The activities for this unit will center around three main foci: maps, literature, and literary criticism. From this, we will work to accomplish the purpose of this unit: to explore African spaces and stories and bring it to a more vivid, foundational place in students’ minds.
The first thing we will do is explore the value of maps by looking at them. We will view maps of Africa of course, as well as the Scramble for Africa. But we will start with maps of our home town: New Haven, by doing a simple map activity.
Maps of New Haven (or any city)
This would be a good introductory activity for exploration of maps in any classroom, and can adapt easily by using a simple online map of any district in which it is taught. It is worth noting to students that maps have not always been used throughout history to portray places and things as they are. Maps have been used as readily as social media to cloud reality for a purpose by those with or seeking power. There is even an entire book written on the subject entitled How to Lie with Maps. The book’s author, Mark Monmonier, describes “an era of increasing skepticism about the nature of knowledge,” with the idea that maps are as likely a medium as any for misinformation.13 Monmonier goes on to explain how maps can be used to manipulate rather than educate in fields such as advertising, town planning, even the waging of wars to throw off enemies. After pointing out to students they must check the validity of their sources when using maps just as surely as when using any textual evidence, it will be time to decide where to find an accurate map of our city.
Google maps is as widely accepted as accurate as it is readily available online, so that’s where we’ll start. It’s also quite easily accessible by googling the name of the city and clicking the “Maps” tab.
Here, we can encourage students to describe what they notice about the map. A likely first answer will be the shape of the city, or the labeling of landmarks and neighborhoods. What else do they notice? How about when we switch to satellite view? It may even be fun to have students volunteer to point out their own neighborhood and street view.
Mapping Our Neighborhood
Students will then be asked to draw a map of the layout of their own neighborhood or their route to school. After creating and sharing our own maps, we will hopefully have an increased appreciation for their visceral quality as media through which to share and gain information. Once this appreciation is reflected on as a class – through questioning how it felt to draw them, what they think of the accuracy of theirs and others, and if they increased their own understanding of their neighborhoods through drawing and observing them – we will then be ready to look at established maps of Africa and the Scramble for Africa.
A Map of Africa
As a class, we will view several maps of Africa, and with the vastness of the internet available (hopefully in any and every district), Google will once again be a resource. There are many good maps online but ones we will use for these purposes will be those we can gauge the accuracy and validity of simply based on the source. Students will identify labeled places and landmarks, as well as keys and legends. More information on the use of Google Maps is located in the “Teacher Resources” section below.
Interactive Online Maps of the Scramble for Africa
After having some fun exploring maps, students will hearken back to our overview of the Scramble for Africa. We will not only use maps to apply that knowledge, but to enhance it. We will use the interactive online maps below to explore graphically the routes of conquest, as well as the descriptions on the webpages to analyze the history and its implications further.
The Map Archive: Scramble for Africa
Huge, colorful maps containing trade zones and routes, as well as European occupations. Good map fundamentals to teach and learn through this map include color choices and advantage of vivid colors, as well as using map legends and cartouches. This can be found by copy and pasting the following url: https://www.themaparchive.com/the-scramble-for-africa/.
St. John’s College: The Scramble for Africa
This map is best for matching narrative. There is a succinct explanation of the Scramble for Africa accompanied by an actual published atlas map of Africa in 1917. In it, we see not African nations, but territories cut up and assigned to European imperial states, with names like “Belgian Congo,” “German East Africa,” and “Northern Rhodesia,” all in a published, widely-used map. This can be found by copy and pasting the following url: https://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/library/library_exhibitions/schoolresources/exploration/scramble_for_africa.
esri: The Scramble for Africa: Then and Now
This is an amazing example of maps meeting modern online tech, interactive and even fun to use. It takes us through both descriptions and maps of: pre-Colonial Africa, African pre-Berlin Conference and post-said conference, Colonial Africa and European claims, sources of natural resource production, economics and border changes into and after the world wars, and even modern geo-political scrambles for Africa. This can be found by copy and pasting the following url: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=07278c2bb1254949ad277e26d55a074d
Further Analyzing Heart of Darkness
Once we have analyzed these maps and enhanced our understanding of the time period, we will then dive into the narrative and meaning in Heart of Darkness. Again, we will not dwell too long or attempt a novel study of such an old, and indeed controversial, novella. We will do an overview of the plot and important events, as well as use experts to get a foundational understanding of the text and to have insights into what it may have actually been like to be traveling down the Congo River at that time. This will at least be accomplished through the perspective of the colonizer, the narrator Marlow.
Marlow tells a story of adventure during the Belgian colonization of the Congo. He is a narrator, safe and sound in on the Thames River telling other well-to-do folks the dramatic story of his exploits. He traveled to find Kurtz, an agent for the Belgian trading company who is lost down the Congo River and believed possibly dead. Kurtz has enhanced the company’s profits through ivory. Marlow experiences drastic misadventures searching up the river, deep into the Congo to find Kurtz. He sees enslaved Africans working for the company, natives he calls savages attacking their steamboat with arrows, and intrigue between the other European employees of the company, all in search for Kurtz. When Kurtz is found, he is very ill and appears to be dying. He has established himself as a god among the natives, and having unfulfilled plans to “civilize” them.
Conrad’s novel is regarded both as critical of colonialism, and also as a racist account, depicting Congolese natives as savage and Europeans as greatly advanced. Through experts and quotes, we will first allow students to draw their own conclusions as to which side the book leans more heavily. We will ask the following questions:
Does it the book actually look at imperialism with a critical eye?
Is Marlowe the hero or the villain?
Was Conrad saying there were no winners?
Who was Conrad really portraying as “savage” – Congolese natives, or the imperialists brutalizing them?
With Kurtz’s famous final words, “The horror,” was Conrad critiquing colonialism, or is this simply the narcissism of individuals who feel entitled to perpetrate human atrocity?
Note: a teacher will need to be familiar with, or familiarize themselves with, the substance of the novella.
Critical Analysis using Achebe’s Essay
“Irrational hate can endanger the life of the community” - Chinua Achebe14
Once students have developed their own ideas about the value of the novella as an immersive experience into the Scramble for Africa, a critique on colonialism, a racist account of African natives and the perception of the continent, or some combination, we will analyze Achebe’s critique as a work of racism.
Citing many possible counterpoints, Achebe addresses the notion that one might consider the opinions of the native “savages” in the book, the narrator Marlow’s, and not Conrad himself. However, why then does the author work so hard to put a buffer between himself and the action of the story with not one but actually two narrators (if one considers the mystery man telling his tale on the Thames)? Another argument of course is that the book is actually a criticism of colonialism and the Scramble for Africa. Why then, Achebe asserts, are the African characters in Heart of Darkness consistently compared to animals?15
Ultimately, Achebe dispenses with any possible remaining doubt as to his assertion: “The point of my observations should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.”16 The natives, Kurtz’s mistress for example, are only celebrated if it is already established they are in their proper place (as subservient, learned yet savage, the “other” to the civilized white European colonizer). Therefore, even if the novel is a broad criticism of colonialism, even if its primary focus is the mental degeneration of a single white man more than its portrayal of Africans as savage, it is just that portrayal – that othering – that makes the book stand out as racist and inappropriate for celebration. Achebe argues that it’s high time to regard the work as racist as it is literary.17
There is of course the argument (used commonly as of late in the proposed renaming of colleges and removal of confederate statues in the U.S.) that art and hallmarks of history should not be removed or undone since they are themselves a marker for history. Achebe addresses this, proposing that he is “talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today.”18 The argument to preserve history is a strong one. However, that must always be compared to the harm it does. If a statue, or a name, or a book is so offensive to a people that it harms them, allows their subjugation to persist physically or mentally, then what is the most appropriate course of action? This is worth asking students.
The purpose of this, and ultimately of combining map study with literary study, will be for the students to come to a conclusion about perception. The hope is they will ask themselves if they should accept what they are told or shown about a certain place or people. Many have been told of the greatness of Conrad’s work, yet some prominent writers and intellectuals like Achebe disagree. Many have been fooled by maps, yet many have broadened their understanding of both people and places through them. The hope is that students will search out truth, rather than rely only on what they are given.
A Map of the Congo
Once our literary overview and critique are done, and students have come to some conclusions about the value of mapping and literature in determining the impact of historical events, we’ll logically conclude by exploring a map of the Congo and the Congo River. We’ll use our knowledge of maps and of the conquest during the Scramble for Africa to analyze the value of looking at an actual map of the area. Students can comment and explore, and a good assessment of knowledge and progress can be sharing their thoughts and views of what they expected it to look like versus what they’ve found on the map. We will explore the maps of the Congo and Congo River as can be viewed in Google Maps.