European Colonialism in Africa
‘‘An Outpost of Progress’’ was written at a time when European colonialism in Africa was at its peak. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, two distinct but related factors contributed to an all-out race among European nations to claim portions of the African continent as their own territories. First, the work of British explorers such as David Livingstone (1813–1873), Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890), and John Speke (1827–1864) had demystified the continent for Europeans. These explorers mapped large sections of Africa and assessed its worth in terms of raw materials and human capital. Second, many countries in Europe were quickly developing industrialized economies, in which a country’s worth is based largely on how much raw material it has for manufacturing products and how many consumers it has who will purchase the produced goods. The enormous and resource-rich continent thus offered great opportunities to expand existing industries.
A few areas of Africa had already been claimed as colonies of European nations. Algeria, for example, which sits across the Mediterranean Sea from France, had been claimed as a territory by that country after a trade dispute. However, the area of Africa known as the subSaharan region—because of its location south of the Sahara Desert—was viewed with much greater interest because of its vast supplies of natural resources, which included rubber, copper, ivory, and diamonds. Great Britain laid claim to massive areas in the eastern and southern areas of the continent, while France took ownership of most of western Africa. Several other countries also claimed portions, mostly along the western coast.
One of the most notable—and notorious— colonization efforts was undertaken by King Leopold II of Belgium. Although he believed that Belgium should join in the expansionist race to claim a portion of Africa, the idea was not a popular one among his subjects or among members of the parliament. Leopold decided to pursue the matter on his own, recruiting journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley to stake out a claim in the central region of Africa known as the Congo. In 1884–1885, a meeting known as the Berlin Conference was held among European leaders to settle disputes regarding the different African territories that had been claimed by various countries. As a result of that meeting, Leopold was essentially granted private ownership of a region of the Congo that encompassed over seven hundred thousand square miles— more than seventy times larger than the country of Belgium which he ruled—and was home to an estimated thirty million African people.
It was in this region, known as the Congo Free State, that Joseph Conrad worked briefly as a steamboat captain during the heyday of European exploitation of Africa. The Congo Free State was not bound by the laws of any country because it operated more or less as private lands. As such, it was the epicenter for brutal treatment of native Africans by European traders and opportunists. Although Leopold himself never visited the Congo Free State, agents enacting his strategy to extract profits from the land often forced native Africans to work under crushing deadlines and quotas. Those who could not fulfill such demands would have one or both hands severed at the wrist as punishment. Through violence, disease, and starvation, the population of native Africans in the Congo during Leopold’s rule fell dramatically—it has been estimated that between five and twenty million people were killed. In 1904, a British diplomat named Roger Casement wrote a report that detailed the atrocities being committed in the Congo Free State. In 1908, thanks to Casement’s report—as well as some of the works of Conrad, which were among the first popular writings to call attention to the horrifying situation in the region—the Belgian government took control of the Congo Free State.
Since colonial period, Africa attempted to establish independence from European ownership claims. Most areas have succeeded in establishing their own independent nations, though the continent has been indelibly shaped by the boundaries set by the European empires. In some cases, these arbitrarily determined borders have resulted in continued strife between tribes that existed centuries before colonization began.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Joseph Conrad, Published by Gale Group, 2010