A Seaman’s Review of “ Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

by Capt.Alpertunga Anıker - published on 7 December 2022 453 -

The writer, whose full name is Josef Konrad Korzeniowski, but known by the literary world as Joseph Conrad, was born in 1857 in the Ukrainian town of Berdychiv to a Polish mother and father. This region was once included in the territory of the Kingdom of Poland. Conrad's father, Apollo Korzeniowski, whose origins are based in a Polish noble family, was a writer, translator and political activist.

Apollo Korzeniowski advocated the abolition of slavery and land reform, as well as supporting the political struggle for the reintegration of this region, which was under the rule of Russia at that time, to Poland. Eventually, he was exiled to a region where living conditions were extremely difficult due to its cold climate. A year later, the conditions were eased a little and they were allowed to settle in the north of Ukraine. Due to the severe exile conditions, Conrad lost his mother at the age of 8 and his father at the age of 11 due to tuberculosis. When his father died, the family was living in Krakow, Poland.

His father tried to take as active an interest as he could in Conrad's education . It was at this time , at the age of thirteen, under the influence of the books he had read about the sea, especially Viktor Hugo's novel “The Toilers of the Sea “ that he decided to become a sailor. He moved to a British shipping company and became a British citizen. After quitting his career at sea in 1894, he devoted himself entirely to writing.

Conrad never forgot that he was a Pole, and a sense of regret followed him throughout his life for choosing to become an immigrant instead of continuing his father's political struggle.

He wrote his novels and stories in English although it was not his mother tongue. While this was perhaps a disadvantage for him at first, he later managed to turn it into an interesting stylistic feature.

Most of his books deal with stories about the sea and sailors with original observations and views of colonialism and imperialism in the background. Their heroes are usually seafarers with their complex inner worlds, who are desperate, rough, and trying to exist in a world where change is not possible, and often faltering. . Conrad is considered one of the pioneers of modernism, partly because of these characteristics of his heroes.

Joseph Conrad wrote the novel Heart of Darkness in 1899. The hero of the novel, Captain Charles Marlow, describes the sailors around him on the sailboat Nellie, anchored at the mouth of the Thames and waiting for the tide, the events that happened on the ship he had worked for on an African river. In this introductory part of the novel, the narrator describes the captain of the ship Nellie with the following words:

“….The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom. Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea. Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns—and even convictions.……”

One of the outstanding phrases of this section “….He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified….” is often quoted by us, the maritime pilots all over the world in various contexts.

Marlow is an experienced former sailor who is curious to tell what happened to him. While the narrator draws us a short portrait of Marlow at this point, he also emphasizes some similar characteristics of sailors:

“….He was the only man of us who still “followed the sea.” The worst that could be said of him was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too, while most seamen lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life. Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them—the ship; and so is their country—the sea. One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. In the immutability of their surroundings, the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance; for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as destiny…..”

In his story about his past, Marlow is appointed as the master of a Belgian shipping company's river ship operating on one of the African continent's rivers.

Although Conrad did not refer to this African country and river in his work, the first thing that comes to mind is Congo , and the Congo river which was a Belgian colony at that time. The stations established by the shipping company along the river are used to store and transport the ivory cargo collected from various parts of the country.

Some Book Covers of “Heart of Darkness”
Some Book Covers of “Heart of Darkness”
Some Book Covers of “Heart of Darkness”
Some Book Covers of “Heart of Darkness”

Those who served here were usually European company officials and African slaves who served them. In these chapters , Conrad depicts the selfishness and contempt of the European colonists in vivid descriptions with a particular focus on the ordeal and misery of the chained African slaves.

“……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 arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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 look into it too much……"

“…….Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight somewhere…..”

Marlow began to hear a lot about an official named Kurtz, one of the employees of the company. Kurtz is a mysterious person who excels in his unmatched ability to procure ivory from the interior regions where the river runs towards the mainland. However, since he has not been heard from for a while, Marlow, along with the company representative, takes some European officials and locals under his command, and sets off on a journey along the river to the inner regions. While describing the details of this journey, Marlow depicts the wild nature, covered with dense forests along the river, where humid, misty , and inexorable heat prevails, as a creature that silently watches and senses in the darkness:

“….The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free…."

“….. The woods were unmoved, like a mask—heavy, like the closed door of a prison—they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence….”

Captain Marlow and his companions arrive at Kurtz's territory after a grueling journey, where they are also attacked by the natives. This is a very strange, frightening place. Kurtz lives and reigns like a cult leader in this strange village, where traces of death are everywhere, with locals who worship him with devotion to the death around him. The cut, drying skulls on the piles erected just outside the cave where he lived are positioned to face the door of the cave. It is unclear whether the victims were their own men or warriors of an enemy tribe they were punishing. Kurtz's transformation as a well-educated, successful manager from a well-known family in England pushes the limits of his mind. However, his strange charisma, which casts a spell on the people around him with his culture, effective speech and persuasive power, also affects Marlow. Kurtz gave Marlow the impression of an animal-like human being who had thrown off the polish of civilization and returned to his wild essence . However, Kurtz is very sick and is carried to the ship on a stretcher. Here, Marlow vaguely draws a contrast between the European colonists he sails with and Kurtz. In fact, they are all in the business of plundering the riches of a continent, enslaving its people. But with one important difference:

Kurtz, like the others, does not hide this brutal exploitation hypocritically behind the apparent aims and ideals of bringing European civilization to Africa and inviting the savages to the true religion. He does this by giving real meaning to what he is doing, perhaps by tearing the millennium-year-old veneer of civilization on man's millions of years of adventure on earth, and returning to his wild nature. At this point, he is much more sincere and genuine than the others.

Kurtz dies on the ship on the return voyage, and his last words are “…horror the horror…” , It is like a confession of what they have done and caused.

The heart beating in the dark, the nature watching us silently, is the universe outside us that will have the last word over all the futile human endeavors.

The person who rudely clings to his privacy eventually opens the door to the abyss hidden within himself and finds himself at the bottom of it.

“..…Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core......“

It seems that, especially these parts of the book are like an early warning for today’ world, where climate change and the eco-system are talked about a lot, and the book conveys extremely up-to-date messages in this respect.

“Heart of Darkness” and the Movie “Apocalypse Now”

The screenplay of the 1979 film “ Apocalypse now ” directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, is an adaptation of this important novel by Joseph Conrad.

The Congo and the Congo river, which is the subject of the novel, have been replaced by Vietnam and the Nung river . In the film, as in the novel, the same imperialism makes itself felt in all its brutality in the background.

Some Scenes from the Movie
Some Scenes from the Movie
Some Scenes from the Movie
Some Scenes from the Movie
Lieutenant Benjamin L.Willard, played by Martin Sheen, is tasked by the high command to find and neutralize Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who is fighting the North Vietnamese with some extraordinary methods, along with local elements who adore him.
Francis Ford Coppola on the Film Set with his Crew
Francis Ford Coppola on the Film Set with his Crew
Francis Ford Coppola on the Film Set with his Crew
Francis Ford Coppola on the Film Set with his Crew

Marlon Brando played an unforgettable role as Kurtz in the movie. Again, in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall, destroys an innocent Vietnamese village, where mostly old people, women and children live, with napalm bombs dropped by the helicopter fleet he commands. It is one of the most memorable scenes of the movie that the helicopter fleet performs this massacre, accompanied by the famous music of the great

German composer Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries” and it can be said that it is a contemporary reference to the civilized barbarians that Conrad mentioned a lot in his work.

Apocalypse Now, which has been named as one of the ten most important films of the 20th century by many film critics, was selected as one of the most "culturally, historically and aesthetically important" films by the Library of Congress in 2000 and deemed worthy of preservation in the US National Film Registry.

Capt. Alpertunga Anıker

Editor's note:
Opinion pieces reflect the personal opinion of individual authors. They do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about a prevailing opinion in the respective editorial department. Opinion pieces might be deliberately formulated in a pronounced or even explicit tone and may contain biased arguments. They might be intended to polarise and stimulate discussion. In this, they deliberately differ from the factual articles you typically find on this platform, written to present facts and opinions in as balanced a manner as possible.

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Mykyta Kontsevyi Ukraine
on 17 December 2022, 22:01 UTC

Oh! Thank you! I’m from Ukraine and Berdychiv it’s really ukrainian city now! But I’ve never heard about this author! Thank you, I will definitely learn more about him.

Marine Pilot Bozhidar Dobrev Varna Pilot Station, Bulgaria
on 8 December 2022, 21:03 UTC

Who is that man? That man began as a deckhand without any english word in mind and distingush as a captain on board of British ships and after that he becoms a classic marine British writter, known over the World. My great respect!


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