Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (2005)

In all of human experience there was no precedent for such a campaign. (p.97)

Executive summary

The abolition of slavery took place in two parts:

  1. abolishing the slave trade (1807)
  2. abolishing slavery itself (1834)

1. Abolishing the slave trade 

After a whole century when anybody suggesting that African slavery be banned would have been considered a mad eccentric, the issue suddenly exploded into public consciousness in the years 1788 to 1793 when there was an extraordinary eruption of pamphlets, articles, petitions from every town and city in Britain, plays and polemics and debates in parliament, calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

It suddenly became the topic of the day and Hochschild is able to quote diarists and letter writers saying how heartily sick they are of every single dinner party or coffee house conversation being about nothing but abolitionism.

And then, just is the cause of abolition had become so unstoppable that it seemed poised to succeed in Parliament, the French Revolution broke out which led to two major events which set back the cause of abolition by a decade:

  1. The outbreak of the largest slave rebellion anywhere, in the French sugar colony of St Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in November 1791. This is a long story, in which both the French and the British sent armies which were eventually defeated or, more accurately, abandoned the war in the face of deaths from tropical sickness and the slaves’ successful guerrilla tactics. But reports of the brutality on both sides of the conflict had undermined the image which abolitionists tried to foster, of slaves as helpless, saintly victims.
  2. The French revolutionaries executed Louis XVI in January 1793 and declared war on Britain in February 1793. War always halts reforms. A nationwide outburst of patriotism was accompanied by repressive laws banning seditious writings and political meetings. Abolitionism became ‘tainted’ by association with some of the wilder English Jacobins, who included it in general calls to overthrow the monarchy, the House of Lords, please for universal male suffrage and so on.

The movement which might have led to the end of the slave trade in just four or five years from its inception in 1788, because of the interruption of the French revolutionary wars, ended up taking nearer to 20 years.

The movements’s representative in parliament, the short, correct and conservative MP William Wilberforce, introduced an abolition bill into each new sitting of parliament from 1788 onwards, but they were always swamped by the pressing urgency of measures to deal with the war and the eruption of other crises throughout the British Empire.

It was only after the Peace of Amiens of 1802 led to a pause in the war with France, that the abolitionists were able to rally. Although war with France resumed in 1803, a new burst of campaigningy led to the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It became forbidden for British ships to carry slaves. Soon the Royal Navy was instructed to stop all ships carrying slaves of whatever nation, and confiscate them.

2. Abolishing slavery

There was then a long lull as Britain focused its energies on defeating Napoleon, first in 1814, then all over again in 1815 after he escaped from St Helena. The period 1815 to 1820 was characterised by immense social unrest in Britain caused by the mass unemployment of huge numbers of men who’d been serving in the army and navy simply being dumped back on the market, and also the social disruption of the industrial revolution.

The government responded with a whole series of repressive measures. Paul Foot’s biography of the poet Percy Shelley is a surprisingly thorough account of the repressive laws enacted during this period, as well as a doleful record of the many working class activists who were arrested, convicted, hanged or shipped off to the new penal colony in Australia.

It was only in the 1820s with a new government in place, with better harvests damping down rural protest, with working people finding more work, that the sense of crisis eased, and a new wave of young abolitionists took up the struggle, this time to abolish slavery altogether.

In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London, its members including Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton with the women Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.

The most interesting aspect of the story, in Hochschild’s telling, is that most of the running of this second phase was made by the women. William Wilberforce was still there in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was still the great collector of facts and information. The Quaker networks provided the basis of publicity and campaigning. But they all took a cautious, gradualist approach. By contrast, a number of the women and women’s groups pressed for immediate abolition. Most notable was Elizabeth Heyrick.

During the 1790s the first generation of abolitionists had organised a sugar boycott i.e. they stopped buying and using sugar. Heyrick went one further and went to grocers shops asking them not to stock it at all.

Again the cause became entangled with a much bigger issue – in the 1790s it had been the French Revolution, in the late 1820s it was the titanic struggle to pass the Reform Act of 1832 to reform Britain’s ludicrously out-of-date electoral system.

Abolitionists realised this was their cause too, and put their energy into this struggle, and it was only after a reformed parliament had been elected in 1833, that direct campaigning for abolition continued and almost immediately was a success.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire BUT even then, it was in two phases: as of 1834 only slaves below the age of six were freed, all adult slaves had to continue working for their masters as ‘apprentices’.

Full and complete abolition – i.e. full and complete emancipation of all British slaves – had to wait until midnight on 1 August 1838. Hochschild amply describes the celebrations.


Bury the Chains

This is a long, detailed, very readable and profoundly moving account of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain.

Some of Hochschild’s most interesting points are made in the introduction, namely:

  1. In the 1780s, when the abolition movement got going, not just African slaves but maybe as many as three quarters of the world’s population was unfree.
  2. The abolition movement was the first mass civil society movement, not the product of a particular class or particular special interest group or trade – it joined all classes, all genders, all ages and all occupations across all the regions of Britain (‘Something new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilisation of public opinion across the class spectrum.’ p.138)
  3. It was the first such campaign in human history that was not motivated by self-interest; none of the campaigners stood to gain anything and they, and the British population as a whole, stood to lose out economically – but nonetheless the righteousness of the cause outweighed self-interest.
  4. The abolition movement invented, or brought to perfection, a whole range of campaigning tactics which are still used around the world.

An unfree world

The first stirrings of the abolitionist movement occurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), around 1780. This is where Hochschild begins his narrative (although some strands require stepping back a bit in time to explain the background and development of slavery, and of specific elements in the story, such as a brief history of the Quakers.)

Anyway, I found it riveting that the first few pages are devoted to explaining that most human beings in the world at that age, in 1780, were not free.

When native Americans fought each other they often took captives prisoner as slaves. The Aztec and Inca empires had seized conquered peoples as slaves. Then the Spanish turned the entire population into peons to work for their European masters. But slavery was widespread in African kingdoms, too, and existed long before the Europeans touched the coast in the late 1400s.

For centuries before that there had been a) a slave trade taking African slaves north to serve in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, and particularly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and b) victorious African rulers routinely enslaved their defeated enemies.

The condition of slavery, selling of slaves, slave trails and slave entrepots were established well before the Europeans arrived.

The enormous landmass of Russia was characterised by serfhood where illiterate peasants were tied to land, and bought and sold along with it. In most of the rest of Europe illiterate peasants were similarly virtually the property of their lords and masters. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of people were in outright slavery (‘tens of millions’, p.2), while tens of millions more lived in a form of debt bondage which tied them to specific owners.

Hochschild doesn’t mention China, but millions of Chinese peasants lived in various forms of servitude.

Even in the most ‘civilised’ parts of Western Europe and north America, there was a deeply engrained social hierarchy, by which everyone deferred to those above them, and the aristocracy and landowners could use, whip, beat, punish and abuse their servants and staff, almost at will.

It is chastening, sobering, terrifying to read Hochschild’s convincing account of how most people for most of the past, have not been free. Count your blessings.

18th century violence

Not only were most people either not-free, or lower down the pecking order of deferentiality, but the 18th century world was one of quite staggering brutality. When you don’t know much you sort of think that the disgusting brutality meted out to slaves was uniquely bestial. But violence of every sort existed quite freely far beyond the slave world. Ordinary men and women could be punished for simple misdemeanours with public whipping or even the death penalty. As James Walvin’s book on slavery highlights, and as Hochschild repeats, deaths among the crew members of slave ships were, proportionately higher than deaths among the slaves.

And then there was the British tradition of press-ganging. Any halfway fit man walking the streets of London, Portsmouth, Bristol and any other major port city was liable to be bought drinks till he was legless, or simply seized by the notorious press gangs, carted off to serve on a slave or Royal Navy ship, for years at a time, with no legal redress.

Alan Taylor, in  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, describes some atrocity happening in the 1700s and ironically remarks, ‘all this took place in the supposed “Age of Enlightenment”‘.

But the whole point of the Age of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement to try and reform a fundamentally brutal, backward, obscurantist and reactionary society. It was light amid darkness, profound darkness. Of course the Age of Enlightenment was often brutal; that’s precisely what the relatively small number of philosophers, thinkers, poets, writers, artists and enlightened citizens were struggling against.

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789)

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789), according to Hochschild, the first painting depicting the slave trade

The Quakers

This makes Britain’s 20,000 Quakers stand out all the more remarkably from all the other social and belief systems of the Western world. For the Quakers believed that all people are equal – and put their belief into practice. They didn’t use any linguistic forms of deference, refused to say Mr or Sir or Your worship, insisted on only saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ since these were the non-deferential versions. They refused to fight in wars. They refused to take vows to any monarch or magistrate. They insisted their only allegiance was to God the Creator of All. (p.107)

And they believed not only that all men, but that all people are equal. Thus, with ramrod logic, Quakers were the only one of the countless religious denominations anywhere in the New World who spoke out against slavery in the 18th century. They refused to own slaves. If they came into possession of slaves through land deals, they promptly liberated their slaves and, in some cases, Hochschild says, paid them compensation.

Compare and contrast with the Church of England which not only failed in its duty to speak out against slavery, but was itself a large owner of slaves through various companies and committees, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Among other properties the Church owned the Codrington estate, the second largest slave estate on Jamaica. On the governing board of the Society for the Propagation etc, and therefore aware of their slave profits, were the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All slaves working for the Society had the word SOCIETY branded into their chests with a red hot iron. Disgusting, eh?

It was Quakers who, in 1783, set up the first committee to lobby for the end of slavery. They got nowhere because they were ignored as cranks. It was only when Anglican luminaries came on board that the powers that be were inclined to listen. The most important was the Divinity student Thomas Clarkson, who, at the age of 25, underwent what amounted to a religious conversion, deciding to devote his life to the abolitionist cause.

Still, it was symptomatic that when a new committee for abolition was formed in 1787, nine of the twelve members were Quakers.

Thomas Clarkson

For Hochschild the central character of the entire story is Thomas Clarkson, 6 feet tall, red haired, who was converted to the evils of slavery aged 25 and became an indefatigable campaigner and investigator.

It was the investigations that mattered. In London, Bristol and Liverpool Clarkson spent months befriending slave ship captains, crews and merchants (where possible – many became firm enemies; on more than one occasion Clarkson’s life was threatened). He visited all the main posts gathering eye witness accounts of the brutality of the trade.

Using figures freely available from the authorities of the slave ports, Clarkson assembled statistics showing the appalling loss of life among the white crews of slave ships. As a proportion, more white sailors died on a slave journey, than slaves.

His aim was to refute one of the central the pro-slavery arguments, that the crews of slave ships provided a kind of rough apprenticeship for the Royal Navy. On the contrary, Thompson proved that most slave ship crews were press ganged, desperate to flee the ships, and only kept in place by punishments every bit as savage as those meted out to the slaves. He assembled copious testimony testifying to the way white sailors were flogged, sometimes to death, put in chains, tied to the deck or thrown into tiny spaces belowships, and died like flies on these long voyages.

Clarkson aimed to assemble the broadest possible case, showing that the slave trade degraded and brutalised everyone who came in touch with it. When he came across ship’s chandlers in Bristol or Liverpool openly selling chains, shackles and thumbscrews – implements of torture – he bought them as exhibits to show on his lecture tours, he sent accounts of them to the Times and to Parliament.

All this testimony and equipment, all the statistics existed and were publicly available, but nobody had ever set out to assemble all the evidence, to buy and display the implements of torture, to assemble all the statistic, to do the basic investigative groundwork which could then be recycled into articles, pamphlets, books and speeches.

Clarkson and colleagues listed the negative arguments against slavery, but also tried to formulate arguments emphasising the positive results that would stem from ending it.

One of these was the attempt to prove that free trade with African nations and peoples would yield larger profits than slavery; that the slave trade was not only morally reprehensible, degrading, lethal to ships crews, but that it was preventing the development of more profitable free trade with African countries.

To prove his point, on his visits to the slave ports, Clarkson came across products from Africa and began collecting them into what became known as ‘Clarkson’s box’. These included carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers.

Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that went to produce many of the items and used them to refute the notion that blacks were savages, little more than animals. Quite clearly they were not, they were craftsmen and women of great skill. The idea that such imaginative and talented designers and craftsmen could be kidnapped and enslaved was horrifying.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Campaign tactics

How did the abolitionists achieve all this?

It’s a long story which first of all requires a good sense of the nature of British society in the 1770s and 1780s, which is why it takes a book to tell how various strands of social, religious and moral thought came together.

But Hochschild also points out how the abolitionists pioneered campaigning techniques which have endured to this day:

  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • lecture tours
  • investigative journalism designed to stir people to action
  • books and book tours
  • mass petitions
  • targeting individual MPs
  • lobbying parliament
  • organising boycotts of sugar

Hochschild devotes a couple of pages to the origin of one of the most powerful icons of the movement and what he calls ‘one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time’.

The chairman of an abolitionist branch Clarkson had set up in Plymouth sent Clarkson a diagram of the slave ship Brooks which he had come across at the owners’ offices. It showed the optimal way to cram the ship full of African slaves. Clarkson seized on the diagram’s importance and worked with the committee’s publisher and designer to expand and fine tune it.

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

The slave packing diagram quickly began appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets. The abolitionists and thousands of other supporters around the country hung it on their walls as a constant reminder. To this day it has the power to harrow and shock.

Morality trumped self interest

The British decision to abolish slavery was taken against the economic interest of Britain.

Not only this, but many communities and economic sectors which stood to be specifically damaged by the decision, nonetheless supported abolition. Towns whose wealth was based on slave imports nonethless produced lengthy petitions against slavery. It was, therefore, a decision taken on moral and religious principles, and these trumped economic self interest.

Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 per cent of their annual national income over more than a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid. (p.5)

Why 1788?

Hochschild lists the precursors, describes the events leading up to the formation of the abolition committee and gives accounts of the personal conversions to anti-slavery of key personnel. But it might still have remained an eccentric fringe group. Why did the cause suddenly catch fire, and become a country-wide phenomenon in 1788-89?

In 1780, if you had suggested banning slavery, everyone would have thought you were mad. Nobody discussed it, it didn’t appear in newspapers, magazines, parliamentary debates or coffee house conversations.

By 1788 Britain was aflood with a tsunami of anti-slavery propaganda. Petitions flooded Parliament as never before, thirteen thousand signed one in Glasgow, 20,000 one in Manchester; books and pamphlets flooded from the press, lectures and sermons were given about it, newspaper and magazine articles poured forth – it was everywhere, the burning topic of conversation, it was like the Brexit of its day.

But why? Why did the campaign to abolish slavery spread like wildfire and unite all classes, regions, towns and cities so suddenly? And why in Britain and Britain only? After all, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Sweden all owned colonies in north or south America which employed large numbers of slaves. There was no movement to abolish slavery in any of those six other European nations. Why not?

Hochschild gives a list of secondary causes, before he unleashes what he thinks is the prime and main cause (pp. 213-225).

The secondary causes amount to a thorough profile of British late-eighteenth century society and indicators of it economic, technological, social and political advancement beyond all its European neighbours.

  • massive investment in well-kept toll roads which made widespread travel easier in Britain than anywhere else in Europe
  • the world’s best postal service
  • more newspapers than any other country, and more provincial newspapers which passed on developments and debates in the capital to the remotest provinces
  • the coffeehouse, a British institution in every city and town, which had up to date copies of all the magazines and newspapers, and where news and issues of the day could be debated
  • more than half the population of Britain was literate because Protestantism insists that each individual can read the Bible in their own language
  • libraries in every town and city, with over a hundred in London alone
  • well over a thousand bookstores, which often offered hsopitality while you sat and read
  • no censorship; anyone could set up a printing press and publish what they liked compare with, for example, the 178 censors who censored everything written in France before it was published
  • debating societies which became widespread during the 1770s

So although fewer than 5% of the population could vote, an extraordinary number of people knew what was being debated and discussed by parliament, read and understood the issues of the day, and created a ‘public opinion’ which couldn’t be ignored by the country’s rulers.

  • The rule of law. Unlike most continental nations, Britain had age-old common law which had been continually influenced and modified by trial by a jury. Obviously the law was weighted towards the rich, towards aristocrats and landowners. But in theory at least, a labourer could take a lord to court and win. After the Somerset case of 1772, the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp helped a number of slaves take their masters to court – and won.

These are all mighty fine aspects of British society circa 1790, but none of these by themselves amount to a sufficient cause.

The primary cause, Hochschild thinks, is the uniquely British institution of press-ganging.

He gives four or five pages describing in some detail the mind-blowing examples of the powers of the press gang to kidnap any man whatsoever between about 14 and 40 and whisk them off to a life of brutally hard work and vicious discipline aboard the Royal Navy’s vast fleet.

Grooms could be kidnapped at the altar, in front of bride, vicar and congregation, and whisked off. Some gangs were so large they fought pitched battles with customs officials or soldiers. The pages he devotes to press-ganging are quite an eye-opener.

But his point is that many Britons had experienced, or knew of, a form of slavery themselves; knew an institution whereby perfectly free young men could be kidnapped and sold into a life little better than slavery, subject to appallingly brutal punishments, with a fair certainty of death from disease, rotten food or combat.

Alongside all its positive aspects, British society also contained this brutal institution – and it had led over the decades to a widespread sense of grievance and resentment. It was this feeling (among others) which the abolitionists were able to tap into.

Personally, I find this theory a bit far-fetched. I would have thought there were several other social trends which Hochschild mentions elsewhere but not in his list of causes, which were far more important than press-ganging.

Chief among these would be the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, which led to the rise of non-conformist sects, chief among them the Methodists. This movement converted people rich and poor to the belief that society at large only paid lip service to Christian values, and that individuals really had to experience the grace of God for themselves to be born again into a purer, more devout, more moral Christian life.

It was to these newly awakened consciences that much abolitionist propaganda appealed, and it is notable that non-conformists – building on the heroic work of the Quakers – were at the forefront of disseminating and spreading the movement.

Fascinating and eminently readable though his book is, I don’t think Hochschild quite drills down into the immense spirituality and religiosity of the era, and how that influenced every thought and feeling of millions and millions of Brits.

Summary

This is an absolutely vast subject, because the campaign, in total, stretched across fifty years, and was hugely affected by two great historical events: the French Revolution and the twenty years war it led to; and then the immense struggle to pass the 1832 Reform Act – not to mention acknowledging the huge social changes caused by the industrial revolution which was trundling along in the background throughout the period.

Vast as it is, this really brilliant book probably comes as close to doing the subject matter justice as one volume can.

Despite the horror of much of the content, Bury the Chains manages somehow to be a humane and uplifting story, because it shows how evil can be conquered, and it shows how even when a wicked system or institution is in place, millions and millions of good-hearted people can rise above their own self interest to organise and work for its overthrow. And succeed.

The British are often damned for perfecting the Atlantic slave trade and making vast fortunes from it. But they should also be praised for rising up in their millions and forcing their government to change its policies and then to spend a lot of money policing the seas to try and eradicate this truly evil trade.


Related links

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Other posts about slavery / American history

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness was published in three monthly instalments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in February, March and April of 1899. (The Victorian Web has an essay describing the other articles which Heart of Darkness appeared among.) The final text was still divided into three equal sections when it was published in book form in 1902.

Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and as such can be approached from scores of different angles, interpreted in countless ways.

In line with my earlier comments about Conrad, I think its success is partly because, in the horrific facts of the Belgian Congo which he experienced on his 1890 trip up the river, Conrad found external realities which, for once, justified the extremity of his nihilistic worldview and the exorbitance of his style.

The Congo really was a vast immensity of suffering and pain. When he uses his almost hysterical language about Almayer’s daughter abandoning him, or Willems’s native mistress seeing through him, or Hervey’s wife leaving him, Conrad’s lexicon and syntax seem overwrought, hyperbolic. In King Leopold’s Congo there really was a subject which justified the obsessive use of words like ‘horror’, ‘suffering’, ‘immense anguish’ and so on.

Frame device

In Youth Conrad invents the frame device of the group of five mature men of the world sitting around smoking after-dinner cigars while one of them, Marlow, sets off to tell a long yarn.

Having come across this device in Youth Conrad immediately reused it for House of Darkness. Precisely the same five good fellows who we met in Youth are aboard the yacht Nellie, moored in the Thames at dusk, as Marlow recounts the story of his trip up the  Congo.

So the book has two narrators: the anonymous one who describes the ‘we’, the five chaps; and then, via his narrative, we hear Marlow’s story – a story within a story.

Matching the tale to the teller, and creating subtle ironies between the actual events and the way they are told, are devices as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, older. Thus, once Marlow finishes his story, the narrator returns for the concluding paragraphs, to describe the haunting final vision of the darkness of the Thames after sunset, when the full repercussions of Marlow’s story sink in.

The frame device:

  • guarantees a happy ending – we know that Marlow returned alive
  • guarantees a kind of sanity – periodically, when Marlow’s story rises to heights of absurdity or psychological stress, the narrator reminds us of the calm, bourgeois, urban setting the tale is being told in:

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame.

  • above all, it replaces suspense – what happened? – with reflection – what does it mean? It legitimises the way Marlow frequently stops the tale to ponder the meaning of his experiences, or stops to tell his audience how he’s struggling to convey the feelings he experienced – something that would be harder for an omniscient narrator to do.

Plot

Marlow takes a commission from a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo to find one Mr Kurtz, a prize ivory trader. Before he’s even set foot in Africa he sees signs of the greed and folly of the European imperial mission to Africa – ta lone warship pointlessly firing cannon randomly into the jungle – and as soon as he arrives at the first station up-river he finds the building of the so-called railway a shambles where Africans are chained like slaves and worked to death.

When Marlow reaches the legendary Kurtz he finds he has sunk into horrific barbarity, savagely marauding through neighbouring country, killing natives and stealing their ivory, his campong lined by stakes on which are impaled human heads.

The young idealist Kurtz had written an eloquent pamphlet on how to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Across the bottom the older, degraded Kurtz has scrawled, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Kurtz is a symbol of the hypocritical cruelty and absurd folly of imperial enterprises. Marlow gets his native bearers to carry the sick and dying Kurtz onto his steamer, turns around and heads for the coast. Kurtz dies onboard and his last words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – have become classic, referenced by T.S. Eliot, the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now‘, I’ve seen them on t-shirts.

Not British

Although Conrad doesn’t name the colonial power, he gives broad enough hints that it was Belgium. The Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, who modern historians nowadays place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot as one of the great modern mass murderers of all time, with an estimated 8-10 million Africans dying in the Congo as a direct result of the slavery he instituted during his reign (1885-1908).

But the point is – it isn’t British. This genocidal regime wasn’t British. Conrad was anxious about how his blistering critique of Imperialism would be received in his new home, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Later the same year Heart of Darkness was published, in October 1899, the Boer War broke out and whipped the country into a furore of Imperialist jingoism. Conrad knew it was impossible to criticise the British Empire, and he certainly goes out of his way in the opening pages to emphasise that he is NOT talking about the British Empire, and that the British Empire is qualitatively different from the imperial folly he attributes to Belgium.

‘On one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…’

What’s more, the opening pages contain a great and deliberate hymn to the history and integrity of the British Empire.

I wonder what obligation Conrad felt under to clarify that, although he appeared to be saying that all empires are hypocritical, rapacious follies… he in fact meant, all empires except your empire of course, chaps.

‘The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’

Furthermore, at a few key moments in the story, the English auditors interrupt the story to object to Marlow’s tone and implications.

These interruptions mark the boundaries, indicating not so much to the fictional audience but to us, the readers, that even Marlow’s overflowing style and withering irony has limits, is safely contained. That Conrad knows where the borders of taste are and is policing them:

‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for –  what is it? half-a-crown a tumble – ‘
‘”Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘”I beg your pardon,” [said Marlow]

Style

Because the bulk of the narration is meant to be spoken by Marlow, an Englishman telling his story to other Englishmen, Conrad is forced to rein in his style.

Much more of the narrative deals with facts, factually conveyed, than in his earlier texts such as the lyrical Youth, the first Marlow text.

Coming fresh from reading Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Karain, the style of Darkness seems mercifully sober and controlled.

But coming from outside Conradworld, to most ordinary readers the style will still seem extraordinarily florid, with long descriptive passages larded with lush adjectives, and Marlow’s comments on his experiences forever tending to the same nihilism and fatalism which drenched the narratives of Almayer, Outcast, Karain, Lagoon and The Return.

There include the liberal use of triplets –

‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’

The long sentences which use multiple sub-clauses to repeat and amplify the message of despair.

Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

And the endlessly creative ways he finds to express the same underlying mood of despair:

…my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.

…in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.

A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

…a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river, – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The pattern itself

There are insights to be had about the role of women – about the contrast between the savage woman of the jungle and the white purity of Kurtz’s Intended who Marlow visits back in Brussels and whose innocent, naive love for Kurtz he is compelled to preserve.

There’s also a lot to write about the concept of the Voice – Marlow experiences Kurtz as predominantly a fluent, deep, authoritative voice – but then Marlow himself becomes nothing but a voice on the deck of the unlit yawl – the two are ironically yoked together.

Books can and have been written about Conrad’s racism, his fundamentally insulting opinion of Africans or ‘savages’ etc.

In all three ‘issues’ or themes or motifs (and in a host of others) Conrad deliberately creates multiple ironies, multiple systems of comparison and contrast. But however easily these patterns can be reduced to feminist or post-colonial or post-structuralist formulas, rewritten to support early 21st century political correctness, I also regard the patterning of the text as almost abstract, as an end in itself which can be enjoyed for itself.

The repetition of key words and phrases – the repetition of leading motifs – the multiple ironies i.e. the ubiquitous techniques of doubling and comparison – because they are expressed in words are susceptible of logical interpretation. But I suggest they can also be seen as abstract designs, comparable to the Japanese designs so appreciated by contemporary Aesthetes – or to the new languid style of Art Nouveau, the delicate intertwining of tracery meant to be enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more.

I think of the turn to patterning of a painter like Edward Burne-Jones who, in his final years, acquired a symbolist depth. His later paintings are full of grey-eyed women in increasingly abstract patterns or designs.

Symbolist poetry and painting was the new thing in the 1890s, paintings and poetry full of shimmering surfaces to be appreciated for their own beauty, without any straining after meaning. Like the intricate line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley where the style is much more important than the ‘subject matter’; or the ‘impressionist’ music of Claude Debussy.

Conrad hints as much in an oft-quoted passage right at the start, where the anonymous narrator is setting the scene and introducing Marlow:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In 1917 Conrad wrote prefaces to a new edition of his works, and wrote the following about Heart of Darkness, explicitly comparing it not to a tract, a fiction, even to a painting, but to music:

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only a little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre tone had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

In my opinion, you can write whole books about Conrad and Women, Conrad and Empire, Conrad and Race, and these will be interesting investigations, but all these approaches can (should?) be subsumed by a sensitive, receptive appreciation of the multiply-layered phrasing, of the styling and patterning of motifs and rhythms, tones and colours, words and clauses, sentences and paragraphs, of his grandiloquent and haunted prose style.

To appreciate it like a work of art or the intricate patterning of an exquisite piece of music. To penetrate to a deeper appreciation of the sheer sensual pleasure of this extraordinary text.


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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