Commercialism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

We’ve discussed some of the controversial aspects of The Heart of Archness Darkness, specifically racism and the objectification of people, but I have to wonder if there is a very relatively mundane aspect that sits beneath our noses. I am referring to the lust for ivory and its relevance to British culture at the turn of the century.

I never thought I’d use an encyclopedia again, but after stumbling across an online copy of the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I have to say that it was surprisingly useful as it gave quite detailed information about the uses and consumption of ivory.

Ivory has been used historically for many practical and decorative purposes. Even when consumption of the material was high and, as the article states, there was concern about the extinction of the African elephant 100 years ago, there was very little waste, and there were multiple sources, though the African elephant provided the highest quality material. All of the ivory was used—down to the dust! It was used for hair and bathroom accessories, piano keys, and cutlery handles. It was even turned into a jelly for consumption. (The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia)

The thing that struck me most interesting was the high quality of the African elephant ivory and the high quality of ivory demanded for billiard balls. On average, a single tusk would produce three billiard balls. Learning this and thinking about the consumption of life that went into the consumption of ivory for the generally aesthetic use of ivory made me wonder if Conrad was some sort of environmentalist/activist.

Marlow does say, “The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse” (Conrad, p. 42). You can nearly taste his disgust at the whole operation. His desire to go to the Congo was satisfied by a commercial demand for a luxury item. Marlow is appalled at what he sees and it is almost as if his noble dreams of exploration are shattered by humanity’s lust for objects!

Conrad is not simply writing against civilization, but against one of its greatest sins—compulsion and greed. His work is an exposé on the vast expanse of resources required for the acquisition of luxury. Humanity (British and African) is not valued as highly as a tooth! Humanity is surrendered for the luxury of a billiards table! Decency and respect to one another is sold for the handle of a toilet brush!

Conrad’s book was published first in a 3-part series in 1899 then in book form in 1902. This occurs at a significant point in the consumption of ivory for Britain. “Of late years in England the use of mammoth ivory has shown signs of decline. Practically none passed through the London sale-rooms during 1903-1906. Before that, parcels of 10 to 20 tons were not uncommon” (The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia). Was this a coincidence, or was Conrad’s “fiction” a tool used to influence consumption and commercial practices? I think his work then is the same thing as movies such as Blood Diamond now. He desired to see mankind at its best, and influenced that by showing it at its worst.

Works Cited

“Ivory.” Ivory. The 1911 Classic Encyclopedia, 27 Oct. 2006. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <;.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness: With Youth and The End of the Tether. London: CRW, 2006. Print.


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