Eating Like a White Man: Nibbling at the Edges of Heart of Darkness

John Rickard, Bucknell University

(This essay was published in L'epoque Conradienne 33 (2007): 49-57)


There is a hole in the heart of Heart of Darkness, and this absence is the "cannibal."  In 1899, when Heart of Darkness first appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, Conrad's readers would have been conditioned by previous exotic stories set in Africa to expect the sorts of savage native behavior—and in particular, cannibalism—one sees in British colonial fiction from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to H. Rider Haggard's imperial romances.  In Haggard's immensely popular1887 novel She, for example, the African Amahagger tribe eat their guests after "hot potting" them: that is, killing them by placing red hot pots over their heads.  Patrick Brantlinger, in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, argues that "Evil . . . is African in Conrad's story" and that

Conrad's stress on cannibalism, his identification of African customs with violence, lust, and madness, his metaphors of bestiality, death, and darkness, his suggestion that traveling in Africa is like traveling backward in time to primeval, infantile, but also hellish stages of existence—these features of the story are drawn from the repertoire of Victorian imperialism and racism that painted an entire continent dark. (262)

More broadly, Peter Kitson claims in "'The Eucharist of Hell'; Or, Eating People is Right: Romantic Representations of Cannibalism" that "Cannibalism . . . is the most notorious process of colonial 'othering', both as an alleged practice and as a critical construct" and adds that "the figure of the 'cannibal' in the Romantic period and beyond becomes an instance of racial and moral degeneration."

Readers encountering Heart of Darkness for the first time at the turn of the century must then have been puzzled by the absence of the alleged cannibal practices they would have expected to see as a primary signifier of "darkness" and savagery as the plot developed.  In fact, while Marlow identifies the African crewmen on board his steamboat as "cannibals," apparently preparing the ground for the titillating details his auditors on the Nellie and Conrad's readers presumably would have expected, he eventually disappoints them.  Although Marlow describes the native "chaps" on board as "twenty cannibals" (106), although he notes that his fireman "had filed teeth" (110), and although he explains the native headman's request to have any captives given over so that he and his fellows could "'Eat 'im!'" (111), African anthropophagy in Heart of Darkness really goes no farther than that.  Instead, Marlow marvels at the "restraint" of the cannibals, who refrain from having "a good tuck in" (118) by feasting on the admittedly "unappetising" (119) white men, noting "they were thirty to five" (118; oddly, here the number of cannibals has grown, from twenty to thirty—compare page 106).  Marlow's overturned expectations mirror those of Conrad's readers, for he finds himself shocked that his "hungry and forbearing friends" (123) can resist the animal power of hunger: "Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield" (119).  "And after all," he adds, "they did not eat each other before my face" (106).

The reader, like Marlow, cannot help but compare the unexpected self-control of the African cannibals to the European Kurtz's lack of restraint.  Kurtz, in fact, attracts the novel's most ravenous and cannibalistic language.  Marlow describes the severed heads surrounding Kurtz's house as "food for thought" (147) and twice thinks of Kurtz "opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind" (175)1. Many readers have commented on the vague and indirect language that conveys how Kurtz, in gratifying his "various lusts" (147), has participated in the "inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation" (131) and the "unspeakable rites" (133) of the native tribes, perhaps even eating human flesh in the heart of darkness.  Tony Tanner therefore sees Kurtz as "the real cannibal in the book: not necessarily literally, though the shrunken heads and unspeakable rites hardly rule out that possibility, but metaphorically" (31).

In a provocative essay entitled "Unspeakable Rites: Cultural Reticence and the Cannibal Question," Claude Rawson argues that "Cannibalism cannot be contemplated among 'us,' even in our supposedly most clear-sighted and ruthless exposures of ourselves, except in a metaphorical form" (183).  For Rawson, Heart of Darkness is typical of the "blurred and ambiguous treatments" of cannibalism produced by modern European and American novelists, for whom "Cannibalism is almost never treated . . . in the manner we associate with the realist tradition, even by writers, from Defoe to the present, who are closely identified with that tradition" (187).  Kurtz, Rawson notes,

performs 'unspeakable rites,' a phrase, common in Victorian adventure stories, which referred darkly, with a nudge and a wink, to what the natives get up to round a fire . . . . Kurtz seems literally to have consumed human flesh . . . or so we are teasingly encouraged to think.  But we are never explicitly told what these 'rites' were, even as we are teased into guessing.  On the other hand, when some black crew-men refrain from eating human flesh . . . they are nevertheless spoken of as cannibals, while Kurtz is not.  In this fiction so permeated by the idea of 'our' kinship with the other, it still cannot be said outright . . . that our representative is cannibal (though it's hinted that he must have done the deed), while the native 'other' is called cannibal, though we know he didn't do it. (187; original emphasis)

As Rawson notes, we cannot be sure that Kurtz's "unspeakable" crimes in Africa extended to cannibalism, yet he may be wrong in claiming that Conrad himself cannot bear to speak the unspeakable by explicitly depicting a white man such as Kurtz as cannibal.  In fact, Heart of Darkness opens and closes with subtle hints of white or European cannibalism. Marlow tells his listeners that cannibals are "fine fellows . . . in their place" (67), but Heart of Darkness refuses to keep them in their place by beginning and ending with oblique references to cannibalism, not in the "heart of darkness," but rather in the heart of whiteness.  In this way, while the center of the text is essentially empty of acts of cannibalism, its extremities provide clues that hint at white anthropophagy.

Despite Rawson's generally convincing claim that most European writers shied away from overt depictions of "white" cannibalism, Conrad was not really so squeamish.  As David Gill has shown, a number of European characters engage in (or are alleged to engage in) acts of cannibalism in Conrad's fictions (passim).  The most extensive Conradian story of white cannibalism is his novella Falk, written in 1901, soon after Heart of Darkness. The story is packed with images of food, cooking and eating, and there is much discussion of what is appropriate or "fit" for white men to eat and/or cook.  At one point, one of the more unsavory characters even exclaims, "A white man should eat like a white man, dash it all" (49).  Conrad goes out of his way in this story to describe characters in terms of food and cooking images whenever possible, and Falk himself admits to having eaten human flesh: "'Imagine to yourselves . . . that I have eaten man,'" he says, adding, "'It was my terrible misfortune to do so'" (117).

Falk involves a case of "survival cannibalism," a category of cannibalism familiar to Conrad's readers, as the nineteenth century press reported numerous sensational cases of survivors of shipwreck reduced to eating each other to survive.  As David Gill notes, one famous case that would have caught Conrad's attention was that of the Mignonette, an English yacht that sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1884.2  This incident was followed by a famous trial that attracted "worldwide interest" (Simpson x) in which "two profoundly respectable seamen" (Simpson ix) were convicted of the murder and consumption of their cabin boy and sentenced to death (the sentences were never carried out and were afterwards "commuted to six months' imprisonment, not at hard labor" [Simpson 247], in part because of the ambivalence felt in England concerning survival cannibalism at sea).3  Gill names a number of survival cannibalism cases that Conrad might have drawn on for Falk, but the case of the Mignonette seems most likely, in part because one of the most scandalous elements of the incident was the apparent failure of the men to draw lots to determine who would be eaten in favor of simply killing the weakest of their company.  This practice of drawing lots was expected of those engaging in "the custom of the sea," and was also ignored by Falk, who exclaims, when questioned by the narrator, "'What lots?  Do you think I would have allowed my life to go for the drawing of lots?'" (131).  The narrator's mention of "pots of fuchsias and mignonette" early in the story (12) works as a subtle clue to stimulate readers' memories of this infamous Victorian incident.

A number of readers have recently identified a similar, subtle hint of white cannibalism very early in Heart of Darkness.  Douglas Hewitt, Robert Hampson, and most recently Diana Arbin Ben-Merre have noted that the unnamed narrator of Heart of Darkness, in his catalog of  "all the men of whom the nation is proud" who have gone out into the world on the Thames, includes "Sir John Franklin" and his ships "the Erebus and Terror."  Although the narrator notes that Franklin's ships "never returned" (53-54), he does not say why; in fact, Franklin's crew was trapped by ice while trying to discover a "northwest passage" around Canada in 1845.  All of them died, many by starvation, though not before some apparently engaged in cannibalism.4  Hewitt points out that the story of Franklin's ill-fated expedition "could hardly have been overlooked by readers of Blackwood's which catered particularly for those with a taste for stories of travel and adventure" (374).  Presumably, most of Conrad's readers would have some memory of the scandalous allegations raised by Dr. John Rae and others who had sought to solve the mystery of Franklin's disappearance -- €”that some of the last survivors of his expedition had resorted to "survival cannibalism" by eating the corpses of their dead comrades.  As Hewitt and Ben-Merre note, this allegation of cannibalism outraged many Victorians, most notably Charles Dickens, who wrote in December 1854,

Our last claim in their behalf and honour, against the vague babble of savages, is, that the instances in which this 'last resource' has been permitted to interpose between life and death, are few and exceptional, whereas the instances in which the sufferings of hunger have been borne until the pain was past, are very many.  Also . . . that the better educated the man, the better disciplined the habits, the more reflective and religious the tone of thought, the more gigantically improbable the 'last resource' becomes. (2 December 1854, p. 365)

A week later, in a follow-up to this essay, Dickens added, as a way of emphasizing the moral restraint of educated Englishmen, "In weighing the probabilities and improbabilities of the 'last resource,' the foremost question is not the nature of the extremity; but, the nature of the men" (9 December 1854, p. 393).

In her thorough examination of the Franklin expedition's connection to Heart of Darkness, Ben-Merre demonstrates Conrad's familiarity with the Franklin expedition, which he wrote about in his 1924 essay "Geography and Some Explorers."  Certainly, Conrad was aware of the anxiety, revulsion, and denial that allegations of cannibalism in this case produced in Victorian society.  Hewitt argues that Conrad's subtle reference to Franklin's disastrous final voyage at the start of Heart of Darkness "is designed to undermine the assumptions of his readers about colonialism and the advance of civilization" (374).  Hampson, in his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of Heart of Darkness, claims that "the reference to Sir John Franklin's expedition arguably implants an allusion to European cannibalism at the start of the novella" (xxix), and Ben-Merre contends that "The Franklin Expedition revealed that the image in the mirror was not black but white--the face of the white cannibal--and that cannibalism, far from being a characteristic of a particular group of people, was a human possibility" (222).  Ben-Merre sees Conrad's inclusion of the Franklin expedition into Heart of Darkness as a "counter-memory" that functions in much the same way as Kurtz's story does to undermine European binary thinking -- specifically, the reassuring boundaries between cultured and savage, restrained and unrestrained, and white and black.  The "unspeakable" thought of white men eating white men in a white place thus inserts itself into the reader's consciousness at the beginning of this tale of Africa, in which most of Conrad's readers would have expected to find only black men eating black men in the heart of darkness.

This subversive narrative strategy threatens to undo the inside/outside, us/not us boundaries that Western culture has traditionally shored up with its allegations of cannibalism among "primitive" peoples.  In his essay "'Gnawed Bones' and 'Artless Tales: Eating and Narrative in Conrad," Tony Tanner uses Conrad's facetious Handbook of Cookery for a Small House to outline a distinction between "the bourgeois kitchen and the savage's wigwam, with a further related subordinate pair of terms, the cooking of sanity and the diet of unreason," arguing that although Conrad "appears to operate dualistically -- London/the Congo -- his fiction works to dissolve the dangerous habit of dualistic (i.e. oppositional) thinking.  So one effect of Heart of Darkness is not to endorse either the West or the jungle but to erode some of the unexamined assumptions which make such either/or thinking possible" (18-19).

Conrad's clever allusion to white survival cannibalism at the opening of Heart of Darkness is followed by the absence of actual cannibalism at the "heart" of the story. All we see are the emaciated Kurtz, whose appetites are veiled in mystery and whose voraciousness can be read as metaphysical or metaphorical rather than literal, and the hungry "cannibals," whose meat has been thrown overboard.5  (Admittedly, at one point Marlow dumps the body of his helmsman overboard to prevent the Africans on board from eating it: "I had made up my mind that if my late helmsman was to be eaten, the fishes alone should have him" [136].)  But Conrad closes his novella with another subtle and troubling sign of disturbing white appetites, this time in the most protected, civilized space in the text: the drawing-room of Kurtz's Intended.  Here, in the city he has characterized as a "whited sepulchre" (62), Marlow, haunted by his memory of Kurtz "opening his mouth voraciously" (175), decides to lie in order to preserve the Intended's sense of structure and meaning, but the environment—like Marlow's conscience—nonetheless expresses his conflict and the attendant breakdown of structuring categories.  The room and the Intended herself are presented in chiaroscuro, with alternating shades of white and black, and in the middle of it all, in contrast to the "monumental whiteness" of a marble fireplace, a "grand piano stood massively in a corner, with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a sombre and polished sarcophagus" (176).

The word sarcophagus literally means "flesh-eater," as it is derived from the Greek sarko (meaning flesh) and fagos (meaning eater or glutton)6, referring to the ancient custom of making coffins out of a kind of limestone "remarkable for consuming the flesh of corpses laid in it" (Liddell and Scott, p. 1585; original emphasis).  Conrad could have come across this etymology in a number of places, from classical writers to his contemporaries.  Zdzislaw Najder notes that Conrad "knew a certain amount of Greek" from his childhood education (38), and a number of classical sources use "sarcophagous" as a synonym for "cannibal."  For example, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, writes of how "Ptolemy Lathyrus, the ruler of Cyprus" (Jewish Antiquities 13.328; pp. 392-393) slaughtered Judean "women and infants" and "thereupon commanded his soldiers to cut their throats and chop them up and then to fling the pieces into boiling cauldrons and to taste of them" so that his adversaries "might get the notion that the enemy were eaters of human flesh [sarcophagous]" (Jewish Antiquities 13.345-346, pp. 398-401).  Plutarch, in his life of Cato Major, relates how Cato mocks the foreign King Eumenes, who is visiting Rome, by saying that "the animal known as king is by nature carnivorous [sarcophagon]" in Bernadotte Perrin's translation (324-325)—or "a kind of man-eater," in John Dryden's translation (417).  The Oxford English Dictionary cites numerous examples of English writers using "sarcophagy" and "sarcophagal" as a synonym for "Flesh-devouring, flesh-consuming" and also for cannibalism.  For example, a writer in the Daily News in June 1905 wrote "[A vegetarian] denounces my meat-eating habits as 'cannibal' and 'sarcophagal'" (OED, 483).  H. G. Wells, whom Conrad admired and had befriended in 1896 and who had placed cannibalism at the heart of novels such as The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896),7 used the term "sarcophagy" as a synonym for meat-eating in a facetious essay in 1901 on the effects of diet on authorship, where he advised "For a florid, tawdry style the beginner must take nothing but boiled water, stewed vegetables, and an interest in the movements against vivisection, opium, alcohol, tobacco, sarcophagy, and the male sex." (112).  Appropriately, he adds, "Nor does Mr. Haggard feed entirely on raw meat" (112).  Haggard himself used the term in She:

It appeared that for reasons not necessary to explain at length, Ayesha had thought it best that, with the exception of herself, we should proceed on foot, and this we were nothing loth to do, after our long confinement in these caves, which, however suitable they might be for sarcophagi -- €”a singularly inappropriate word, by the way, for these particular tombs, which certainly did not consume the bodies given to their keeping -- were depressing habitations for breathing mortals like ourselves. (171)8

The sarcophagal piano operates in much the same manner as the word "mignonette" at the beginning of Falk or the reference to the Erebus and Terror at the opening of Heart of Darkness: it hints at a dark, carnal appetite present in a restrained, European world supposedly free from such desires.  Conrad's meat-eating piano, like the distant memories of Sir John Franklin's cannibalistic crew, is one of the delicate clues used by Conrad at the opening and closing of his novella to remind European readers that they are not immune to the desires and necessities of "savage" life.  As Carola M. Kaplan argues, in Heart of Darkness "Marlow works hard to separate savage customs from civilized behavior" (325), and "cannibalism serves as the metaphor for the absolute violation of boundaries between one human being and another, the physical equivalent of the cultural absorption or ingestion by the Other that the colonizer fears" (329-330).  Despite Marlow's attempt, in his narrative, to keep the cannibals "in their place" and to obscure Kurtz's savagery in Africa with vague phrases, white cannibalism cannot be suppressed in Heart of Darkness.  These intimations of immorality on the "edges" of the text, then, subvert and invert the reader's expectations, locating the savage within the civilized.  In its confusing mixture of high culture and carnal appetite, its stark contrast of black and white keys, and its incorporation of white ivory torn out of the heart of darkness, Conrad's carnivorous piano serves as a perfect symbol for the frightening state of affairs that Marlow attempts to contain by his lie.



I am very grateful to Jim Rice for his help with this essay.


1See also page 151, where Marlow describes Kurtz in similar terms: "I saw him open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him."

2See A. W. Brian Simpson's Cannibalism and the Common Law for a thorough accounting of the Mignonette incident and related examples of survival cannibalism at sea.

3This case is so notorious and paradigmatic that it is still studied in law schools as an example of "the defense of necessity" (Simpson x).  A. W. Brian Simpson claims "no leading case in the common law is better known than that of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens" (ix).

4Two informative recent discussions of the Franklin expedition and its aftermath are Scott Cookman's Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin's Lost Polar Expedition and Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, The Arctic Hero Time Forgot.

5It seems especially appropriate that the hungry African "cannibals" are on a boat when they are deprived of their meat, since this provides a subtle contrast with the behavior of Franklin's crew and, more generally, with other cases of "survival cannibalism" in which starving whites at sea ate each other.

6Liddell and Scott, pages 1584-85 and 1911.

7In a letter written to Wells on 25 May 1896, Conrad wrote that he had read The Time Machine and was preparing to read The Island of Dr. Moreau (Letters 282).

8David W. Tutein asserts that Conrad read King Solomon's Mines and She (45), and Murray Pittock has argued that Conrad "kept his eye on Haggard's work" (206), despite his publicly-professed distaste for it and in "Rider Haggard and Heart of Darkness" points out some parallels between the two texts.



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---.  "Falk: A Reminiscence."  Falk; Amy Foster; To-Morrow.  Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920.  3-152.

---.  "Geography and Some Explorers."  Last Essays.  Toronto: J. M. Dent, 1926.  1-31.

---.  "Heart of Darkness."  Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories.  Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1902.  51-182.

---.  Heart of Darkness: With the Congo Diary.  Ed. Robert Hampson.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

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---.  Plutarch's Lives.  Trans. John Dryden; rev. Arthur Hugh Clough.  New York, NY: Modern Library, 1932.

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