Heart of Darkness is set in the age of imperialism and colonization. The novel begins with five men relaxing on a cruising yacht in the Thames River. Marlow speaks up and begins to tell the tale that is Heart of Darkness. Marlow notes, “[a]nd this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth” (Conrad 3). He is thinking about the conquest of Britain by the Romans that occurred so many centuries ago. The Romans discovered the mysterious land that became Britain and colonized it. Marlow and his contemporaries know nothing but good benefits that came out of the colonization of Britain; they lived there now, so what could have gone wrong? But, in the same way that the Americas, Asia, and Africa all had natives living on the land when they were “discovered,” surely Britain had its own natives, or savages, that were run over by the Romans. By recounting this historic tale, Marlow sets up a parallel to his own trip of colonization.
Marlow tries to set apart the colonization he was a part of for the country of Belgium from the colonization of Britain by the Romans; the present from the past: “They were no colonists … They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force … They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness” (4). As much as Marlow tries to put down the Romans’s methods of imperialism, he knows that Europeans are just as guilty for “tackling the darkness” that is Africa.
Marlow is not alone in believing – or trying to believe – that what the Europeans are doing in Africa is beneficial to those already living there. Europeans saw themselves as beacons of light, bringing enlightenment and knowledge with them wherever they traveled. And they did bring their civilization with them, as seen by the natives wearing a strip of European fabric around their necks. As Marlow will learn, as he goes further and further towards the “heart of darkness,” the “heart” of Africa, he is the one who will be un-enlightened. The savagery and primitive nature of the natives of the Congo at first intimidate Marlow, but soon, he begins to feel a sort of kinship with them. Conrad is displaying how any man, no matter how civilized, can be brought back to his primal instincts and that the heart of man is universal. Heart of Darkness could even be seen as Conrad’s disagreement with imperialism; but even if he did not disagree with the ideal, it is clear through his novel that he is aware of its adverse outcomes.