The Conquest of the Earth

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force- nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could 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. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion of slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…”

Marlow says this to preface his story, as a sort of explanation or justification. This is a very interesting passage because he relates himself and the others he was with to Romans, who are seen as great warriors. Though this is meant to be his defense of his actions, it is a very flimsy defense. He says, “They grabbed what the could get for the sake of what was to be got.” In this sentence he identifies the reasoning behind their conquest. He admits that it was only for personal gain and refers to it as “robbery with violence.” Though he is acknowledging that this was a cruel exercise of power and brute force, he seems to be rather detached and remorseless about his actions and those cruelties that he witnessed. In this paragraph he is describing the way that the Romans must have felt and the objective view of their actions, and by doing so aligns himself with the same justifications that he imagines the Romans had. He admits that this story is “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” He says that the only thing that redeems it is the idea behind it, but doesn’t state what exactly this idea is. It seems very vague and cruel to commit these atrocities in the name of an “idea” that can’t actually be identified. He says it is redeemed by the unselfish belief in the idea, but he has already stated that their actions were purely selfish and they went there in order to grab what they could get. So what is this idea that justifies their actions? It seems that the only idea present is the acquisition of wealth through the procurement of ivory. And if this is the case and the desire for wealth is the idea behind the conquest, how could the belief in this idea be unselfish? His justifications are feeble and in light of the rest of the story, do not hold much weight. Nevertheless, his justifications are interesting because they represent a general attitude of the time that if something was there, it was anyone’s for the taking. It also reflects the racism and general misunderstanding and disregard for the African culture, specifically the culture and people of the Congo.

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