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The term 'going native' is employed to refer to the trepidation felt by the European colonizers in Africa that they may become desecrated by being assimilated into the culture and customs of the indigenous peoples. In today's liberal and anti-racist society, ‘going native' is understandably considered a derogatory and offensive term. The image of Africa as a savage, primitive territory is after all a predominantly Western construction and is due in large part to the tendencies of Europeans to judge other cultures unreasonably according to their own distinctly Western standards of what constitutes civilisation. This prejudiced position not only completely ignores the accepted notion of cultural and historical specificity, but also the fact that foreign cultures often live according to their own traditional, sometimes tribal, belief systems. Viewed from this perspective, the idiocy and sheer injustice of labelling another culture's rites (of which we are largely ignorant) acceptable or not becomes apparent.
The misconstrual of native customs as barbaric and debased finds its origins in the coloniser/colonised binarism, a duality which represented the colonial subjects as primitive, carnal brutes whose main objective was to attack and corrupt the virtuous white overseer. This naive depiction of black people as bestial savages is what ultimately caused the colonial administrators in many countries to be terrorized by fears of ‘going native'. The phobia that even mere cohabitation with the natives, or exposure to the harsh humidity of the foreign climate could result in moral and physical degeneration was widespread, as is indicated by term variations such as going ‘Fantee' or going ‘troppo'. To ‘go Fantee', for example, was to adopt the ways of the native Fantee, a large tribe who lived south of Ashantee on the Gold Coast of West Africa. Similarly, going ‘troppo' refers to the adoption of a primitive lifestyle. It originates in Darwin , Australia where the humidity of the wet season leads to severe discomfort and increased irritability and aggression, resulting in people going ‘troppo' or crazy.
The colonizers abroad were particularly terrified by the lure of engaging in sexual relations with the natives; an act which they believed would invariably lead to the contamination of their own racial and ethical purity. Copulation with a native woman was considered a serious menace to the wholesomeness of the white race by the debauched blacks. The notion of ‘going native' also often referred to an apparent departure from European culture, which involved partaking in native rituals and the practise of local customs regarding food, dress and entertainment. Undoubtedly the most infamous canonical example of the disgrace of ‘going native' is the demonic figure of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness , who Bill Ashcroft refers to as the embodiment of the very complex sense of vulnerability, primitivism and horror of the process of turning native.
Written by Conrad in 1899 (at the height of European imperialism and the ‘scramble for Africa ') Heart of Darkness is today generally accepted as a classic tome of Western Literature and as a powerful indictment of the evils of imperialism. However, it would be naïve to ignore the overwhelming ambiguity of Conrad's tone and the irony that permeates the entire text. For, while Conrad comments on the brutality of the Belgian occupation of the Congo , he nonetheless fails to acknowledge the unspoilt natural beauty of the region he describes, labelling it a “God-forsaken wilderness” and a “scene of uninhabited devastation”. In doing this, Conrad, perhaps unwittingly, is reacting to Africa as every fair-skinned colonizer throughout the centuries did, noticing only the danger and alien aspect of the lush tropical jungles. Sadly, despite his intellectual and scholarly advantages, Conrad, like his fellow British explorers, could see only peril and death in the unknown mysteries of Africa .
Consequently, I would tend to concur with the provocative Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who has deemed Heart of Darkness an "offensive and deplorable book" that manifests better than any other work "the desire – one might indeed say the need - in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." There are naturally many defenders of Conrad who argue that the narrator should not be assumed to voice the views of the author, who is in fact being distinctly ironic. I would agree that the merits of the text must not be overlooked and that labelling Conrad little more than a ‘bloody racist' is an equally unfair act of prejudice on Achebe's part. However, t he fact remains that Achebe makes a distinctly stronger case when he rightly argues that Conrad fails to provide a sufficient external frame of reference to enable the book to be read as ironic or somehow critical of imperialism.
Achebe claims that Conrad's novella (numbered by certain critics as being among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language) constructs Africa as ‘the other world', the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, where Africans are depicted as innately irrational and violent, and where it is not the overwhelming sense of difference that disturbs, but rather the lurking hint of kinship and of common ancestry. Take for example the scene when the sailors on the steamer notice the commotion on the riverbank:
“a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy………. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you - you so remote from the night of first ages - could comprehend.”
There are two occasions in the novella when Conrad allows his natives respite from their fierce riverside frenzy and even goes so far as to confer English speech on them. The more significant instance involves the savage cannibalistic tendencies of the natives, which were, however, never corroborated: “‘Catch 'im', he snapped with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth – ‘catch 'im. Give 'im to us.' ‘To you, eh!' I asked; ‘what would you do with them!' ‘Eat 'im!' he said curtly.” This example reflects the way in which, throughout history, Africa itself has often been reduced to a symbol of that which white Europeans fear most within themselves.
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977.
Ashcroft, Bill, ed. Key Concepts in post-colonial studies. London : Routledge, 1998.
This page was written by Sinead Caslin. Email me with your comments.
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