‘‘An Outpost of Progress’’ takes place at a trading station in an unnamed African location, presumably at the end of the nineteenth century. After the station’s founding agent dies from fever, the director of the trading company assigns an employee named Kayerts to be in charge of the station, with another man—Carlier—to serve as second-in-command. Kayerts is a short, fat man who spent seventeen years working for the Administration of the Telegraphs, but took a position with the trading company to earn more money. A widower, his one desire is to be able to provide a dowry for his daughter, Melie, who is currently being raised by his sisters. Carlier is tall, broad, and thin-legged, and is a former cavalryman who has relied upon his family members for money. His brother-in-law arranged for the position with the trading company. The author describes Carlier in the following way: ‘‘Having not a penny in the world he was compelled to accept this means of livelihood as soon as it became quite clear to him that there was nothing more to squeeze out of his relations.’’
The director leaves Kayerts and Carlier at the station with enough provisions for six months, and he offers an encouraging speech about achieving one’s potential. Because the station is so far from any other station along the river—the closest one is three hundred miles away—the territory offers the men vast opportunities to have exclusive rights to trade with locals, and they will receive a percentage of what they take in as trade. The director also gives the men a list of projects to complete in the six months before he returns: ‘‘plant a vegetable garden, build new storehouses and fences, and construct a landing-stage.’’ As the director’s boat pulls away from the station, he tells an old servant traveling with him that the two men are useless imbeciles. He doubts that any of the projects will get done. The old servant says simply, ‘‘They will form themselves there.’’
The other key employee of the trading station is a native who claims that his name is Henry Price, though everyone calls him Makola. He is originally from Sierra Leone, and his wife is from the city of Loanda, both along the western coast of Africa. They have three children who also live at the station. Makola speaks English and French, and is indispensable to Kayerts and Carlier as an intermediary between the locals and the trading company. Makola is also in charge of the storehouse, which contains all the items—including beads, fabric, and wire—that are used for trading with the locals. Although he generally appears eager to help, he is described as ‘‘taciturn and impenetrable,’’ and secretly hates the two new station agents.
The two men begin their stay optimistically, believing that the locals will bring them great quantities of ivory to trade for their goods. They make it a point to spend most of their time in their station house, which was built by the previous station agent. It is an extravagant building complete with a wraparound porch. Kayerts and Carlier take care to stay out of the sun as much as possible, since this is reportedly what led to the fever that killed the first agent. They decorate the interior of the station house but never attempt any of the projects assigned to them by the director. Carlier does, however, straighten out the large wooden cross that marks the grave of the previous agent, which had become crooked.
On the rare occasion that tribesmen visit the station to trade, Kayerts and Carlier are all but superfluous to the process; Makola spends hours negotiating with the warriors, while the two agents just sit on the porch and make insulting comments about the natives. In between such visits, the bored men resort to reading books and newspapers left behind by the previous agent. They also develop a relationship with Gobila, the chief of the villages near the station. Gobila believes the white men are immortal— even the dead one who previously ran the station—and offers them food and wine daily. Considering the meager supplies left by the trading company, his offerings are a necessity for the men. For five months the agents live a sedentary life, occasionally trading for ivory, periodically nursing each other through bouts of illness, and completely ignoring the list of tasks given to them by the director.
One day, a group of armed natives arrives at the station. The agents realize that the men are not locals—Carlier notes they are probably from the coastal region, because they have guns—and speak a language even Makola seems unable to understand. Makola’s wife, however, is able to converse with the men, and after she feeds them, Makola escorts them off into the jungle. That night, Kayerts and Carlier are kept awake by drumming in the surrounding villages; both men also think they hear gunshots somewhere out in the jungle.
The next day, Makola disappears and returns with one of the armed men, ignoring Kayerts for most of the day. While he is out fishing, Carlier notes that many locals are traveling across the river by canoe for some reason. In the afternoon, Kayerts sees three columns of smoke in the distance; Makola informs him that some of the local villages are burning. Makola then tells Kayerts that the armed men come from Loanda, the same city as his wife, and that they have a great deal of ivory to trade. He also mentions, however, that they are bad people who abduct women and children. Despite this, Makola says, ‘‘Station in very bad order, sir. Director will growl. Better get a fine lot of ivory, then he say nothing.’’ Both men blame the poor state of the station on the ten hired workmen supplied by the trading company, a group of natives from a warlike tribe brought in from a different region. The workmen are in poor health due to their change in diet, and their morale is low due to homesickness.
Makola tells Kayerts that he will make the arrangements for the ivory trade that evening and recommends that the agents remain indoors all night. Makola also suggests that they provide the workmen with palm wine so they can have a festive evening, which will help them work better the following day. Kayerts agrees. A bonfire is built, and the party—which includes both the workmen and some locals from Gobila’s villages—carries on well into the night. Later, Carlier is awakened by shouting, which is followed by a gunshot. The two agents venture outside, but Makola urges them back indoors, assuring them he has the matter under control.
The next morning, Carlier summons the station workmen with the usual ringing of a bell, but no workmen appear. Makola steps out of his hut and informs the agents that the workmen all went away the previous night. After further questioning, Makola reveals that he traded the workmen— forced to work as carriers by the armed men—for six giant ivory tusks. Kayerts is appalled that the workmen were sold into slavery, though Makola insists that he operated in the best interests of the trading company, since they all agreed that the workers were useless at the station. Kayerts vows to file a report on Makola’s actions, and he refuses to accept the ivory as station property.
Carlier discovers that the single gunshot heard the night before was one of Gobila’s villagers being shot dead by the armed men. Carlier concludes that they carried off the workmen, who were drunk from the palm wine Kayerts and Makola provided to them. Unfortunately, some of Gobila’s villagers had also been there and were likely carried off as well. Both men agree not to touch the ivory, since it was earned through dealing in slavery. However, the next morning, both men end up helping Makola weigh the ivory and store it in the company storehouse. Carlier justifies their actions by stating that since the workmen belonged to the company, so must the ivory that was paid for them.
After the chaos brought by the armed men, Gobila orders his people to stay away from the dangerous trading station. This leaves Kayerts and Carlier to rely upon theircompany food stocks and their own hunting skills to feed themselves. The agents try to make peace with the villagers but are greeted by arrows. The six-month mark passes, but the company steamer does not arrive with fresh provisions. Carlier successfully shoots a hippo but loses it in the river to Gobila’s people. The two men grow sick and weak as two more months go by; they are forced to carefully ration their remaining food, which consists only of coffee, rice, and a small amount of sugar and cognac that Kayerts insists on saving in case either of them becomes seriously ill.
One day, Carlier tells Kayerts that he wants to use some of the sugar in his coffee, but Kayerts refuses to let him have it. This leads to an argument in which Carlier calls Kayerts a ‘‘stingy old slavedealer’’ and a ‘‘pot-bellied ass.’’ Carlier begins chasing Kayerts around the station house; Kayerts escapes to his room and grabs his revolver. He proceeds cautiously around the porch of the building, fearing that Carlier is going to kill him. Eventually the two men collide, and a shot rings out. Kayerts thinks at first that he has been shot, but soon realizes that he has shot Carlier dead. Kayerts tells Makola that Carlier was trying to shoot him as well, but Makola finds Carlier’s gun still in his room. Makola tells Kayerts that they will say Carlier died of fever and will bury him the next morning.
By morning, a thick fog has rolled in, and Kayerts wakes to the sound of the long-awaited steamer approaching the station. Carlier’s body still lies unburied in the station house. Panicked and wracked with guilt, Kayerts fears that the steamer has come to take him back to civilization to face justice for what he has done. The steamer docks, and the director, puzzled that no one has met them at the shore, heads up toward the station. He finds Kayerts hanging dead from one arm of the large, sturdy cross that marks the grave of the original station agent: ‘‘And, irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.’’
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2010