European imperialism was from its very inception in the fifteenth century, ostensibly a quest for enterprising but often humble young men to search for new adventures and the possible rewards of riches. The first wave of merchant ships came from Portugal. Portuguese sailors were lured to the West Coast of Africa as it was an area of the world renowned for its gold. The original rulers of present day Ghana were gold traders who later expanded their business with other Europeans, including the Dutch, French, German and British.
Colonial outposts were established along the coastal areas of the continent but the interior remained unexplored. This was due to the inhospitable conditions, these were areas of thick jungle and diseases like malaria were rife. However there were individuals who were possessed with a mixture of arrogance and foolhardiness and were willing to conquer these lands.
The countries that surrounded the Congo river represented another frontier of conquest for these European adventurers. The first serious expedition began in the nineteenth century, this challenge was dubbed “the scramble for Africa”. The Congo was primarily the centre of the ivory trade, initially instigated by the old Arab Empires who were not afraid to use exploitation and slavery in their pursuit for wealth.
However it was also a land with resources ripe for plunder, there were hidden bounties of precious minerals and lucrative goods like rubber. When the Belgians forcibly supplanted the Arab dominance in the area the indigenous people became enslaved yet again to extract the natural resources.
The Belgian King, Leopold II was a monomaniacal ruler who only cared for his own enrichment and later became notorious for his inhumanity. His administration was responsible for numerous atrocities, many Congolese slaves were punished with limb amputations if their work was deemed to be inefficient. Millions were also murdered, or succumbed to disease.
Leopold’s dictatorial regime ended in 1908 after widespread international condemnation. His greed and avarice was a possible inspiration for the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel “Heart of Darkness”.
However Kurtz is a grotesque caricature of a nineteenth century imperialist. His arrogance is so extreme that he is afflicted with delusions of grandeur, assuming that he is revered by the people he subjugates. His pride literally leads to his untimely death.
Whenever history is examined very few contemporary commentators reflect upon the larger than life characters that have shaped our modern world. The dictators and imperialists of the past had distinctive personalities. They also displayed alarming traits that we would now recognise as sociopathic psychology. Conrad`s novel captures a time and a place, but also an eternal truth about the most terrifying people that continue to dwell among us.