Joseph Conrad was born JoZef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland (then under Russina rule), son of a Polish patriot who suffered exile in Russia for his Polish nationalist activities.
In his travels through Asian, African, and Carribbean landscapes that eventually made their way into his fiction, Conrad witnessed at close range the workings of European empires, including the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, and German, that at the time controlled most of the earth's surface and were extracting from it vast quantities of raw materials and profiting from forced or cheap labor (Greenblatt, 2006).
In the essay "Geography and some Explorers," Conrad describes the imperial exploitation he observed in Africa as the "vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration." What he saw of the uses and abuses of imperial power helped make him deeply skeptical.
Marlow, the intermediate narrator of Heart of Darkness, reflects: "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 when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it..."
Conrad was also a great master of English prose, an incredible fact given that English was his third language after Polish and French, that he was 21 before he learned English, and that to the end of his life he spoke English with a strong foreign accent!
Heart of Darkness This story is derived from Conrad's experience in the Congo in 1890. The Congo Free State was virtually the personal property of Leopold II, king of Belgium, who made a fortune out of it. Later, the abuses involved in the "naked colonial exploitation" that went on in the Congo were exposed to public view.
The theme of the story is the choice facing the whites in the Congo: either to become like the commercially minded manager, who sees Africa, its people, and its resources only as instruments of financial gain, or to become like Kurtz, the self-tortured and corrupted idealist.