Chinua Achebe was an ardent critic of racist literature produced during colonial times. He grew up reading the stories of European adventurers such as Sir Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad, who were (or wrote as though they were) at the vanguard of Western contact with Africa. Although, as a kid, Achebe was fascinated with these stories, when he grew up and got more educated, he became more sensitive to the problematic nature of these works.
One of the writers which Achebe singled out for his criticism was the Polish writer Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s classic work, ‘The Heart of Darkness,’ Achebe considered particularly dangerous because of its status as a literary classic. Achebe accused Conrad of presenting an inaccurate and extremely biased picture of the encounter between the natives of Africa resident at the banks of the river Congo and the Europeans.
In his essay, ‘Africa’s tarnished name,’ Achebe offered up a competing historical account of this encounter, one that was truer to the facts of what happened. Achebe traced European contact with these people to the inadvertent discovery of the Congo River by Portuguese sailor Diogo Cão, in 1482, some four hundred years before Conrad himself would make the journey. Diogo’s encounters with the natives involved the kidnapping of some of the monks traveling with him, a prisoner exchange with a proud local Congolese monarch, and a subsequent friendship between this monarch and the king of Portugal.
At some point, the Congolese king had to criticize what he took to be excessive brutality within the Portuguese legal system. In his essay on Conrad titled ‘An Image of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,’ Achebe also reveals the important historical detail that the discovery of masks made by people living just north of the Congo River led to the invention of Cubism in Western art.
Achebe contrasts this reality of cultural sophistication and artistic maturation with Conrad’s portrayals that deny the native Africans basic humanity by describing them in animalistic terms. Achebe also found Conrad’s terror at a possible kinship between Africans and Europeans to be very troubling. Achebe saw Conrad, and indeed other Europeans like him, as utilizing Africa as a foil to Europe, as a reminder of Europe’s dark past, and as a cautionary tale of the disturbing potential of reverting to its most primal instincts under certain conditions.
Europe has overcome its primitiveness and is now civilized, but Africa, with its primitive humans, should be a constant reminder of this European progress. Africa was the Dark continent, while Europe represented the Light. The Thames was calm and peaceful, while the Congo was wild. Achebe saw these descriptions and portrayals as insidious misrepresentations of Africa that positioned the Europeans as superior and identified Africans as not just inferior but near animals.
In the same essay, Achebe accuses Conrad of being motivated more by his sense of adventure rather than any allegiance to factual reporting. For Achebe, Conrad needs Africans to be wild and exotic, to satisfy his sense of adventure, hence his willingness to misrepresent the nature of the first encounters between Europeans and Africans. Achebe found enough evidence that Conrad is fascinated with the wild and primitive African while being less interested, or even being out rightly disdainful of Africans who had been shed of their primitiveness by education.
Achebe does not excuse Conrad’s racism on account of it being more acceptable in Conrad’s time. For Achebe, this was because there were contemporaries of Conrad like Dr David Livingstone, who recognized the evil and inhumanity of racism and challenged it and who appreciated the complexity of Africans and accorded them full status as humans. Achebe quotes Livingstone in his essay ‘Africa’s tarnished name‘ thus:
I have found it difficult to come to a conclusion on their [Africans’] character. They sometimes perform remarkably good actions, and sometimes as strangely the opposite… After long observation, I came to the conclusion that they are just a strange mixture of good and evil as men are everywhere else.
He believed that if Dr. Livingstone, who was about forty years older than Conrad, could have such a view of Africans, then Conrad had no excuse for being racist. Achebe’s campaign against racist portrayals in literature was motivated by his desire to reclaim pride for Africans whose reputations had been tarnished by racism. ‘Things Fall Apart,’ just like his historical account of the encounter between the native Congolese living near the Congo and Europeans, offers a competing portrayal of the encounter between Europeans and Africans.
The community of Umuofia had a mature and sophisticated culture. They had a political structure that worked, a practical and effective legislative system, a subsistence economic system suitable to their decentralized political ordering, and rich cultural vestiges like elaborate marriage rites, wrestling contests, music, masquerades, and many more. The individuals are of different personalities and types and hold different philosophies about life.
These characteristics can be found among people all over the world, from Khartoum to London, Brussels to Beijing. The Africans the Europeans encountered were not primitive, near-animals without complexity. Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ achieves the goal of presenting an African society that earns the right to be described as human. For Achebe, the dangerous racism in works like Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ subsequently disqualifies it from its supposed status as great art.
Was Joseph Conrad racist?
Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ features very uncomplimentary portrayals of Africans that denied them full unquestioned status as humans. This clearly makes Conrad racist.
Why did Chinua Achebe consider Joseph Conrad particularly worthy of attack?
For Achebe, Conrad’s status as a great writer means his works have a wider reach and are allowed access to areas where his dangerous ideas would be allowed to contaminate and fester.
Does Chinua Achebe consider Joseph Conrad a great writer?
Chinua Achebe concedes that Joseph Conrad is a great stylist but that his racism disqualifies him from consideration of being regarded as a great writer.