By Gareth Jenkins
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Rights of Passage

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
The rise of imperialism in the 19th century was reflected in the literature of the period. Gareth Jenkins examines the contradictions of empire's novelists.
Issue 312

It would be easy to dismiss the literature of imperialism as little more than boys’ own stuff – adventure stories designed to glorify Britain’s conquest of the globe and mask its brutality with myths about bringing light to the benighted heathen.

Yet even writers most closely associated with the imperial project, such as Rudyard Kipling, at times betray some queasiness about the reality of what was happening. And long before empire made its formal appearance in English literature at the end of the 19th century, the theme had lurked on its edges – even as early as William Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, probably written around 1611.

In some ways Caliban, the servant character in that play, is the stereotypical savage, whose sexual brutishness justifies enslavement. That, at least, is his master Prospero’s view of him – which Shakespeare appears partly to endorse. Yet in other ways Caliban is as human as his master. His language is as good as Prospero’s and his complaint is never satisfactorily answered: by what right did Prospero steal the island from him as its natural owner?

Shakespeare, at the dawn of British imperialism, is honest enough to recognise that the colonial master has a case to answer. A century later this is no longer true – at least not in the most famous novel about civilising new lands (or rather, one empty island), Daniel Defoe’s 1719 Robinson Crusoe.

This is a novel about the triumph of self help. Crusoe has only his own individual talents to bring him success and build a society in his image – a theme dear to the rising bourgeoisie. Yet even Crusoe is not self dependent (nor is the island uninhabited). He, like Prospero, turns the native he finds into a colonial servant. But if Caliban struggles against his enslavement, Man Friday is the perfect image of the subservient, grateful native – the first in a long line.

Even so, the more complex of the novels about the struggle to legitimise new ways of feeling and understanding recognise, even if marginally, the troubled nature of the colonial contribution to new forms of wealth and the bourgeoisie’s rise to power.

Jane Austen, that most genteel of early 19th century novelists, touched on the question of slavery’s uneasy relationship to social refinement in her 1814 novel Mansfield Park – something which Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation dragged to the fore.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, denied the humanity of the first Mrs Rochester (locked up in the tower of the ancestral home) by having her insanity and viciousness the product of West Indian moral laxity – the better to point up the poor governess’s claim to be the spiritual equal of her beloved aristocratic master, and so her right to be the “true” Mrs Rochester. So outraged was the 20th century (white) West Indian writer Jean Rhys by this stereotyping that she wrote a kind of prequel to Brontë’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which turns the tables on European “values”.

By the end of the 19th century empire begins culturally to take centre stage – and artists as different in their ideological outlook as Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster all turn to it as the subject matter for their fiction. Of these three, Kipling is the writer who most closely identified with the British imperial project in India. He was born and brought up there, forming a strong emotional bond as a child with the country. His enthusiasm for the Raj is one reason why socialists find much of his writing repugnant.

Yet, as George Orwell pointed out in a typically provocative essay, Kipling cannot be simply dismissed as some kind of proto-fascist. Take the short story Without Benefit of Clergy, which first appeared in 1891. This touches on that deepest of colonial fears in the Raj – the “danger” of racial intermarriage and the “threat” that cultural mingling poses to Western “values”. What is remarkable is how sympathetic the story is to the white Indian Army officer who secretly marries a young Muslim girl, despite the fact that the implicit moral of the story is that any such attempt to cross the racial divide is doomed.

Another story, The Mark of the Beast, features a British officer’s drunken desecration of the monkey god’s temple, whose leprous priest then touches him. The “infected” officer increasingly behaves like a wild beast. The only cure is for the priest to be tortured with red-hot irons until he releases his victim. At one level, the story is a justification for colonial violence. But at another, it implies that the brutality meted out by the imperial occupier brutalises the occupiers themselves.

Enemy of empire?

Joseph Conrad never set any of his fiction in the British Empire. He was born in Poland, at that time part of the Russian Empire, to parents involved in Polish nationalist revolts against Tsarism. Although he became a British citizen, something of the outsider’s scepticism made him question blind loyalty.

We can see this in what is probably the best known of his short stories, Heart of Darkness, which appeared in 1899. It is a complex, ambiguous response to imperialism. Conrad drew on his own experience of journeying up the Congo river (Belgium’s particularly brutal treatment of the Congolese people had become an international scandal – though Conrad makes no specific reference to Belgian colonialism).

The story opens, not in Africa, but on the Thames. An anonymous narrator evokes past English adventurers who have set sail from London: “What greatness,” he rhapsodises, “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.”

This is the imperial romance of adventure and conquest, as celebrated by many writers of the period. But almost immediately this mood is undercut by the figure of Marlow, whose narrative now completely takes over the story until the last paragraph. And the tale he tells is one of disillusion and disgust.

Marlow deflates British superiority by remarking that the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth” – the object of Roman imperial conquest and as “savage” as anything now imagined as African. The Romans “grabbed what they could… Just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.” Marlow compares this with the present: “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.”

But then, in apparent contradiction, he adds “What redeems it is the idea only… an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…”

Yet this notion, not unlike the “humanitarianism” that has been used to justify today’s imperial intervention, does not survive the reader’s experience of Marlow’s journey from naivety to disillusion – particularly Marlow’s encounter with the enigmatic but alluring figure of Kurtz.

Marlow’s arrival marks the first step in that journey. He stumbles into a grove of death, where emaciated Africans are left to die. It is a vision of hell – of the horrors inflicted by the greedy “devils” belonging to the company who exploit the land for ivory. He identifies with Kurtz, who he has yet to rescue, as someone with ethical standards. “He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress,” the company manager tells Marlow, assuming that Marlow himself is one “of the new gang – the gang of virtue”.

Yet when Marlow finally reaches Kurtz, isolated deep in the jungle, his illusions are shattered. Kurtz’s humanitarian imperialism (“all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”) proves completely hollow. Marlow is moved by Kurtz’s eloquent report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, that “by the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded” – only to come across the scrawled comment at the end, “Exterminate all the brutes!”

Kurtz’s altruism is no more than unbridled imperial will, his civilisation a lie used to sanction barbarism. The heart of darkness is not the African wilderness – it is imperial Europe, and London in particular, on whose darkness the story ends.

This sense of the hollowness of European claims to civilisation fed the best anti-colonial literature of the 20th century. E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India revisits Kipling’s Raj to show the collapse of the values of a society that cannot tolerate contact between the races, and the poisoning of personal relationships that follows attempts to overcome racism. The elderly and liberal-minded Mrs Moore has a devastating vision in the caves she visits (similar to Marlow’s devastating understanding of Kurtz in the heart of the jungle): “Pathos, piety, courage – they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.”

The conclusion seems to be, like Conrad’s, that the destructiveness of empire cannot be reformed by some noble ideal. Yet Forster holds out a little hope at the end of the novel in a way Conrad does not. Redemption may be possible on the basis of the victims of colonialism acting for themselves. “Clear out, you fellows,” says Aziz, the victim of a prejudiced trial for attempted rape, as he rides with his English friend, Fielding, who is mocking the tawdry politics of nationalism. “‘We shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then’ – he rode against him furiously – ‘and then,’ he concluded, half kissing him, ‘you and I shall be friends’.”

The notion that the Africans will liberate themselves is completely absent from Conrad. Indeed, the victims of European colonialism in Heart of Darkness lack voices of their own. They either howl or are made to ape the speech of their masters. This has led critics, most notably the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, to accuse Conrad of racism. Nevertheless, this weakness should not detract from what is otherwise a powerfully imaginative critique of imperialism.

Conrad, like novelists before and since, is a writer whose vision of the world manages to partially transcend the ideological weaknesses of its author.

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