Culture and Civilisations

Ivory, silver, coal: Joseph Conrad and the ecology of empire

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Ivory, silver, coal: Joseph Conrad and the ecology of empire

Joseph Conrad (Alamy)

The conservative Joseph Conrad had seen his native Poland invaded, occupied and carved up by Russia, Prussia and Austria, who had crushed the Polish aristocrats. His personal history made him sympathise with oppressed countries whose precious natural resources had been stolen by colonial and capitalist powers. During his greatest creative period he condemned the theft of ivory in the Belgian King Leopold’s Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899), of silver in the fictional South American Costaguana in Nostromo (1904) and of coal in the Dutch East Indies in Victory (1915). 

At the time of Heart of Darkness, Sir Roger Casement was investigating the horrors of extracting rubber in the Belgian Congo; Conrad’s novella focused on the atrocities of collecting ivory. Marlow’s steamboat brought workers and supplies up the Congo River and returned with huge amounts of ivory and rubber that had been extracted in the remote interior. The Belgians subjected Africans to slavery, torture and mutilation, and slaughtered millions of elephants to make luxurious items from the easily carved ivory: ornamental statues, chess pieces, billiard balls, piano keys, knife handles, false teeth, buttons—and crucifixes. While Marlow is still narrating his story on board the Nellie, in the dark air above Gravesend, the Accountant had brought out already a box of dominoes, and was toying architecturally with the bones” of elephants and, metaphorically, of the Africans and the murdered trader Fresleven. 1 Marlow’s search for Kurtz is like the quest of a medieval knight who endures great trials and survives terrible dangers to reach his goal and meet the paragon with an exalted reputation. Conrad arouses our interest by gradually revealing the contradictory traits in Kurtz’s brilliant and demonic character, and his meeting with Marlow is the dramatic climax of the tragedy.

In Geography and Some Explorers (1924) Conrad recalled the theme of Heart of Darkness by calling the greedy and immoral European invasion of Africa the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience”. 2 Emphasising this theme in the novella and alluding to the Atlantic Ocean and Congo River, he calls the first ruthless conquerors: Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch”—to light the way and burn the land.

In the novella Conrad also compares colonial exploitation, a kind of evisceration, to crude theft: To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe”. He decisively concludes, 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”. 

Another consequence of ripping the resources out of the earth – in Heart of Darkness as well as in Nostromo and Victory – is the pollution of the natural landscape. Marlow notes that the industrial equipment, sent out from Belgium and now abandoned, is destined to be buried in the jungle. He says, I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass. . . . an undersized railway truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. . . . I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails”. 

Kurtz – poet, painter and musician – has been a universal genius, admired and envied by all his competitive colleagues. One agent tells Marlow, He is a prodigy. He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress . . . [with a] higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose”. Marlow learns that all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”, and that the satirically named International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, which has no understanding of local conditions, had honoured Kurtz by asking him to write a report for their future guidance. But his very sophistication and sensitivity made him more vulnerable than other men when he was completely isolated in the wilderness. 

Marlow, dismayed by all the other white men he’s met in the Congo, is naturally eager to meet the extraordinary Kurtz. When his ship is delayed en route to the Inner Station, he fears he’s lost the chance of conversing with that gifted orator. But as the Russian tells Marlow, You don’t talk with that man – you listen to him”. Marlow later discovers that Kurtz had ordered his men to attack his steamboat and tried to kill him so that he would not invade Kurtz’s territory and expose his atrocities.

Joseph Conrad on ship (r) – (Alamy)

Kurtz has not used his amazing qualities to educate the Africans, but to enslave them as he maniacally extracted ivory from the skulls of slain elephants, and he has collected more treasure than all the other agents put together. The Russian enlightens Marlow about Kurtz’s absolute power and ferocious methods of dealing with competitors: He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him from killing whom he jolly well pleased”. 

One Kurtz-like agent in Africa had his own warehouses packed to the roof with tusks of ivory worth as much as £60,000. (There’s a whole country in Africa called Côte d’Ivoire.) Africans who brought in ivory from poached or dead elephants were paid with cheap cotton, coloured beads or brass rods that passed for currency. Armed guards were posted to protect the enormous treasure before it was transported downriver and shipped to Antwerp. 

Unfortunately, Kurtz becomes a notable example of the cannibalism he hoped to suppress. (If he lived, he’d have to write another chapter about himself.) The Congo seems to be an active and hostile force that takes revenge for Kurtz’s theft of ivory by allowing his evil instincts to emerge. As the jungle stirs and powerful forces seek their prey, Kurtz feels oppressed and imprisoned by his hostile surroundings, which diabolically transform him into the very material he’s collected: The wilderness had patted him on the head, and, behold, it was like a ball—an ivory ball”. As in Dante’s Inferno, Kurtz’s punishment matches his sin and he becomes a memento mori, an image of death carved out of old ivory”.

Kurtz lacks all restraint in gratifying his barbaric taste: His nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites”. As he moves from idealism to savagery his soul goes mad and he begins to collect human heads as well as ivory. He regresses to cannibalism and decorates his fence posts with round carved balls which, on closer examination, turn out to be the skulls of Africans he has killed and whose flesh he has eaten. Marlow finally sees Kurtz crawling on all fours, like William Blake’s engraving of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who had lost his mind and been reduced to the level of a beast. 

Revealing the savagery he cannot suppress in himself, Kurtz ends his report to the high-minded Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs by scrawling Exterminate all the brutes!” He wants to kill the Africans who had dared to resist his rule and had dragged him down to bestiality. When self-awareness comes at last, he condemns himself and whispers, The horror! The horror!” His last words express the terrible truth about himself and about the darkness that has eclipsed the civilised side of his character. Kurtz is no longer fit for European life, let alone for marriage to his innocent fiancée, who has faithfully awaited his return in Brussels.

In a letter of March 7, 1923, written two decades after the publication of Nostromo, Conrad emphasised the importance of silver in his novel: Silver is the pivot of the moral and material events, affecting the lives of everybody in the tale . . . I struck the first note of my intention in the unusual form which I gave to the title of the First Part, by calling it ‘The Silver of the Mine.’ . . . The word ‘silver’ occurs almost at the very beginning of the story proper, and I took care to introduce it in the very last paragraph.” 3 

Both Heart of Darkness and Nostromo reject the idea of progress that had dominated Western thought since the Renaissance. Both works portray the evils of capitalistic exploitation by colonial adventurers. In Nostromo there’s also the appalling moral darkness of intrigue, bloodshed, and crime that hung over the ‘queen of continents’” as well as another cruel grove of enslaved and dying workers: It was a diminishing company of nearly naked skeletons, loaded with irons, covered with dirt, with vermin, with raw wounds.” 4 

Illegal mining in Democratic Republic of Congo 2013 (Alamy)

Nostromo develops the Heart of Darkness themes of personal power, individual responsibility and social justice. In both works the country and the hero are cut off from civilisation, both dominated by greed, exploitation and financial interests. Both portray the violent threat of nature, the sense of unreality, the moral darkness, the disintegration of humane values and the choice of nightmares.” Like the Congo, Costaguana is a savage state in which men are reduced to insignificance by a hostile setting. 

Two important characters resemble Kurtz. Dr Monygham had lived for years in the wildest parts of the republic, wandering with almost unknown Indian tribes in the great forests of the far interior where the great rivers have their sources”. He survives torture, and becomes a drunken wreck and moral guide. The idealistic, intelligent and cosmopolitan Martin Decoud is also swallowed up and destroyed by the wilderness. The young apostle had not died striving for his idea by an ever-lamented accident. The truth was that he had died from solitude, the enemy known but to few on this earth, and whom only the simplest of us are fit to withstand. The brilliant Costaguanero of the boulevards had died from solitude and want of faith in himself and others” (395). Weighed down with four silver ingots he had hoped to save, he shoots himself and sinks into the Golfo Placido.

The abandoned workings of the mine move Charles Gould like the sight of human misery. Despite the horrible history of the mine, he egoistically believes that it must be made a material and moral success in order to redeem his father’s failure and preserve the honor of his family. The profitable mine would justify his own obsession and persuade his wife Emilia that he’s been right. It would finally compensate for the deaths of Decoud and Nostromo, and end the political chaos and violence.

In his ironic declaration early in the novel, Gould expresses his enlightened capitalistic ambitions—profit and peace—which cannot coexist in Costaguana:

“What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. Any one can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith to material interests. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That’s how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people. A better justice will come afterwards. That’s your ray of hope. “

But a better justice never comes and the wealth is never shared with the oppressed. Nothing is ever bound to come merely because the security of the mine is dependent on the political stability of the country, and the history of a century of misrule has repeatedly proved that permanent stability is impossible to achieve. The disastrous repetition of attraction, enslavement, corruption and betrayal that began with Gould’s father traps both his son and Nostromo. Both become, like the workers, slaves of the mine and the foreign profiteers. The people of Costaguana are faced with a choice of evils, the inevitable result of unprincipled exploitation and destruction of traditional culture. 

The legend of Azuera, in which the souls cannot tear themselves away from the treasure, is evoked at the start of the novel and reveals the power of the silver to corrupt and enslave. The treasure glints on the silver-trimmed spectacles of Giorgio Viola, on the railway chairman’s silvery white hair, on Nostromo’s silver-grey mare and on the silver buttons that he allows his lover to cut off his coat and publicly connect to him. The startling description in the opening chapter of the enlightened Ribiera and his followers fleeing for their lives before the Monterist Revolution is a potent warning about the fate of progressive governments in Costaguana. The country’s sense of unreality, its fear and lack of absolute values, make the characters particularly vulnerable, and force them to cling to the tangible silver for security and salvation.

The very name of the San Tomé mine—from the Portuguese word for Thomas, the disciple who doubted the Resurrection of Christ—suggests a dubious enterprise, just as the names of Gould (gold) and Monygham suggest rapacious profits. In a useful early essay .MW Tillyard observed, the new governments confiscated and owned the mine but could not work it, and one of them forced it on Gould’s father in repayment for loans it had wrung from him.” In a nice distinction, Gould’s father had been able to endure spasmodic extortions of individual officials . . . but could not stand official extortion for immediate payment of royalties on the hypothetical output of the disused mine.” 5 

Gould’s father cautioned him never to return to Costaguana nor reclaim his tainted inheritance. Emilia Gould recalls that the mine (like Kurtz’s genocidal collection of ivory) was worked in the early days mostly by means of lashes on the backs of slaves, its yield had been paid for in its own weight of human bones. Whole tribes of Indians had perished in its exploitation” (55). The political outrages were as evil as the extraction of the precious mineral: 

“Friends, relatives, ruined, imprisoned, killed in the battles of senseless civil wars, barbarously executed in ferocious proscriptions, as though the government of the country had been a struggle of lust between bands of absurd devils let loose upon the land with sabres and uniforms and grandiloquent phrases. And on all the lips [Emilia] found a weary desire for peace, the dread of officialdom with its nightmarish parody of administration without law, without security, and without justice.”

In Gould’s day the mine continues to disfigure nature and exploit the people, a terrible penalty for progress that does not bring permanent security.

Gould believes his new steamships, railways and telegraph are worth infinitely more than the traditional past. But Emilia completely disagrees with him about the value of the mine: 

“Don Carlos’s mission is to preserve unstained the fair fame of his mine; Mrs. Gould’s mission is to save him from the effects of that cold and overmastering passion, which she dreads more than if it were an infatuation for another woman. Nostromo’s mission is to save the silver. The plan is to load it into the largest of the Company’s lighters, and send it across the gulf to a small port out of Costaguana territory.” 

But in this tragedy all three missions fail. Gould’s optimistic prediction is ultimately disproved by the events of the novel. The history of the mine shows that civilised values of Europe are destroyed by extortion and greed. The great insecurity of the mine is symbolised by Gould’s threat to blow it up at the time of the Monterist Revolution. The fate of the mine and all the people connected to it is entirely in the hands of Gould, who would not hesitate to destroy it to keep it from his enemies and protect what he considers his own best interests. 

When Emilia allows herself to be persuaded by Decoud, then decides to withhold the news of the Santa Marta defeat of the Ribierists from her husband and lets the silver come down the mountain to be sent north for credit, the mine becomes an active force and she too becomes involved in corruption: She saw the San Tomé mountain hanging over the campo, over the whole land, feared, hated, and wealthy—more soulless than any tyrant, more pitiless and autocratic than the worst government, ready to crush innumerable lives in the expansion of its greatness.”

Toward the end of Nostromo, Dr Monygham, a damaged survivor, refutes Gould’s lofty but misconceived material interests speech and prophetically tells Emilia:

“There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle. Mrs. Gould, the time approaches when all that the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back.”

The central tragedy of Nostromo is the conflict between financial exploitation and moral principles. Conrad later recalled Gould’s fate in Under Western Eyes: The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures, the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement—but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment—often of remorse.” 6 

Conrad begins Victory with a detailed description of the Tropical Belt Coal Company (which resembles the ruined silver mine at the beginning of Nostromo) and expands it throughout the novel. He declares, despite the fascination in coal, the supreme commodity of the age”, that the coal company went into liquidation”—a subtle allusion to the transformation of solid coal into flowing oil. 7 

The narrator observes that Captain Davidson, like most other sailors, owns a steamer that needs coal. Heyst and his partner Morrison planned to establish a chain of fuelling stations to service ships throughout the Dutch East Indies and sent out thousands of alluring promotional pamphlets. Heyst thought Morrison understood something about coal”, but was unaware that his partner knew nothing of it”. After their business fails, Heyst bitterly exclaims that Morrison believed it was going to make his fortune, my fortune, everybody’s fortune.” 

Heyst now lives alone on Black Diamond Bay, named ironically after the coal, on the island of Samburan in Java.

King Leopold II of Belgium. (Alamy)

At first, the enterprise seemed to prosper. The company had offices in London and Amsterdam (like the one Marlow visited in Brussels before going to the Congo). Heyst was the onsite manager of this No. 1 coaling station and had actually managed to extract some local coal. Conrad writes, there was a coal-mine there, with an outcrop in the hillside less than five hundred yards from the rickety wharf and the imposing blackboard. The company’s object had been to get hold of all the outcrops on tropical islands and exploit them locally” (3). Tropical Belt employed engineers, clerks and coolies. Little trucks carrying baskets of coal rode on rails to the jetty and brought coal alongside the ships. Conrad explains that to accommodate ships that came for coal and happened to need water as well, a stream had been tapped in the interior and an iron pipe led along the jetty” (189). 

The abandoned coal jetty allows the three criminals, Jones, Ricardo and Pedro, to land on the island. They happen to need water as well,” which saves them from dying of thirst. By the time the invaders arrive, one of the lofty uprights still held up the company’s sign-board” and the tall heap of unsold coal at the shore end of the wharf added to the general desolation” (232, 35). The gigantic sign-board can be seen from the sea and Heyst’s servant Wang uses bits of coal for cooking. The decayed machinery of the mine resembles the broken detritus left behind in the Congo and Costaguana. 

Conrad gives no clear explanation of why the mine has lost capital and gone bust. But in Verandah, James Pope-Hennessy gives an example of such a failure in Labuan, a port in Borneo:

The hopeless condition of the coalmines was the cancer which had long been destroying any chance of a healthy Labuan economy, for the coal-seam was the Crown Colony’s real raison d’être. The maintenance of a Colonial Establishment at Labuan is justified only on a consideration which a cheap and sufficient supply of coal in that quarter of the world would confer on the mercantile marine of this Country, as well as on Her Majesty’s ships,” the Land Board in London reminded the Colonial Office in a harsh minute in 1868. So far, the coal supply was seldom cheap and never sufficient; in twenty years the Company had spent a quarter of a million pounds and had not made one penny. 8 

Coal was costly to extract, transport and use, and had to be sent to the stations that had no local mines. The ships needed a convenient chain of friendly ports, required a lot of time to refuel and became vulnerable targets in wartime. Once loaded onto the ship, the coal had to be continuously shifted from the hold to the boilers. In Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch, David Howarth observes that the admiral’s tremendous victory against the French and Spanish in 1805 marked the history of fuel throughout the nineteenth century: The victory under sail that afternoon established a supremacy [of the British Navy] at sea that lasted all through the age of steam and into the age of oil.” 9 Andrew Roberts explains why in 1912, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy changed their fuel from coal to oil: This made the vessels lighter and consequently faster. . . . Ships no longer had to sail from coaling-station to coaling-station and could now stay at sea for much longer.” 10 

The historian Wilfred Neill notes that in 1888 petroleum was discovered in Sumatra and Borneo, bringing more capital; and in 1890 the Royal Dutch Oil Company was founded.” 11 (Their Shell logo was later displayed throughout the world.) The coaling period began, after the transition from sail to steam, when Conrad served in the Merchant Navy. The transition from coal to oil began in about 1870 and continued until the outbreak of World War One in 1914, when Conrad had shifted from life at sea to writing ashore.

Oil extraction in Borneo by the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company 1903-1907. (Alamy)

In Victory, as in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo, Conrad emphasises the characters’ extreme isolation and the unreality of the hostile setting. The coal mine in Victory causes the deaths of all the main characters. To punish Heyst for stealing Lena, Schomberg tells Jones and Ricardo that Heyst has killed Morrison to get all the vast wealth from the mine. Jones, jealous of Ricardo’s lust for Lena, aims his gun at Ricardo but kills her. Heyst, despairing about his inability to protect Lena, commits suicide. Jones finally kills Ricardo, and drowns after being shot by Wang. Conrad believes that Lena’s fatal sacrifice was the moral victory referred to in the title.

Greed and brutality prevail in all three novels. Gould’s silver is more ambiguous than Kurtz’s demonic success and Heyst’s abject failure. But the history of Costaguana—colonial Spanish, revolutionary republic, capitalist Anglo-American—has always been disastrous. As Monygham predicts, the silver will continue to incite the endless cycle of revolution, violence and death. All Kurtz’s ivory, superfluous in Africa, is exported to Belgium. Almost all the silver, except that stolen by the dictators or lost by Decoud and Nostromo, goes to the capitalists. The initial profits of coal go to Heyst and Morrison. If the exploiters had shared the wealth with the poor Costaguanans, there would be no need for perpetual revolution.

Kurtz betrays the ideals of his fiancée and chooses ivory; Gould betrays the ideals of his wife and chooses silver; Heyst fails to mine the coal or save Lena. Kurtz, Decoud and Nostromo, Heyst and Lena all die at the end. None of the three potentially redemptive women succeed in saving their men. The Intended remains ignorant; Emilia, despite her instinct of devotion, fails to rescue Gould from his obsession with mineral profits; Lena dies trying to save Heyst from Jones and Ricardo. Kurtz is a criminal, Gould a monomaniac, Heyst a victim. The characters, society and country in these three novels would have been much better off if they had left the ivory inside the elephants, the silver inside the mine and the coal inside the ground.


  1. Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness,” Three Great Tales (NY: Modern Library [1960]), p. 218.
  2. Joseph Conrad, “Geography and Some Explorers,” Almayer’s Folly and Last Essays (Edinburgh: Nelson, 1957), p. 236.
  3. Joseph Conrad, Collected Letters. Volume 8, 1923-1924, Edited by Laurence Davies and Gene Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008), p. 37.
  4. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (NY: Signet, 1960), pp. 80, 119
  5.  E.M.W. Tillyard, The Epic Strain in the English Novel (London: Chatto & Windus, 1963), pp. 129, 146.
  6. Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes, Introduction by Morton Dauwen Zabel (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1963), p. 113.
  7. Joseph Conrad, Victory (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1957), p. 1.
  8. James Pope-Hennessy, Verandah: Some Episodes in the Crown Colonies, 1867-1889 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964), p. 90.
  9.  David Howarth, Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch (NY: Atheneum, 1969), p. 13.
  10. Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (NY: Viking, 2018), pp. 158-159.
  11. Wilfred Neill, Twentieth Century Indonesia (NY: Columbia UP, 1973), p. 293.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 88%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 90%
23 ratings - view all

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