Joseph Conrad will always be tied to the Congo for his brilliant novel, Heart of Darkness, in which the protagonist Marlow witnesses the moral degradation of Conrad’s infamous villain, Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader working for a Belgian company in the Congo. Conrad’s inspiration for his book came from brief career as a boat captain in the Congo. While he was there, he saw firsthand the brutal methods of extraction Belgian traders employed in gathering rubber and ivory. He also formed a friendship with Roger Casement in 1890 while sharing a room with him in Matadi, who later would become a fellow activist. It may have been from his conversations with Casement that Conrad learned of a real life Kurtz, Guillaume Van Kerckhoven, a Belgian Force Publique officer famous for collecting African heads. However, there was no shortage of corrupt and cruel Belgian officers from which Conrad could have drawn his inspiration for Kurtz.
Like Twain’s involvement with the Congo Reform movement was surprisingly peripheral and short-lived. Although Conrad sympathized with the movement, he was ultimately pessimistic about its success. He felt alienated from the new age of European politics, which he felt was built on fierce economic and nationalist competition where war was inevitable. He saw little hope of reining in imperialist expansion or affecting change in Europe’s colonial empires. However, besides writing Heart of Darkness, he did contribute directly to the movement in a few ways. When Casement returned from the Congo in 1903 with his investigative findings, Conrad helped him get it published. He also wrote an open letter for E.D. Morel to use in his 1904 book, King Leopold’s Rule in Africa where he strongly condemned the Congo Free State and chastened the public for allowing it to go on for so long. Lastly, he wrote to Robert Cunninghame Graham, a Liberal MP, urging him to become involved with the movement.
Hawkins, Hunt. “Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, and the Congo Reform Movement.” Journal of Modern Literature 9, no. 1 (1981/1982): 65-80.