By the end of the 19th century Europe was reaching the height of its colonial enterprise, which had spanned several hundred years and at least three continents. Many of the ideas, issues, problems, developments, and mentalities that accompanied this project of empire, and particularly the critical watershed moment of the 1890s, are visible in Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress." Notions of race, class, the rights of ownership, and progress through conquest and scientific advancement are all important elements of understanding 19th century colonialism and the colonial empire at this point in history. The major European imperialist powers, England, Spain, and Portugal, had expanded into so many areas and markets that by 1893 there was an intense competition to snatch up any remaining spoils in order to secure the future of the empire (Scawen Blunt para. 6). The successful spread of the colonial period in history had reached a turning point. Most potential colonial holdings had already been claimed, and with international trade flourishing, there were a number of new conditions that characterized international relations. These included changes in trade practices and the developing identities of the colonial holdings themselves, particularly as they shifted either to other colonial powers as pawns of political agreements (as in the case of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Spanish American War of 1898) or achieved independence. Lugard summarized this transitional period in 1893, observing that “we are compelled seek new markets; for old ones are being closed to us by hostile tariffs, and our great dependencies, which formerly were the consumers of our goods, are now becoming our commercial rivals" (para. 1).
Although heavily colonized already, Africa, the “vast and dark country" (Conrad para. 5) represented an enormous territory that had not been exploited entirely in terms of its land and its natural resources (Stanley para. 4). England and other colonial powers made continued incursions into this continent in an effort to ensure their continued dominance. Indeed, there was a certain sense of obligation and destiny that pushed the colonialists forward: “It is inherent in a great colonial and commercial empire like ours that we go forward" (Lugard para. 1). One of the many examples of the efforts that were initiated at the end of the 19th century include the deployment of Kayerts and Carlier to a trading outpost in the interior of Africa. These two men, with no particularly outstanding credentials to recommend them, were transferred from government posts at home and sent, like the previous station chief and so many other men, to the unknown country to “civilize" the wilderness and establish viable local markets to stimulate commerce and, of course, the economic machinery that would result in profits to send home. Like the station chief before them, however, their success was limited. Not only were they completely unprepared and unskilled to perform the work expected of them and that which would be necessary to build a successful outpost of progress, they were hobbled by a certain arrogance that arises out of insecurity, the kind of insistence that one is fully capable of fulfilling a task even when he knows full well it is not true.
Kayerts and Carlier also lacked support to perform their duties. They knew nothing about each other and lacked any particular affinity, but the nature of their circumstances drew them together. Conrad wrote, “The two men got on well together in… their stupidity and laziness. Together they did nothing… and enjoyed the sense of the idleness for which they were paid. And in time they came to feel… affection for one another" (Conrad para. 8). Their only helper was a “Sierra Leone nigger," Makola, who was not only largely indifferent to Kayerts and Carlier, but who used them for his own ends in the trade of the ten station men for ivory tusks. The ten station men from a neighboring tribe had been forced to work and live there in conditions that were inhospitable and untenable to them, and because of their declining physical health and their general attitude, they did little. While Kayerts and Carlier were disgusted with the station men’s laziness and inability to perform tasks, qualities they themselves exhibited, they took pity on the men and treated them with relative kindness, exposing just how complex and contradictory 19th century colonial dynamics wereKayerts and Carlier were also totally unprepared for the milieu in which they were expected to work. As is consistent with many other colonial accounts, Kayerts and Carlier found the “wilderness" (Conrad para. 5) around them untamed and threatening, not necessarily because of what it contained, but because the viewer did not know what it contained. The “immense forests" hid “fateful complications of fantastic life," (Conrad para. 15) fantastic both in the sense of incredible beyond the imaginations of the white men, and in the sense that the forest harbored treasures that, while dangerous to procure, could bring the white men inestimable fortune. This wildness of their surroundings also mirrored and amplified the “primitive nature [of] primitive man," which, like the forest, “brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart" (Conrad para. 5), for the interpretation of his language, his actions, and his very appearance challenges everything that Kayerts, Carlier, and men like them know about humankind.
Despite their obvious shortcomings—consider that the men actually accomplish nothing in their time at the outpost—Kayerts and Carlier console themselves when they read the newspaper “Our Colonial Expansion," a propagandist piece typical of the era. Kayerts and Carlier consider the possibility that they have played a role, albeit a small one, in the civilization of a territory that may, 100 years forward, have “Quays, and warehouses, and barracks, and–and–billiard-rooms. Civilization, my boy, and virtue–and all" (Conrad para. 15). They are, in fact, proud to think about the possibility that they were the first “civilized" men to live in this hardscrabble outpost that lacks all markers of what they consider to be a civilized society. Their attitude reflects the racist and classist dynamics that underlie the colonialist enterprise, summarized so well, and so offensively, by Pearson: “…[S]truggle and suffering have been the stages by which the white man has reached his present stage of development, and they account for the fact that he no longer lives in caves and feeds on roots and nuts" (Pearson para. 2).This sort of rhetoric was used by the colonial powers to convince its naïve and unprepared representatives that “This dependence of progress on the survival of the fitter race, terribly black as it may seem to some of you, gives the struggle for existence its redeeming features; it is the fiery crucible out of which comes the finer metal" (Pearson para. 2). That metal, of course, was to be collected and its richness enjoyed not by the unfit race, but by the fit one. The work of insignificant men like Kayerts and Carlier, then, was nothing short of fulfilling the destiny of a nation (Scawen Blunt).
The projects of nation-building back on the European continent were, as was the case in the United States, posited on the fundamental belief in the importance of liberty and self-determination (Mill para. 1). The irony and hypocrisy of colonialism in general, and “An Outpost of Progress" in particular, are that in order to secure their own liberty and the right to self-determination, the colonial powers oppressed and repressed others, stealing their own freedom and right to make decisions that affected them. Kayerts and Carlier both come to an unexpected and uneasy conclusion about this distasteful dynamic. Kayerts observes their conditions and makes a clear value statement about slavery being abhorrent, but this knowledge is too late to save the outpost and to save themselves. Carlier provokes the death of himself and of Kayerts when he accuses Kayerts of being a hypocrite slave dealer, including himself in that judgment, and the only way to escape the consequence of that judgment is through death. Symbolically, this death mirrors the decline of colonialism, which began unraveling as the 19th century gave way to the 20th.