his own...Poetry!" (Conrad 107). The faults of Heart of Darkness did not however remain forever unearthed.

 

In "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" Chinua Achebe boldly refuted the canonization of this work. Even though Achebe did not deny that Conrad was a talented writer, he abhorred the lack of attention paid to Conrad as a "thoroughgoing racist" and the said racism deeply embedded in his writing. Achebe pointed out the fault of the position of Africa and Africans as a meager background to Mr. Kurtz's demise:

 

A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind! But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot." (Achebe 7)

 

Writing in 1977, Achebe made this argument 75 years following the publishing of Heart of Darkness; long after the novel had been put on a pedestal. This time frame did not deter Achebe from believing that it was too late to begin the work of re-valorizing the image of Africa and Africans:

 

Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad. (Achebe 10-11)

 

Previous critiques of the novel may have ignored or were not privy to this perspective but, Achebe was able, through the very act of writing this piece, to commence the revalorization of the African image. Another key dimension of Achebe's argument was the lack of attribution of speech to the African 'characters' in the novel. It is here that the search for African voices and monuments begins. While Conrad's scathing critiques of King Leopold & his operation in the Congo Free State, augmented his fame, this was not the case for George Washington Williams.  As Adam Hochschild details in his book, King Leopold's Ghost, Williams became a pioneer in what was later the international Congo protest movement with the writing of his Open Letter to King Leopold:

 

If it were printed as this book is, the Open Letter would run to only about a dozen pages. Yet in   that short space Williams anticipated almost all the major charges that would be made by the international Congo protest movement of more than a decade later. Although by 1890 scattered criticism of Leopold's Congo state had been published in Europe, most of it focused on the king's discrimination against foreign traders. Williams's concern was human rights, and his was the first comprehensive, systematic indictment of Leopold's colonial regime written by anyone. (Hochschild 109)

 

Yet, Williams, was and is not nearly as well-known as Joseph Conrad. Having transitioned prematurely, Williams was an American born African who traveled to the Congo with great hopes but found himself truly disturbed by the conditions.

 

Hochschild is obviously not an African voice and though his is an important work, he too recognizes the problem similar to those raised about Heart of Darkness. Hochschild provides detailed analyses of E.D. Morel and Roger Casement's lives as they pertained to their work in the Congo protest movement, including some shortcomings thereof:

 

But like the British Abolitionists, Morel and Casement were for the moment safe in England; for all    their good will, they were not themselves subject to the lash of the chicotte or the weight of shackles. They were white men trying to stop other white men from brutalizing Africans. Most of the Africans who fought this battle in the Congo perished, their very names unrecorded. In a sense, we honor Morel and Casement in their stead (Hochschild 207)

 

In a scene from the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison the slave-master, Schoolteacher, questions one of his slaves, Sixo, about the theft of a pig. Sixo denies that he has stolen the pig and gives this explanation, "Sixo plant rye to give high piece a better chance. Sixo take and feed the soil, give you more crop. Sixo take and feed Sixo give you more work" (Morrison 224) However, the slave-master disagreed. Sixo was "Clever, but the schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers - not the defined" (Morrison 225). And so it is with the Congo. The history is written by the definers, the winners and it proves easy to find a wealth of information on the villains, the saviors (& "saviors"); easy for Africans to be deemed solely victims; easy for their voices to be lost; easy to build monuments to the Morel's, the Casement's, the Conrad's, in the "stead" of Africans whose deaths were unrecorded as Horschild says, but isn't this all just too easy? Records do exists, though sparingly, and the Congo is by no means liberated; Africans are dying there in silence everyday just as their ancestors did while the vile scramble for natural resources continues. 6 million African human beings have died in the past 12 years and they all had names and stories. They are all worthy of monuments, of being heralded as icons.

 

Testimony of Congolese Woman to Judge:

 

"Witness Mingo of Mampoko: "While I was working at brick-making at Mampoko, twice the sentries Nkusu Lomboto and Itokwa, to punish me, pulled up my skirt and put clay in my vagina, which made me suffer greatly. The white man Likwama [a company agent named Henri Spelier] saw me with clay in my vagina. He said nothing more than, 'If you die working for me, they'll throw you in the river'" (Hochschild 255)

 

 

Relevant & Recommended websites:

www.friendsofthecongo.org

www.congoweek.org

www.pambazuka.org

www.georgewashingtonwilliams.org

 

Relevant & Recommended Literature:

King Leopold's Ghost Adam Hochschild

"An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness" Chinua Achebe


I am Congolese and this is my name

 

Oh mother, how unfortunate we are!...

But the sun will kill the white man,

But the moon will kill the white man,

But the sorcerer will kill the white man,

But the tiger will kill the white man,

But the crocodile will kill the white man,

But the elephant will kill the white man,

But the river will kill the white man,*

 

Nzinga Mbemba Affonso I

George Washington Williams

Chief Mulume Niama

Chief Nzansu

Ilanga

Oleka

Katinga

William Sheppard

Kot aMbweeky II

Ota Benga

Chief Bokangu

Mangundwa

Ekunja

Ekumba

Monjangu

Gili

Akaba

Akaba

Akaba

Akaba

Sweet little Akaba

Chief Ekele of Etchimanjindou

The man from Baumaneh

The Budja rebels

The Kuba Kingdom

We are tired of living under this tyranny

We cannot endure that our women and children are taken away

And dealt with by the white savages.

We shall make war…

We know that we shall die, but we want to die.

We want to die.*

 

I am African and this is my name

Chief Lontulu of Bolima

Chief Isekifasu

Boaji!

Nsinga

Ifomi

Lilongo

Ilange Kunda of M’Bongo

Bongiyangwa

M’Putila of Bokote

Ekuku, Paramount Chief of Boieka

Jungi

Mingo of Mampoko!

Kandolo

 

I am Congolese and this is my name.

I am African and this is my name.

Hear. Speak. Remember.

My African name.

 

*Freedom-fighting songs of Congolese people (during the time of Leopold's rule)