57 pages • 1 hour readJoseph Conrad
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In “An Outpost of Progress,” Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), a Ukrainian-born Polish-British novelist and short story writer, presents a disturbing psychological case study centered on the struggle between good and evil in the hearts and souls of two white traders dispatched to a remote corner of Africa to oversee a trading station along the Congo River. The story probes how easily the heart can lose its moral and ethical bearings amid the oppressive emptiness of the jungle and is a searing indictment of the pretense of Western civilization, written at a time when white European cultures sought to “civilize” the nations of Africa and Asia. The story, with its disturbing look at the brutality and violence that lurk in the heart of supposedly civilized people, first appeared in an 1896 issue of Cosmopolis, a short-lived international literary magazine. Although nearly 40 when the story appeared, Conrad, who had spent more than 20 years at sea as a sailor, was known at the time of the story’s publication largely as a writer of adventure yarns set in exotic islands. Scholars of Conrad’s later work would mark “An Outpost of Progress” as a significant redirection of Conrad’s fiction and would argue that “An Outpost of Progress” anticipates thematically one of Conrad’s most enduring works, Heart of Darkness, published just three years later.
The story is set in the Belgian Congo. Four years before its publication, Conrad himself spent three life-altering months in the region struggling with the unfamiliar conditions and the sense of physical and spiritual isolation. The story has two parts.
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The story begins at a small Congo River trading outpost designed to handle the transportation of ivory from the African interior. A steamer brings two Belgian traders, neither of whom has much experience in the business of trading, to begin their assignments as post supervisors. The previous administrator died from fever and is buried along the river under a carelessly crafted cross. Kayerts, designated as the new chief of operations, is little more than a low echelon government administrator and a tubby widower, who hopes to help fund his daughter’s dowry by taking this obscure posting. Carlier, who will serve as Kayerts’s assistant, is a career soldier. Carlier is so obnoxious and lazy that his own family had worked to get him assigned to this remote outpost. Once the steamer that brought them to the outpost departs up the river, both men understand it will be the last tie to civilization until the steamer returns with supplies in six months.
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The first weeks of their new posting bring little excitement. The days are hot and what little work they have is tedious. They both feel the oppressive nearness of the jungle. The two spend much of their time in idle chat about books, life back home, and the curious mannerisms of the locals who work at the station—the outpost has about a dozen locals assigned to help load and unload the occasional steamers as well as to serve as servants for the outpost managers. These locals are, for the most part, poorly fed and treated like slaves. To Kayerts and Carlier, however, they are doing the locals a great service. Kayerts and Carlier, “two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals” (Part 1, Paragraph 5), pride themselves as part of the grand European project to colonize and then civilize Africa.
They soon meet Makola, a local transplant from nearby Sierra Leone, who keeps the outpost’s financials and directs the locals from “a very distant part of the land of darkness and sorrow” (Part 1, Paragraph 28), who work at the outpost. Makola, while kowtowing to Kayerts and Carlier, barely conceals his contempt for the two white traders, certain that without the locals supporting them the two Europeans would be lost and helpless in the jungle. Indeed, as the weeks pass, both white traders begin to feel a kind of malaise as they both sense they have lost touch with the civilization they know. At the opposite extreme is Gobila, a local from a nearby village who believes (or perhaps fears) that these inept white invaders are the gods his people have long anticipated, fearful that they may indeed be immortal and omnipotent. Kayerts and Carlier, for their part, live apart from the daily goings-on of locals. They look down on the servants, unable (or unwilling) to see them as anything but irredeemable “savages.”
Two months pass. One afternoon, the arrival of a small band of locals armed with muskets upends the doldrums of life at the station. Because neither Kayerts nor Carlier speak the local language, they must listen to the animated conversation between the band’s leader and Makola. Although both white men are uneasy in the presence of the rogue band (they actually load their revolvers in anticipation of trouble), Makola tells them the band of locals is here to trade. They have a surplus of high-quality ivory tusks and would like to deal with the trading post. After examining a particularly fine tusk and being aware that the success of their posting (and their own job security) relies on making lucrative deals with the potential traders for ivory, Kayerts and Carlier tell Makola to make a deal.
That night, gunfire and unearthly screams shatter the jungle quiet. Neither Kayerts nor Carlier leave their housing, fearful of what the shots might mean, certain, given the incessant jungle drums beating, that the locals were having some sort of showdown. The following morning, they notice all the outpost workers are gone. Concerned, they ask Makola. To complete the trade for the ivory, Makola had offered the armed men what they most needed: carriers. “I believe,” says a stunned Kayerts, “that you have sold our men for these tusks” (Part 2, Paragraph 20). He is horrified that Makola traded the servants themselves to secure the surplus of ivory. “Slavery is an awful thing” (Part 2, Paragraph 32), Kayerts stammers. The screaming and the gunfire were because some of the servants resisted being traded into servitude. Kayerts’s moral outrage over his indirect part in slave trading quickly calms as he and Carlier decide the trading deal was done by locals, not by them, and it reflects the locals’ immoral, decidedly un-Christian culture. Kayerts decides the profitable deal more than offsets the moral implications of the trade itself.
Yet neither of the two men can entirely shake the feelings of guilt over the exchange and how far they have both slipped from their own moral upbringing. They feel the jungle is slowly turning them into heartless, even soulless creatures. How could they have allowed human beings to be used as part of a financial transaction, even a lucrative one? The relationship between the two men sours. Weeks later, at a moment of raw honesty as supplies dwindle in anticipation of the next steamer and Kayerts denies Carlier his request for some sugar for his morning coffee, Carlier shouts down Kayerts as little more than a slave trader. The insult hits Kayerts hard. The two fight and chase each other about their hut. Confronted with a truth too close to home, Kayerts shoots an unarmed Carlier. Stunned by his own depravity, he stands over the body in “profound darkness” (Part 2, Paragraph 60). He stays with the dead body until the next morning when Makola arrives. Makola assures Kayerts they will bury Carlier in the jungle and then tell the outpost’s managing director when he arrives any day now that the unfortunate man died of fever.
Kayerts now descends into his own kind of insanity, “a feeling of exhausted serenity” (Part 2, Paragraph 70). The following morning is heavy with fog, and Kayerts goes to the bluff overlooking the lagoon and hangs himself. As the long-awaited steamer comes into view, the director sees the hanging body of the dead Kayerts, his thick blackened tongue appearing to be sticking out at him, mocking him.
By Joseph Conrad