Sunday Pages: "An Outpost of Progress"

An excerpt of a short story by Joseph Conrad

Dear Reader,

Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, I read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Published in 1907 but set in 1886, the plot concerns Verloc, the eponymous spy, an effete purveyor of pornographic books, who is compelled to earn his secret agent’s salary, paid by one Mr. Vladimir, by blowing up Greenwich Observatory. This he manages by coercing his brother-in-law, Stevie—his wife’s troubled younger brother, whom she treats like a son—to blow himself up.

Reading that book in 2020, I was astonished. The term autistic had not yet taken on its modern meaning, but in Stevie, Conrad had written a compelling and sympathetic portrait of a young adult with severe autism. Put another way: Joseph Conrad wrote a novel about Russian intelligence officers radicalizing young men on the spectrum to commit horrific acts of political violence against Western democracies—in 1907.

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born in 1857 in Berdychiv, a city in what is now Ukraine, and what had once been Poland, but what in the 19th century was part of the Russian Empire. Located in the Pale of Settlement, Berdychiv had a large Jewish population, which at one time included Conrad’s contemporary, Sholem Aleichem; anyone who has seen Fiddler on the Roof has some idea of what that part of the world looked like in the late 1800s. This was the Old Country.

Unlike most of his neighbors, Conrad was neither Jewish nor Ukrainian, but a descendant of the disenfranchised Polish nobility that owned much of the countryside surrounding Berdychiv. His father, Apollo, was a political activist dedicated to the restoration of Poland, which had vanished from the map following the third Partition in 1795. Apollo’s political activities landed him in a Warsaw prison. It is no wonder that Conrad chose exile over the struggle for Polish independence.

Conrad was a native speaker of Polish, did his thinking in French, and wrote in English. In contrast to his father, he did not involve himself in politics. Later, as a British subject, he refrained from voting in any elections. When he was offered a knighthood, he turned it down. He had a journalistic sensibility, in that he was an acute observer and unflinching reporter of what was happening. In the merchant marine and as a sailor, he traveled all over the world, most famously to the Congo Free State (misnomer of all misnomers!)—experiences that affected him profoundly and informed his writing.

Like all writers, Conrad was a product of his times—he certainly describes his African characters as “Other,” in racist language no modern writer would use, even as he sympathizes with them—but his work continues to resonate. His themes—alienation, loneliness, madness, the absurdity and arrogance of so-called civilization, the struggle in each of us between good and evil—are both universal and not much written about elsewhere with his simple, savage honesty.

His masterpiece is 1899’s Heart of Darkness. This is a poisoned Moby-Dick: also a story narrated by a seaman about the obsessions of a stronger, more sinister man, but as short as Melville’s novel is long. Conrad isn’t precise in his geography. He doesn’t say Belgium or Brussels or Leopoldville or Belgian Congo. But we know what went on in the playground of Leopold II of Belgium, the most abominable of the modern colonizers. “The horror, the horror,” indeed! The Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now is based on Heart of Darkness, but Marlon Brando’s Kurtz is a Hollywoodization of the base cruelty, the banal evil, the unspeakable acts, that rapacious white men perpetrated in the Congo.

The title of Exterminate All the Brutes, the superb new four-part documentary by Raoul Peck, alludes to Heart of Darkness. It is a phrase the mad Kurtz scribbles down, his final instruction. This imperative, Peck tells us, comprises the third of three words that explain all of human history: civilization, colonization, extermination.

There is a lot of Conrad in Peck’s film. In the first episode, Peck shows clips from a film adaptation of an earlier, shorter Conrad work, also set in the Belgian Congo: “An Outpost of Progress,” which I had not read. (The title, and his frequent references to “the cause of progress,” is ironic.)

The story is about two white station agents, plump Kayerts and his svelte lieutenant Carlier, who spend months and months frittering about their backwater station, bored to tears, while Makola, a Congolese native in the Company’s employ, actually runs the place and brings in the ivory. Makola liaises with the other Africans, notably Gobila, whose small tribe lives in the area just outside the station.

What follows is part of the second half of the story, which takes place five months after Kayerts and Carlier arrive to succeed the previous station chief, who has died of fever. In it, the two white men are forced to recognize the darkness in their own hearts:

An Outpost of Progress

There were ten station men who had been left by the Director. Those fellows, having engaged themselves to the Company for six months (without having any idea of a month in particular and only a very faint notion of time in general), had been serving the cause of progress for upwards of two years. Belonging to a tribe from a very distant part of the land of darkness and sorrow, they did not run away, naturally supposing that as wandering strangers they would be killed by the inhabitants of the country; in which they were right. They lived in straw huts on the slope of a ravine overgrown with reedy grass, just behind the station buildings. They were not happy, regretting the festive incantations, the sorceries, the human sacrifices of their own land; where they also had parents, brothers, sisters, admired chiefs, respected magicians, loved friends, and other ties supposed generally to be human. Besides, the rice rations served out by the Company did not agree with them, being a food unknown to their land, and to which they could not get used. Consequently they were unhealthy and miserable. Had they been of any other tribe they would have made up their minds to die—for nothing is easier to certain savages than suicide—and so have escaped from the puzzling difficulties of existence. But belonging, as they did, to a warlike tribe with filed teeth, they had more grit, and went on stupidly living through disease and sorrow. They did very little work, and had lost their splendid physique. Carlier and Kayerts doctored them assiduously without being able to bring them back into condition again. They were mustered every morning and told off to different tasks—grass-cutting, fence-building, tree-felling, &c., &c., which no power on earth could induce them to execute efficiently. The two whites had practically very little control over them.

In the afternoon Makola came over to the big house and found Kayerts watching three heavy columns of smoke rising above the forests.

“What is that?” asked Kayerts.

“Some villages burn,” answered Makola, who seemed to have regained his wits. Then he said abruptly: “We have got very little ivory; bad six months’ trading. Do you like get a little more ivory?”

“Yes,” said Kayerts, eagerly. He thought of percentages which were low.

“Those men who came yesterday are traders from Loanda who have got more ivory than they can carry home. Shall I buy? I know their camp.”

“Certainly,” said Kayerts. “What are those traders?”

“Bad fellows,” said Makola, indifferently. “They fight with people, and catch women and children. They are bad men, and got guns. There is a great disturbance in the country. Do you want ivory?”

“Yes,” said Kayerts.

Makola said nothing for a while. Then: “Those workmen of ours are no good at all,” he muttered, looking round. “Station in very bad order, sir. Director will growl. Better get a fine lot of ivory, then he say nothing.”

“I can’t help it; the men won’t work,” said Kayerts. “When will you get that ivory?”

“Very soon,” said Makola. “Perhaps to-night. You leave it to me, and keep indoors, sir. I think you had better give some palm wine to our men to make a dance this evening. Enjoy themselves. Work better to-morrow. There’s plenty palm wine—gone a little sour.”

Kayerts said “yes,” and Makola, with his own hands, carried big calabashes to the door of his hut. They stood there till the evening, and Mrs. Makola looked into every one. The men got them at sunset. When Kayerts and Carlier retired, a big bonfire was flaring before the men’s huts. They could hear their shouts and drumming. Some men from Gobila’s village had joined the station hands, and the entertainment was a great success.

In the middle of the night, Carlier, waking suddenly, heard a man shout loudly; then a shot was fired. Only one. Carlier ran out and met Kayerts on the verandah. They were both startled. As they went across the yard to call Makola, they saw shadows moving in the night. One of them cried, “Don't shoot! It’s me.” Then Makola appeared close to them. “Go back, go back, please,” he urged, “you spoil all.”

“There are strange men about,” said Carlier.

“Never mind; I know,” said Makola. Then he whispered, “All right. Bring ivory. Say nothing! I know my business.”

The two white men reluctantly went back to the house, but did not sleep. They heard footsteps, whispers, some groans. It seemed as if a lot of men came in, dumped heavy things on the ground, squabbled a long time, then went away. They lay on their hard beds and thought: “This Makola is invaluable.”

In the morning Carlier came out, very sleepy, and pulled at the cord of the big bell. The station hands mustered every morning to the sound of the bell. That morning nobody came. Kayerts turned out also, yawning. Across the yard they saw Makola come out of his hut, a tin basin of soapy water in his hand. Makola…was very neat in his person. He threw the soapsuds skillfully over a wretched little yellow cur he had, then turning his face to the agent’s house, he shouted from the distance, “All the men gone last night!”

They heard him plainly, but in their surprise they both yelled out together: “What!” Then they stared at one another.

“We are in a proper fix now," growled Carlier.

“It’s incredible,” muttered Kayerts.

“I will go to the huts and see,” said Carlier, striding off.

Makola coming up found Kayerts standing alone. “I can hardly believe it,” said Kayerts, tearfully. “We took care of them as if they had been our children.”

“They went with the coast people,” said Makola after a moment of hesitation.

“What do I care with whom they went—the ungrateful brutes!” exclaimed the other. Then with sudden suspicion, and looking hard at Makola, he added: “What do you know about it?”

Makola moved his shoulders, looking down on the ground. “What do I know? I think only. Will you come and look at the ivory I’ve got there? It is a fine lot. You never saw such.”

He moved towards the store. Kayerts followed him mechanically, thinking about the incredible desertion of the men. On the ground before the door of the fetish lay six splendid tusks.

“What did you give for it?” asked Kayerts, after surveying the lot with satisfaction.

“No regular trade,” said Makola. “They brought the ivory and gave it to me. I told them to take what they most wanted in the station. It is a beautiful lot. No station can show such tusks. Those traders wanted carriers badly, and our men were no good here. No trade, no entry in books: all correct.”

Kayerts nearly burst with indignation. “Why!” he shouted, “I believe you have sold our men for these tusks!” Makola stood impassive and silent. “I—I—will—I,” stuttered Kayerts. “You fiend!” he yelled out.

“I did the best for you and the Company,” said Makola, imperturbably. “Why you shout so much? Look at this tusk.”

“I dismiss you! I will report you—I won’t look at the tusk. I forbid you to touch them. I order you to throw them into the river. You—you!”

“You very red, Mr. Kayerts. If you are so irritable in the sun, you will get fever and die—like the first chief!” pronounced Makola impressively.

They stood still, contemplating one another with intense eyes, as if they had been looking with effort across immense distances. Kayerts shivered. Makola had meant no more than he said, but his words seemed to Kayerts full of ominous menace! He turned sharply and went away to the house. Makola retired into the bosom of his family; and the tusks, left lying before the store, looked very large and valuable in the sunshine.

Carlier came back on the verandah. “They're all gone, hey?” asked Kayerts from the far end of the common room in a muffled voice. “You did not find anybody?”

“Oh, yes,” said Carlier, “I found one of Gobila’s people lying dead before the huts—shot through the body. We heard that shot last night.”

Kayerts came out quickly. He found his companion staring grimly over the yard at the tusks, away by the store. They both sat in silence for a while. Then Kayerts related his conversation with Makola. Carlier said nothing. At the midday meal they ate very little. They hardly exchanged a word that day. A great silence seemed to lie heavily over the station and press on their lips. Makola did not open the store; he spent the day playing with his children. He lay full-length on a mat outside his door, and the youngsters sat on his chest and clambered all over him. It was a touching picture. Mrs. Makola was busy cooking all day, as usual. The white men made a somewhat better meal in the evening. Afterwards, Carlier smoking his pipe strolled over to the store; he stood for a long time over the tusks, touched one or two with his foot, even tried to lift the largest one by its small end. He came back to his chief, who had not stirred from the verandah, threw himself in the chair and said—

"I can see it! They were pounced upon while they slept heavily after drinking all that palm wine you've allowed Makola to give them. A put-up job! See? The worst is, some of Gobila’s people were there, and got carried off too, no doubt. The least drunk woke up, and got shot for his sobriety. This is a funny country. What will you do now?”

“We can’t touch it, of course,” said Kayerts.

“Of course not,” assented Carlier.

“Slavery is an awful thing,” stammered out Kayerts in an unsteady voice.

“Frightful—the sufferings,” grunted Carlier with conviction.

They believed their words. Everybody shows a respectful deference to certain sounds that he and his fellows can make. But about feelings people really know nothing. We talk with indignation or enthusiasm; we talk about oppression, cruelty, crime, devotion, self-sacrifice, virtue, and we know nothing real beyond the words. Nobody knows what suffering or sacrifice mean—except, perhaps, the victims of the mysterious purpose of these illusions.

Next morning they saw Makola very busy setting up in the yard the big scales used for weighing ivory. By and by Carlier said: “What’s that filthy scoundrel up to?” and lounged out into the yard. Kayerts followed. They stood watching. Makola took no notice. When the balance was swung true, he tried to lift a tusk into the scale. It was too heavy. He looked up helplessly without a word, and for a minute they stood round that balance as mute and still as three statues. Suddenly Carlier said: “Catch hold of the other end, Makola—you beast!” and together they swung the tusk up. Kayerts trembled in every limb. He muttered, “I say! O! I say!” and putting his hand in his pocket found there a dirty bit of paper and the stump of a pencil. He turned his back on the others, as if about to do something tricky, and noted stealthily the weights which Carlier shouted out to him with unnecessary loudness. When all was over Makola whispered to himself: “The sun’s very strong here for the tusks.” Carlier said to Kayerts in a careless tone: “I say, chief, I might just as well give him a lift with this lot into the store.”

As they were going back to the house Kayerts observed with a sigh: “It had to be done.”

And Carlier said: “It’s deplorable, but the men being Company’s men, the ivory is Company’s ivory. We must look after it.”

“I will report to the Director, of course,” said Kayerts.

“Of course; let him decide,” approved Carlier.

At midday they made a hearty meal. Kayerts sighed from time to time. Whenever they mentioned Makola’s name they always added to it an opprobrious epithet. It eased their conscience. Makola gave himself a half-holiday, and bathed his children in the river.

No one from Gobila’s villages came near the station that day. No one came the next day, and the next, nor for a whole week. Gobila’s people might have been dead and buried for any sign of life they gave. But they were only mourning for those they had lost by the witchcraft of white men, who had brought wicked people into their country. The wicked people were gone, but fear remained. Fear always remains. A man may destroy everything within himself, love and hate and belief, and even doubt; but as long as he clings to life he cannot destroy fear: the fear, subtle, indestructible, and terrible, that pervades his being; that tinges his thoughts; that lurks in his heart; that watches on his lips the struggle of his last breath. In his fear, the mild old Gobila offered extra human sacrifices to all the Evil Spirits that had taken possession of his white friends. His heart was heavy. Some warriors spoke about burning and killing, but the cautious old savage dissuaded them. Who could foresee the woe those mysterious creatures, if irritated, might bring? They should be left alone. Perhaps in time they would disappear into the earth as the first one had disappeared. His people must keep away from them, and hope for the best.

Kayerts and Carlier did not disappear, but remained above on this earth, that, somehow, they fancied had become bigger and very empty. It was not the absolute and dumb solitude of the post that impressed them so much as an inarticulate feeling that something from within them was gone, something that worked for their safety, and had kept the wilderness from interfering with their hearts. The images of home; the memory of people like them, of men that thought and felt as they used to think and feel, receded into distances made indistinct by the glare of unclouded sunshine. And out of the great silence of the surrounding wilderness, its very hopelessness and savagery seemed to approach them nearer, to draw them gently, to look upon them, to envelop them with a solicitude irresistible, familiar, and disgusting.

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Photo credit: Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, 1979.