The Heart of Empire - By Oby Arnold
Updated: Feb 26
Ms. Ellen Perry
“What we wish, we readily believe, and what we ourselves think, we imagine others think also.” -Julius Caesar
The foundational myth of empire is that it is a beacon of light in the darkness. Seemingly impelled by lesser powers to lead the world, empires speak of their influence as a benevolent responsibility to the lesser civilizations of the world. During the rule of Augustus, Virgil wrote, “…you, Roman, must remember that you have to guide the nations.” The period of Augustus’ rule is often referred to as “Pax Romana” or “Roman Peace”. We can see this emulated in the phrases “Pax Britannica” and “Pax Americana.” British historians often describe their empire thus: “it was perhaps almost as true of Great Britain as of Rome that she acquired her world dominion in a fit of absent mind.” (Parenti, 18). Americans, too seem unwilling to acknowledge their role in creating empire. The U.S. is often described as being “thrust onto the world stage”, after all “the country perceives itself to be a republic not an empire” (Immerwahr, chapter 3). In his novella Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad seeks to tear through the lofty ideals of empire to expose its dark heart. It was, as he put it, “a squeeze and nothing more” (Conrad, 77). As the hypocritical rhetoric morphs over time, there can be seen a consistent theme of interventionism that mirrors the heart of power. Regardless of the stories told, despite the hidden economic mechanisms or lofty notions of efficiency and light, empire functions to conquer and to rule, and nothing more.
Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness could not have come at a more pivotal moment in the history of empire.
When it was written, the British Empire was at the peak of its dominance on the world stage and the American territories were expanding. Amidst this backdrop, Conrad’s novella explores the tension between what an empire does, and who it believes itself to be. It is through the eyes of the story’s protagonist, Marlow, that we see the Belgian ivory company for what it is: a brutal enterprise concerned solely with extracting as much ivory as possible. Marlow is hired by the company to find and extract the mysterious Kurtz who has gone rogue deep in the African wilderness. He has begun extracting more ivory than ever, and at brutal human costs. No longer afraid of answering to anyone but himself, Kurtz has dedicated himself to his task, brutalizing entire African villages in his path to obtaining ivory. Along his journey, Marlow reads passages from Kurtz of his lofty ideals of spreading the light of civilization through the wilderness. He meets many company professionals who revere Kurtz for his lofty goals and ambitions, meanwhile the company higher ups are embarrassed by the behavior of Kurtz, for while brutality is often implemented and in fact, the lives of Africans are often referred to as dispensable in the novel, Kurtz’s actions highlight the fact that the ivory trade is solely beneficial for Belgian traders. The traders often rob the lands of ivory, yet they do so under the banner of spreading the light of civilization. The company describes Kurtz’s behavior as “going native”, and yet, it is his unapologetic imperial behavior that is so abhorrent to the company. Kurtz represents the heart of imperialism, the one that isn’t afraid to look at itself.
Marlow begins his journey skeptical of the propaganda of the company, wary of believing himself a force of benevolence in an alien and hostile region. The deeper Marlow journeys into the wilderness, the harder the lies and fragility of the company’s narrative become to sustain. He hears stories and witnesses great acts of violence perpetrated on the natives by members of the company. Marlow has a great distaste for those agents on the periphery of the company who see themselves as “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (Conrad, 82). He even goes on to say “There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time.” (Conrad,82). When a woman talks to him about “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,” Marlow “ventured to hint that the company was run for profit.” (Conrad, 82). After his boat drifts past a group of natives on the shore, Marlow remarks, “They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straight facts” (Conrad, 82). Marlow is under no illusions about the colonial purpose of the company he works for, and he comes to regard this dishonesty with disgust. As with the followers that Kurtz has amassed, Marlow begins to see a kind of beauty in Kurtz’s honesty and self-absolution. “There is a reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it... He was a remarkable man.” After experiencing the lies of the company first hand, Kurtz’s honesty comes as a relief, or as Marlow puts it “is there such a thing as insanity when the world has already gone insane?” When faced with the choice to either abandon empire all together or just abandon the lies that sustain it, Marlow seems to side with Kurtz, preferring the honest imperialism to none at all.
There is a vast discrepancy between the ways in which the Roman Empire acted and how it is written about. In the second volume of his six-volume work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon remarks, “The obedience of the Roman Empire was uniform, voluntary, and permanent. The vanquished nations grew into one great people. They resigned the hope, nay even the wish of resuming their independence. The vast Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” (Gibbon). What this reading of Roman history fails to represent is the brutal conquest of the Roman empire, which through the continuous forceful pillaging of northern Europe and the near-east, established a centralized slave state that prospered on the plight of it’s peripheral regions. Far from bringing prosperity to these regions, the Roman Empire stole the resources of its newly acquired nation-states, while keeping them in a state of perpetual subservience (Champion). All the while, the Roman Empire articulated its presence in the outermost regions as beneficial, partly by demeaning the foreign cultures as barbaric and by contrasting their respective wealth to that of the interior. This brutal approach has been amended by successive empires. Behind the wealthy nations of empire are people who don’t want to forcefully conquer in their hearts, yet they also don’t want to give up their privileged position on the world stage. Maintaining both of these contradictory positions simultaneously requires adopting self-aggrandizing narratives of virtue and peace.
The British Empire once it was established shuffled to maintain the narrative that its vast exploits were the result of accident.
British scholars took great pains to minimize the conquest of British imperialists while amplifying their role as the world’s most functional administrators. The British statesman John Morley even said, “We have had imposed upon us by the prowess of our ancestors the task of ruling a vast number of millions of alien dependents. We undertake it with a disinterestedness, and execute it with a skill of administration, to which history provides no parallel” (Morley). Surely, the British statesmen were not disinterested in the rewards of such a position in the world, yet in his statement we can see the inability to acknowledge or understand the forcefulness with which such empire was established. It was in fact the British who were dependent on maintaining the empire. In Heart of Darkness, the company commander describes the company’s role as administrative as well: “What saves us is efficiency––the devotion to efficiency… they were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force––nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arriving from the weakness of others” (Conrad,76-77). By this time, empire had reached an adolescence where resource extraction was maintained with diplomacy as much as possible. This one-step removal from a willingness to employ violence allowed breathing room for the propagandists to further the narrative that the empire brought peace and prosperity. Its enforcement could be portrayed as defensive, and its diplomacy as noble.
Perhaps no books had more of an effect on the nature of American empire than Alfred Mahan’s four-part series The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. In it Mahan envisions an empire that rules not by acquiring new lands, but by ruling the seas with trade route control and embargos. In the first volume, Mahan states that “No nation, certainly no great nation, should henceforth maintain the policy of isolation,” adding, “I am frankly an imperialist” (Mahan). This idea informed the American entrance into the Spanish-American war, the event that led to America being “thrust onto the world’s stage”. Ebbing through its final days of colonial power, Spain could no longer fend off the popular uprisings in it Caribbean and pacific holdings. Teddy Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy and a student of Mahan’s, was able to compel McKinley into engaging in war with the Spanish in coordination with the independence movements in the Carribean and the Philippines, this despite McKinley’s supposed statement that, “Before the war with Spain, he could not have told where those darned islands were within two-thousand miles” (Immerwahr, chapter 5). Far from allowing independence for the island nations involved however, the United States maintained control over the Philippines after the war. McKinley didn’t believe that the Filipinos could govern themselves, and to relinquish control of such a vast expanse of the south China Sea seemed to make little economic sense, therefore, McKinley reached into his moral pockets proclaiming that the U.S. would, “…take the Philippines, educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could for them as our fellow men for whom Christ also died” (Immwahr, chapter 5). Throughout this time, The U.S. was involved in suppressing multiple popular uprisings not only in the Philippines, but also in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and throughout South America. Already, the American imperial strategy had begun to materialize. Where they could, American naval powers would control trade routes from the east Pacific to the Atlantic, securing their ability to apply economic pressure on nations that fell out of line. This tactic of economic pressure combined with the Roman “divide et impera” strategy of stoking internal conflicts amonst rival nations can be seen in American foreign policy today. In 1917 when the British Empire invaded Iraq, British major general declared, “Our armies do not come into your cities as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators” (Aronson). This quote was referenced by Dick Cheney during the lead up to the American invasion of Iraq almost one-hundred years later when he said, “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will in fact be greeted as liberators” (Shakir). Despite the circumstances or the nation in power, the lies of imperialism remain shockingly unchanged.
Perhaps the myths of empire best reflect its character. In Heart of Darkness, the dying Kurtz’s final words are “The horror!” as he contemplates his heinous life. If only Kurtz had heard the warning of the company commander, who spoke to Marlow saying, “The conquest of the Earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you loo into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back end of it; not a sentimental pretense, but an idea; an unfinished belief in the idea––something you can set up, bow down before, and offer sacrifice to…” (Conrad, 77). The lies of empire are part and parcel of the practice of ruling and extracting wealth from other nations. The hearts of those within an empire may be peaceful, virtuous, and wise, but the inherent reality of conquest is misery and darkness for the colonized. Only in acknowledging the horror of how far it has fallen from its lofty ideals, can the empire ever truly become what it believes itself to be.
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Immerwahr, Daniel. How to Hide an Empire. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Narrated by Luis Moreno, Audible, Audiobook, 2019, Chapters 3,5.
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Shakir, Faiz. “Cheney Five Years Ago: ‘We Will, In Fact, Be Greeted As Liberators’”. ThinkProgress.org, https://thinkprogress.org/cheney-five-years-ago-we-will-in-fact-be-greeted-as-liberators-4df9079115f8/.