It is a great irony of history and geography that Africa, whose land mass is closer than any other to the mainland of Europe, should come to occupy in European psychological disposition the farthest point of otherness, should indeed become Europe's very antithesis. The French-African poet and statesman Leopold Sedar Senghor, in full awareness of this paradox, chose to celebrate that problematic proximity in a poem, "Prayer to Masks," with the startling imagery of one of nature's most profound instances of closeness: "joined together at the navel." And why not? After all, the shores of northern Africa and southern Europe enclose, like two cupped hands, the waters of the world's most famous sea, perceived by the ancients as the very heart and center of the world. Senghor's metaphor would have been better appreciated in the days of ancient Egypt and Greece than today.
History aside, geography has its own kind of lesson in paradox for us. This lesson, which was probably lost on everyone else except those of us living in West Africa in the last days of the British Raj, was the ridiculous fact of longitudinal equality between London, mighty imperial metropolis, and Accra, rude rebel camp of colonial insurrection -- so that, their unequal stations in life notwithstanding, they were bisected by the same Greenwich meridian and thus doomed together to the same time of day!
But longitude is not all there is in life. There is also latitude, which gives London and Accra very different experiences of midday temperature, for example, and perhaps gave their inhabitants over past eons of time radically different complexions. So differences are there, if those are what one is looking for. But there is no way in which such differences as do exist could satisfactorily explain the profound perception of alienness that Africa has come to represent for Europe.
This perception problem is not in its origin a result of ignorance, as we are sometimes inclined to think. At least it is not ignorance entirely, or even primarily. It was in general a deliberate invention devised to facilitate two gigantic, historical events: the Atlantic slave trade and the colonization of Africa by Europe, the second event following closely on the heels of the first, and the two together stretching across almost half a millennium from about A.D. 1500. In an important and authoritative study of this invention, two American scholars, Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, show how the content of British writing about Africa changed dramatically at the height of the slave trade in the eighteenth century and
... shifted from almost indifferent and matter-of-fact reports of what the voyagers had seen to judgmental evaluation of the Africans.... The shift to such pejorative comment was due in large measure to the effects of the slave trade. A vested interest in the slave trade produced a literature of devaluation, and since the slave trade was under attack, the most derogatory writing about Africa came from its literary defenders. Dalzel, for instance, prefaced his work with an apologia for slavery: "Whatever evils the slave trade may be attended with ... it is mercy ... to poor wretches, who ... would otherwise suffer from the butcher's knife." Numerous proslavery tracts appeared, all intent upon showing the immorality and degradation of Africans ... Enslavement of such a degraded people was thus not only justifiable but even desirable. The character of Africans could change only for the better through contact with their European masters. Slavery, in effect, became the means of the Africans' salvation, for it introduced them to Christianity and civilization.
The vast arsenal of derogatory images of Africa amassed to defend the slave trade and, later, colonization, gave the world not only a literary tradition that is now, happily, defunct, but also a particular way of looking (or rather not looking) at Africa and Africans that endures, alas, into our own day. And so, although those sensational "African" novels that were so popular in the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth have trickled to a virtual stop, their centuries-old obsession with lurid and degrading stereotypes of Africa has been bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarianism and missionary work itself.
About two years ago, I saw an extraordinary program on television about the children of the major Nazi war criminals whose lives had been devastated by the burden of the guilt of their fathers. I felt quite sorry for them. And then, out of nowhere, came the information that one of them had gone into the Church and would go as a missionary to the Congo.
"What has the Congo got to do with it?" I asked of my television screen. Then I remembered the motley parade of adventurers, of saints and sinners from Europe that had been drawn to that region since it was first discovered by Europe in 1482 -- Franciscan monks, Jesuit priests, envoys from the kings of Portugal, agents of King Leopold of the Belgians, H. M. Stanley, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, Albert Schweitzer, ivory hunters and rubber merchants, slave traders, explorers. They all made their visit and left their mark for good or ill. And the Congo, like the ancient tree by the much-used farm road, bears on its bark countless scars of the machete.
A saint like Schweitzer can give one a lot more trouble than King
Leopold II, a villain of unmitigated guilt, because along with doing good
and saving African lives, Schweitzer also managed to say that the African
was indeed his brother, but only his junior brother.
But of all the hundreds and thousands of European visitors to the Congo
region in the last five hundred years, there was perhaps no other with the
deftness and sleight-of-hand of Joseph Conrad or the depth of the wound he
gave that roadside tree. In his Congo novella, "Heart of Darkness," Conrad
managed to transform elements from centuries of generally crude and fanciful writing about Africans into a piece of "serious" literature.
Halfway through his story, Conrad describes a journey up the River
Congo in the 1890s as though it were the very first encounter between conscious humanity coming from Europe and an unconscious, primeval hegemony
that had apparently gone nowhere since the world was created. Naturally, it
is the conscious party that tells the story:
We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on the earth that wore the aspect
of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men
taking possession of an accursed
Prehistoric earth ... unknown planet ... fancied ourselves ... the
first of men ... This passage, which is Conrad at his best, or his
worst, according to the reader's predilection, goes on at some length
through a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, of hands clapping,
feet stamping, bodies swaying, eyes rolling, through a black
incomprehensible frenzy to the prehistoric man himself, in the night of
first ages. And then Conrad delivers his famous coup de grbce. Were
these prehistoric creatures really human? And he answers the question with
the most sophisticated ambivalence of double negatives:
No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it -- this
suspicion of their not being inhuman.
Perhaps this is a good point for me to anticipate the kind of objection
some people expressed when I first spoke about Conrad and "Heart of
Darkness" in 1975. It was not my intention then or now to spend the rest
of my life in Conrad controversy, and so I have generally kept away from
both critics and defenders of my 1975 argument. But my present purpose
requires that I take up one particular line of objection, one which
presumes to teach me how to distinguish a book of fiction from, say, a book
of history or sociology. My critics do not put it as brutally as that; they
are very kind. One of them actually took the trouble to write a letter to
me and offer his good offices to reconcile me with Conrad because, as he
said, Conrad was actually on my side! I did not, however, take up
this kind mediation offer because I was not talking about sides. For
me there is only one, human, side. Full stop!
But to return to Conrad and the word fancy, which his genius had
We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an
I suggest that fancied is the alarm-word insinuated into Conrad's
dangerously highfalutin account by his genius, as well as by reason and
sanity, but almost immediately crowded out, alas, by the emotional and
psychological fascination he had for the long-established and well-heeled
tradition of writing about Africa. Conrad was at once prisoner of this
tradition and one of its most influential purveyors; he more than anyone
else secured its admission into the hall of fame of "canonical" literature.
Fancy, sometimes called Imagination, is not inimical to Fiction. On the
contrary, they are bosom friends. But they observe a certain protocol
around each other's property and around the homestead of their droll and
difficult neighbor, Fact.
Conrad was a writer who kept much of his fiction fairly close to the
facts of his life as a sailor. He had no obligation to do so, but that was
what he chose to do -- to write about places that actually exist and about
people who live in them. He confessed in his 1917 "Author's Note" that
"Heart of Darkness" is experience too, but it is experience pushed a
little (and only very 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.
One fact of the case about the River Congo which Conrad may not have
known was how much traffic it had seen before it saw Conrad in the 1890s.
Even if one discounts the Africans who lived on its banks and would presumably have sailed up and down it through the millennia before Conrad,
there was even a European sailing ship on the Congo four hundred years
before our man made his journey and wrote his book. Yes, four hundred!
The Portuguese captain Diogo Cao, who discovered the river for Europe
in 1482, was actually looking for something else when he stumbled on it; he
was looking for a passage around Africa into the Indian Ocean. On his
second voyage he went further up the river and heard from the inhabitants
of the area about a powerful ruler whose capital was still further up. Cao
left four Franciscan monks to study the situation and resumed the primary
purpose of his expedition. On his way back he once more detoured into the
Congo to pick up his monks; but they were gone! He seized in retaliation a
number of African hostages, carried them off to Lisbon, and delivered them
to King Manuel of Portugal. This unpropitious beginning of Europe's
adventure in the heart of Africa was quickly mended when Cao returned to
the Congo for the third time in 1487, bringing back his African hostages
who had meanwhile learned the Portuguese language and Christian religion.
Cao was taken to see the king, Mweni-Congo, seated on an ivory throne
surrounded by his courtiers. Cao's monks were returned to him, and all was
An extraordinary period ensued in which the king of Congo became a
Christian with the title of King Afonso I. Before very long,
the royal brothers of Portugal and Congo were writing letters to each other
that were couched in terms of complete equality of status. Emissaries went
back and forth between them. Relations were established between Mbanza and
the Vatican. A son of the Mweni-Congo was appointed in Rome itself as
bishop of his country.
This bishop, Dom Henrique, had studied in Lisbon, and when he led a delegation of Congo noblemen to Rome for his consecration, he had addressed the
Pope in Latin.
Nzinga Mbemba, baptized as Dom Afonso, was a truly extraordinary man.
He learned in middle life to read and speak Portuguese, and it was said
that when he examined the legal code of Portugal he was surprised by its
excessive harshness. He asked the Portuguese envoy what the penalty was in
his country for a citizen who dared to put his feet on the ground! This
criticism was probably reported back to the king of Portugal, for in a 1511
letter to his "royal brother," Dom Afonso, he made defensive reference to
differing notions of severity between the two nations. Can we today
imagine a situation in which an African ruler is giving, rather than
receiving, admonition on law and civilization?
The Christian kingdom of Dom Afonso I in Congo did not fare well and
was finally destroyed two centuries later after a long struggle with the
Portuguese. The source of the problem was the determination of the
Portuguese to take out of Congo as many slaves as their vast new colony in
Brazil demanded, and the Congo kings' desire to limit or end the traffic.
There was also a dispute over mining rights. In the war that finally ended
the independence of the kingdom of Congo and established Portuguese
control over it, the armies of both nations marched under Christian
banners. But that is another story, for another time.
Even the sketchiest telling of this story such as I have done here
still reads like a fairy tale, not because it did not happen but because we
have become all too familiar with the Africa of Conrad's "Heart of
Darkness," its predecessors going back to the sixteenth century and its
successors today in print and electronic media. This tradition has invented
an Africa where nothing good happens or ever happened, an Africa that has
not been discovered yet and is waiting for the first European visitor to
explore it and explain it and straighten it up.
In Conrad's boyhood, explorers were the equivalent of today's Hollywood
superstars. As a child of nine, Conrad pointed at the center of Africa on a
map and said: When I grow up I shall go there! Among his heroes were
Mungo Park, who drowned exploring the River Niger; David Livingstone, who
died looking for the source of the Nile; and Dr. Barth, the first white man
to approach the gates of the walled city of Kano. Conrad tells a memorable
story of Barth "approaching Kano which no European eye had seen till then,"
and an excited population of Africans streaming out of the gates "to behold
And Conrad also tells us how much better he liked Dr. Barth's
"first-white-man" story than the story of Sir Hugh Clifford, British
governor of Nigeria, traveling in state to open a college in Kano forty
years later. Even though Conrad and Hugh Clifford were friends, the story
and pictures of this second Kano event left Conrad "without any particular
elation. Education is a great thing, but Doctor Barth gets in the way."
That is neatly and honestly put. Africa of colleges is of little
interest to avid lovers of unexplored Africa. In one of his last essays,
Conrad describes the explorers he admired as "fathers of militant
geography" or "the blessed
of militant geography." Too late on the scene himself to join their ranks,
did he become merely an adept conjurer of militant geography and history?
It is not a crime to prefer the Africa of explorers to the Africa of
colleges. There have been some good people who did. When I was a young
radio producer in Lagos in the early 1960s, a legendary figure from the
first decade of British colonial rule in Nigeria returned for a final visit
in her eighties. Sylvia Leith-Ross had made a very important study of Igbo
women in her pioneering work "African Women," in which she
established from masses of personal interviews of Igbo women that they did
not fit European stereotypes of down trodden slaves and beasts of burden.
She graciously agreed to do a radio program for me about Nigeria at the
turn of the century. It was a wonderful program. What has stuck to my mind
was when she conceded the many good, new things in the country, like Ibadan
University College, and asked wistfully: "But where is my beloved bush?"
Was this the same hankering for the exotic which lay behind Conrad's
preference for a lone European explorer over African education? I could
hear a difference in tone. Sylvia Leith-Ross was gentle, almost
self-mocking in her choice, and without the slightest hint of hostility. At
worst, you might call her a starry-eyed conservationist!
Conrad is different. At best you are uncertain about the meaning of his
choice. That is, until you encounter his portrait, in "Heart of
Darkness," of an African who has received the rudiments of education:
And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was
an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there
below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog
in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few
months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the
steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity --
and he had filed teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved
into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He
ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank,
instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full
of improving knowledge.
This is poisonous writing and in full consonance with the tenets of the
slave trade-inspired tradition of European portrayal of Africa. There are
endless variations in that tradition of the "problem" of education for
Africa; for example, a highly educated African might be shown sloughing off
his veneer of civilization along with his Oxford blazer when the tom-tom
begins to beat. The moral: Africa and education do not mix. Or: Africa will
revert to type.
And what is this type? Something dark and ominous and alien. At the
center of all the problems Europe has had in its perception of Africa lies
the simple question of African humanity: Are they or are they not? Are they
truly like us?
Conrad devised a simple hierarchical order of souls for the characters
in "Heart of Darkness." At the bottom are the Africans whom he calls
"rudimentary souls." Above them are the European ivory traders -- petty,
vicious, morally obtuse; he calls them "tainted souls" or "small souls." At
the top are regular Europeans, and they don't seem to have the need for an
adjective. The gauge for measuring a soul turns out to be the evil
character, Mr. Kurtz, himself; how he affects that particular soul.
He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated
witch-dance in his honor, he could also fill the small souls of the
pilgrims with bitter misgivings -- he had one devoted friend at least and he
had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor
tainted with self-seeking.
The tendency of Africans to offer worship to any European who comes
along is another recurrent theme in European writing about Africa. Variations on it include the veneration of an empty Coca-Cola bottle that falls
out of an airplane. Even children's stories are not spared this insult, as
I once learned from foolishly buying an expensive colorful book for my
little girl without first checking it out.
The aggravated witch-dance for a mad white man by hordes of African
natives may accord with the needs and desires of the fabulists of the
Africa that never was, but the experience of Congo was different. Far from
falling over themselves to worship their invaders, the people of this
region of Africa have a long history of resistance to European control. In
1687 an Italian priest, Father Cavazzi, complained:
These nations think themselves the foremost men in the world. They imagine
that Africa is not only the greatest part of the world, but also the
happiest and most agreeable ... [Their King] is persuaded that there is no
other monarch in the world who is his equal.
Between Father Cavazzi's words and Joseph Conrad's images of gyrating and
babbling savages there was indeed a hiatus of two harsh centuries. Did the
people of the Congo region deteriorate beyond recognition in this period
and lose even the art of being human? No, they remained human through it
all, to this day. I know some of them.
People are wrong when they tell you that Conrad was on the side of the
Africans because his story showed great compassion toward them. Africans
are not really interested in compassion, whatever it means; they ask for
one thing alone -- to be seen for what they are: human beings. Conrad does not
grant them this favor in "Heart of Darkness." Apparently some people
can read it without seeing any problem. We simply have to be patient. But a
word may be in order for the last-ditch defenders who fall back on the
excuse that the racial insensitivity of Conrad was normal in his time. Even
if that were so, it would still be a flaw in a serious writer -- a flaw
that responsible criticism today could not gloss over. But it is not even
true that everybody in Conrad's day was like him. David Livingstone, an
older contemporary, and by no means a saint, was different. Ironically he
was also Conrad's great hero, whom he placed
among the blessed of militant geography ... a notable European figure and
the most venerated perhaps of all the objects of my early geographical
And yet his hero's wise, inclusive humanity eluded Conrad. What did he
think of Livingstone's famous judgment of Africans?
I have found it difficult to come to a conclusion on their [African]
character. They sometimes perform actions remarkably good, 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
Joseph Conrad was forty-four years younger than David Livingstone.
If his times were responsible for his racial attitude we should expect him
to be more advanced than Livingstone, not more backward. Without doubt the
times in which we live influence our behavior, but the best, or merely the
better, among us, like Livingstone, are never held hostage by their times.
An interesting analogy may be drawn here with the visual arts imagery
of Africans in eighteenth-century Britain. In 1997, an exhibition was held
by the National Portrait Gallery in London on the subject of Ignatius
Sancho, an African man of letters, and his contemporaries. The centerpiece
of the exhibition was the famous painting of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas
Gainsborough in 1768. Reyahn King describes the painting in these words:
Gainsborough's skill is clearest in his treatment of Sancho's skin color.
Unlike Hogarth, whose use of violet pigments when painting black faces
results in a greyish skin tone, the brick-red of Sancho's waistcoat in
Gainsborough's portrait, combined with the rich brown background and
Sancho's own skin colour make the painting unusually warm in tone as well
as feeling. Gainsborough has painted thinly over a reddish base with
shading in a chocolate tone and minimal colder lights on Sancho's nose,
chin and lips.
The resulting face seems to glow and contrasts strongly with the vanishing
effect so often suffered by the faces of black servants in the shadows of
18th-century portraits of their masters.
Evidently Gainsborough put care and respect into his painting; and he
produced a magnificent portrait of an African who had been born on a slave
ship and, at the time of his sitting, was still a servant in an
aristocratic household. But neither of these facts was allowed to take away
from him his human dignity in Gainsborough's portrait.
There were other portraits of Africans in Britain painted at the same
time. One of them provides a study in contrast with Gainsborough's rendering of Ignatius Sancho. The African portrayed in this other picture was one
Francis Williams, a graduate of Cambridge, a poet and founder of a school
in Jamaica; an amazing phenomenon in those days. A portrait of him by an
anonymous artist shows a man with a big, flat face lacking any distinctiveness, standing in a cluttered library on tiny broomstick legs. It was
clearly an exercise in mockery. Perhaps Francis Williams aroused resentment
because of his rare accomplishments. Certainly the anonymous scarecrow
portrait was intended to put him in his place in much the same way as the
philosopher, David Hume, was said to have dismissed Williams's
accomplishments and compared the admiration people had for him to the
praise they might give "a parrot who speaks a few words plainly."
It is clear, then, that in eighteenth-century Britain there were
Britons like the painter Gainsborough who were ready to accord respect to
an African, even an African who was a servant; and there were other Britons
like the anonymous painter of Francis Williams, or the eminent philosopher,
Hume, who would sneer at a black man's achievement. And it was not so much
a question of the times in which they lived as the kind of people they
were. It was the same in the times of Joseph Conrad a century later, and it
is the same today!
Things have not gone well in Africa for quite a while. The era of
colonial freedom that began so optimistically with Ghana in 1957 would soon
be captured by Cold War manipulators and skewed into a deadly season of
ostensible ideological conflicts, encouraging the emergence of all kinds of
evil rulers able to count on limitless supplies of military hardware from
their overseas patrons, no matter how atrociously they ruled their peoples.
With the sudden end of the Cold War, these rulers or their successor
regimes have lost their value to their sponsors and have been cast on the
rubbish heap and forgotten, along with their nations.
Disaster parades today with impunity through the length and breadth of
much of Africa: war, genocide, dictatorship, military government, corruption, collapsed economy, poverty, disease, and every ill attendant upon
political and social chaos!
It is necessary for these sad conditions to be reported because evil
thrives best in quiet, untidy corners. In many African countries, however,
the local news media cannot report these events without unleashing serious
and sometimes fatal consequences. And so the foreign correspondent is frequently the only means of getting an important story told, or of drawing
the world's attention to disasters in the making or being covered up. Such
an important role is risky in more ways than one. It can expose the
correspondent to actual physical danger; but there is also the moral
danger of colonizing another's story. This will immediately raise the
question of the character and attitude of the correspondent. For the same
qualities of mind that separated a Conrad from a Livingstone, or a
Gainsborough and an anonymous painter of Francis Williams, are still
present and active today. Perhaps this difference can best be put in one
phrase: the presence or absence of respect for the human person.
In a 1997 calendar issued by Amnesty International USA jointly with the
International Center of Photography, a brief but important editorial
message criticizes some current journalistic practices:
The apocalyptic vision of the newsmakers [does not] accurately document the
world community. Nor are they particularly helpful in forming a picture of
our common humanity.
And it goes on to set down the principles that guided its own selection of
twelve photographs in the calendar as follows:
[They] document an authentic humanity. They also communicate the fact that
every person, everywhere, possesses an inalienable rightness and an
imperishable dignity -- two qualities that must be respected and protected.
Robert Lyons's photographs of Africa seem to me to possess these
qualities of respect. I wish I could say the same of a documentary film
that I have seen twice in the last three years or so on PBS. It was about
sex and reproduction through the entire gamut of living things, from the
simplest single cell creatures in the water to complex organisms like
fishes and birds and mammals. It was a very skillful scientific program
that pulled no punches when it came to where babies came from. It was all
there in its starkness. Was it necessary to conclude this graphic
reproductive odyssey with man (or rather woman)? I did not think so. The
point (whatever it was) had already been made with apes, including, I
believe, those that invented the "missionary position."
But the producers of the documentary were quite uncompromising in their
exhaustiveness. And so a woman in labor was exposed to show the baby coming
out of her. But the real shock was that everybody in that labor room was
white except the Ghanaian (by her accent) mother in childbirth. Why were
all the rest white? Because it was all happening in a hospital in London,
not in Accra.
I am sure that the producers of that program would reject with
indignation any suggestion that their choice of candidate was influenced in
any way by race. And they might even be right, in the sense that they would
not have had a meeting of their production team to decide that a white
woman would not be an appropriate subject. But the fact is that such
deliberation would not be necessary today, except perhaps in the crude
caucuses of the lunatic fringe. Race is no longer a visible member of the
boardroom. That much progress must be conceded; and it is not to be sniffed
at. But an invisible member with a vote is still a deadly threat to
justice. The lesson for that production team, and for the rest of us, is
that when we are comfortable and inattentive, we run the risk of committing
grave injustices absentmindedly.
© 1998 by Robert Lyons. Photographs © 1998 by
Robert Lyons. Essay © 1998 by Chinua Achebe.
Africa," an Anchor Book, published by
Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.